We talked with Zsolt Németh in the room of the House of Parliament from the balcony of which, in 1956, Imre Nagy addressed the crowds gathered below in Kossuth Square, and from which Mátyás Szűrös declared the Republic on 23 October 1989. Flying high in front of the balcony is the flag of the Transylvanian Szeklers. We are in the study of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
After Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, in March you posted a memorable message on your Facebook page: ‘Russky go home!’ The post was greeted with approval by some and decried by others. Do you think that message is applicable today? What do the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and that of Ukraine in 2022 have in common? How do they differ?
In 1956, we Hungarians believed that it was possible to extricate ourselves from the ‘embrace’ of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, however, adopted the policy—later gaining notoriety as the Brezhnev Doctrine—of not permitting any nation to shake itself free of its grip. This is precisely where the analogy holds.
Ukraine is also seeking to break loose from the Russian sphere of interest, so the rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine must be a shared motif.
This is what our revolutionary parents had in mind when they said, ‘Russky go home!’ In supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we stand for the rejection of the same idea.
Why do you think many of our foreign allies believe that our support of Ukraine is half-hearted?
The views concerning Hungary’s international position are burdened with a confusion of several problems. We are being hammered simultaneously by the anti-Russian and the pro-Russian camps. Indeed, Hungary’s Christian democratic, socially conservative policies have been met with resistance by the mainstream of Western media and public opinion. Not so in the eyes of the silent majority. Formerly, when it came to social issues, the states of Central Europe would assume a more or less identical attitude, but the war has overwritten everything. Now it is the other countries in Central Europe that have adopted a rogue position on the Russian–Ukrainian War. For the time being, but this may change in the future. Accusations of Hungary being pro-Russian have glossed over our specific vulnerability in terms of energy and all the effective support we have been extending to Ukraine.
These accusations have been especially vocal from the Baltic states and Poland.
If you add Romania to that list, as I think we should, we will be talking about a wider group of Central European countries. At the same time, Hungary’s geopolitics-driven approach cannot be regarded as the exception in Europe by any stretch of the imagination. As opposed to issues of social policy, our realpolitik in foreign affairs is perhaps surprisingly close to the way these things are viewed in Italy, Germany, and even France—in short, by the majority in Europe.
Why is that the case?
We are sceptical about the chances of military victory in this war, and the major Western European countries have similar doubts based on their precedents throughout history. Our own realistic attitude also stems from the existence of a substantial Hungarian minority in Subcarpathian Ukraine, so we have our political experiences in that region. We are fully aware of the ways in which Ukraine has been constructing its own independence, including its handling of minority issues, as evidenced by their education and language laws, for instance. It is a simple fact that the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine is still peaceful, and we want to keep it that way. This is why we are not supplying weapons to Ukraine, unlike the overwhelming majority of the EU or our NATO allies.
The Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia is at more of a threat from Ukrainian extremists than from Putin’s Russia. Did not the removal of the Turul Memorial 1Translator’s note: The turul (a raptor often identified as the saker falcon) is an ancient totemic
animal of Hungarian tribes that has been regarded as the emblem of sovereign Hungarian statehood,
if not always in a praiseworthy historical context. in Mukachevo 2Translator’s note: Hungarian name Munkács, a city annexed to Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of
Trianon in the wake of the First World War, then integrated in the Soviet Union in 1945. happen because the Ukrainians feel we are not supporting them the whole way?
I am infuriated by the desecration of the Turul statue, the jewel of our common cultural heritage in Munkács (Mukachevo). For the past few decades, Ukrainian nationalists have been disgruntled by us, whatever hat the Hungarian minorities happened to wear.
Apparently, Ukrainian nationalists cannot be swayed by courteous overtures.
We insist that after the war Ukraine restore in full the rights the Hungarian minority acquired, based on a comprehensive bilateral treaty.
Do you think there is a way to influence the foreign perception of Hungary’s Ukraine policy?
It would take more proactive communication. We should go beyond just talking about what we support and what we oppose. We ought to do a better job explaining how much we are doing for Ukraine, for instance by extending humanitarian aid valued at HUF 17 billion in the last half-year alone. Or take the fact that, thanks to Hungary, Ukraine has access to a reverse channel of gas supply. This is important because they obviously cannot get gas from Russia, but they will get it through us. It is of course Russian gas, because that is all we have around here. Another thing is electric power. In March, Ukraine managed to get off the Russian grid and connect to the European one. MVM 3Translator’s note: MVM is the national electricity company of Hungary.had a major role in this. Today, this Hungarian connection serves as Ukraine’s most important link to the EU grid, through which it can not only import energy if it has to, but also export some for profit.
The healthcare cooperation with Ukraine, established in 2014, was reaffirmed by Hungary’s chief of staff on his visit with his Ukrainian colleague in Kyiv. Let me say the event did not generate any coverage worth mentioning. That is what I am talking about. Hungary even offered to provide further training for medical officers as part of the bilateral agreement. A very important part of this cooperation is the fact that Hungary has been active, since 2014, in treating soldiers with serious wounds who need special care. As we speak, wounded soldiers from the Ukrainian battlefield are flooding our Military Hospital. Yet there is not a word about this.
In the summer, the Hungarian state offers recreation for East Ukrainian orphans under the auspices of the Erzsébet Camp Programme. Are we being callous? Well, there are some things we cannot do anything about, but there are things we do to help in special fields where we can. It would be key to emphasize these efforts of ours.
You see, the war is going to end one day, one way or another, and both Russia and Ukraine are here to stay. It is very important for us now to make the public, in Hungary, Ukraine, and the world at large, aware of what we are really doing.
One reason why Putin started this war was to prevent Ukraine from entering within the purview of NATO, and thus to prevent NATO from edging closer to Russia. Yet all he has achieved is that Sweden and Finland, after decades of avowed neutrality, are now seeking to join NATO. Apart from Turkey, Hungary is the only country that has refused to ratify the accession of these countries, and this hardly presents us in a favourable light. Why the tardiness?
Indeed, Putin is determined to teach a lesson not only to Ukraine but to the West in general. His plans backfired in a big way, in that both Finland and Sweden have decided to join NATO. Hungary is fully in support of the accession efforts of these two friendly countries, each with a massive military strike force to bring to the table.
Let me stress that NATO remains the foremost guarantor of our country’s security. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, we are entitled to the same protection as any other member of NATO. I want no one to harbour any doubts: before the end of autumn, Hungary will have ratified the accession of Finland and Sweden.
We often hear from sources close to the Cabinet that European decisions are actually handled from Washington at the push of a button. Do you think this is true?
Let us take a step back and look with a wider perspective. One thing is certain: there is no way Europe can benefit from this war. It is also likely that Russia is poised to face an isolation that will not go away any time soon, even if the war ends tomorrow. What do we see in the greater picture of geopolitics? We see that the United States is doing fine, thank you very much, with an economy in full swing. The same can be said of China, to name just another major actor.
Even if Europe is to suffer from this war, in part through its own fault, because it has no one else to blame for the ideologically motivated sanctions, I would deem it necessary for the United States to extend certain gestures of solidarity in the situation we are in. American liquid gas is not a solution because it is extremely expensive, catastrophic in its environmental impact, and negligible in terms of quantity to begin with. Now is a better time than ever to start rethinking the Atlantic cooperation in economic terms.
President Emmanuel Macron has made it a point to say that the United States is not exactly practising solidarity when it sells liquid gas at four times the price that American users get it for.
This is what I am talking about. We need to find a way to look beyond America’s support for Ukraine in the war, while social and economic difficulties are rampant in our continent as a result of that war.
What can you do? It must not be easy for international diplomacy …
You are right. The big question, of course, is whether the United States is going to decide that this war must end. I think that the outcome of the midterm elections of 8 November may cause a shift in this regard.
We would very much need a United States presenting itself in the international arena as a power clearly and unambiguously committed to peace.
Even if it does, it is not going to be easy because the Ukrainian people are mounting a heroic battle to defend themselves. They are hard fighters, and have certain triumphs in their pocket, from which two conclusions can be drawn. ‘That’s it, go on, let’s beat Russia!’ is one of them. This is the majority view in Ukrainian (and Western) public opinion for now, as far as I can see. But this will lead us down a path of escalation.
Another reasonable conclusion would be to say, ‘OK, let’s find the best way to achieve peace or an armistice’, realizing that neither party can be the spectacular winner, but perhaps neither will clearly be the loser, either.
There is no doubt that international diplomacy must recognize Ukraine’s right to self-defence and to foil any truce violating its own interests. An escalation would threaten a prolonged war, claiming many casualties on both sides. It is vital for the age we live in that international politics embark on a solution committed to peace as soon as possible.
Karl von Habsburg, President of the Austrian branch of the Pan-European Union, has said that Europe cannot truly be a factor globally unless it shares a common defence, foreign affairs, and financial structure, just as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy did. What do you think of that?
The experiences of the Monarchy and the Habsburgs are certainly fascinating and relevant to our own day. The European Union will never grow as a force to reckon with in world politics unless it has a strong defence identity of its own. It is a major side benefit of the war that people are now more aware of this fact, both in Europe and in Hungary within it. Now there is a genuine chance that this will evolve into a joint defence identity for the whole European community in the coming years.
Let us remember that the last NATO summit, held in Madrid in June this year, unveiled a new strategic concept that gives the green light precisely in this direction. NATO has also created an Innovation Fund to provide an opportunity for defence industries and cooperation among them in the European and Atlantic context. I am confident that this war will foster a security and defence awareness in Europe that may well pave the way toward a new kind of European identity.
Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel
- 1Translator’s note: The turul (a raptor often identified as the saker falcon) is an ancient totemic
animal of Hungarian tribes that has been regarded as the emblem of sovereign Hungarian statehood,
if not always in a praiseworthy historical context.
- 2Translator’s note: Hungarian name Munkács, a city annexed to Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of
Trianon in the wake of the First World War, then integrated in the Soviet Union in 1945.
- 3Translator’s note: MVM is the national electricity company of Hungary.