Neue Zürcher Zeitung interview with Katalin Novák
Katalin Novák, President of Hungary: „The sanctions have hurt us more than they have hurt Russia”
Budapest supports Western policy only reluctantly and is hesitant to engage in a tough confrontation with Moscow. President Katalin Novák is committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and supports a rational approach to sanctions.
(Daniel Imwinkelried and Ivo Mijnssen, Budapest, 8 June 2023)
Madam President, your country is in a troubled neighbourhood. The war in Ukraine is raging in the east, and in Kosovo just last week 20 Hungarian KFOR soldiers were injured in an unrest. Are these conflicts related?
If something happens in Kosovo, the situation could escalate quickly. We are therefore very worried and hope that the situation will calm down soon and that all actors will remember how fragile peace is. At the moment, our main focus is on Ukraine, and that is natural. The stability of the Western Balkans is central to the stability of Europe. That is why we cannot forget this region and why the process of accession of these countries to the EU must be accelerated.
Are you optimistic that this will eventually happen?
I should be optimistic, but to be honest, I'm not, unfortunately. But if we don't send the message to the Western Balkans that they are welcome in the EU, people will lose their enthusiasm for Europe. And the EU will lose one of the keys to its stability.
But is the EU even in a position to take in so many countries, and is it willing to do so?
Western Europe is suffering from "enlargement fatigue". Yet the EU has recently granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. This shows that much is possible if the political will is there. This should not mean that the countries of the Western Balkans have to wait for the new ones to catch up so that they can all join at the same time. And Ukraine and Moldova still have a long way to go.
Serbia has disputes with Brussels and the Commission over the fact that it does not meet the European criteria for the rule of law, but politically it would still be desirable for the country to join the EU.
There are objective conditions for accession, above all economic conditions, which many candidate countries already fulfil. The question of the rule of law is somewhat more subjective. Here we need to pay more attention to values: the Serbs live according to European values, their way of life is European, they are very close to us culturally.
What is missing in Ukraine then? Are they not fighting for European values?
There is a Hungarian community there in Transcarpathia, Before the war, their number was around 150,000. In Ukraine, legislation has been passed that violates the rights of the Hungarians and other national minorities. This is a step backward, because these rights are part of the essential values of the European community.
Could this problem, which primarily concerns the treatment of languages of teaching other than Ukrainian at schools, not be resolved through bilateral negotiations?
This is not just a problem between the two countries. The Ukrainians are in a critical situation and tens of thousands of people are being lost in the war, yet in September such new legislation will come into effect. I raised this issue with the Ukrainian Prime Minister in my last meeting. But no positive steps have been taken.
Is this also the reason why Hungary sometimes uses very ambivalent language when it comes to Ukraine? It is precisely Viktor Orbán who regularly shows great understanding for Russia's "security interests".
Would you like to hear my opinion or Viktor Orbán’s?
I condemned Russian aggression from the very first moment. Hungary clearly stands for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The pro-government Hungarian media and experts often talk about a proxy war between the US and Russia, in which Ukraine appears to be just a pawn. How would you describe the conflict in your neighbouring country?
Of course the big powers are working in the background - this is the case in all major conflicts. But Ukraine is a sovereign country that has been attacked by its neighbour and is now doing its utmost to protect its citizens. The Ukrainians are acting as they see fit, but they have the support of many countries. This, of course, influences the course of the war.
You also say that a peaceful solution is needed. Can the 1991 Ukrainian borders, including Donbass and Crimea, be the basis for negotiation?
Russia must not achieve its military objectives. No one can tell today how we can get to the point of peace talks, how to bring the parties to the negotiating table and how this will lead to a sustainable and just peace.
Are you in favour of military aid to Ukraine?
(sighs) I am in favour of aid to Ukraine, but I am afraid that military aid only fuels the war. Giving heavy offensive weapons for offensive operations could quickly lead to even greater escalation. If it is a question of protecting the population, that is another matter.
So you are in favour of anti-aircraft weapons but against tanks?
Hungary's position is clear - like you - we do not supply arms from Hungary, but Switzerland goes even further by restricting the supply of arms produced in Switzerland. This can be explained by our geographical position: as soon as weapons are transported through Transcarpathia, members of the Hungarian minority are put at risk. Hundreds of them have already died in the war.
Do you feel any pressure on Hungary to change its position?
Not anymore. I think everybody understands our position. At the same time, since the outbreak of the war, nearly 2 million refugees arrived in Hungary. We have carried out the largest humanitarian operation in Hungary’s history. I am proud of the way Hungarians have been helping Ukrainians from the very beginning.
You are against the supply of military equipment, but what about sanctions? Viktor Orbán says they are suicidal and have failed.
When it comes to sanctions, a balance must be struck between common sense and emotion. Of course, in a certain sense we are also emotionally involved, because we are all affected emotionally by what is happening on the battlefield in Ukraine, where Hungarians are also dying. However, this should not stop us from evaluating the sanctions rationally. We must not keep introducing more and more measures against Russia without stopping for a moment to see which sanctions are working, which ones need to be strengthened and which ones do not.
Have you found an answer to this question?
All by myself? No (laughs).
What aspects should be taken into account?
Hungary has agreed to all EU sanctions packages. In crucial areas such as oil, we have negotiated exceptions together with other countries. These punitive measures should cause serious economic damage to Russia without hampering the development of Western Europe. They do have some effect, but so far they have done more harm to us than to Russia. This must not be allowed to happen. Much more attention should be paid to this aspect, instead of focusing solely on punishing Russia.
But the extent of the damage also depends on how dependent countries are on Russian energy. This applies very strongly to Hungary. Does this determine your position on sanctions?
If we admit that the high inflation in Europe is also a consequence of the sanctions on energy carriers, then we have to think about alternatives. We will always oppose measures that threaten the viability of our economy. I am also in favour of becoming as independent as possible from Russian gas and oil. But this will take time.
But in the case of nuclear energy, Hungary even increased its dependence shortly before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Was the close cooperation during the construction of the Paks II nuclear power plant a mistake?
It is not easy for Hungary to find an alternative to Rosatom. Some Western European companies have withdrawn from nuclear energy. Paks I is based on Russian technology and Paks II is an extension of this plant. Our history is very different from that of Western European countries. Before 1989 we were part of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. This determined our energy supply. And we need nuclear energy to power the country. In addition to Rosatom, Siemens and Framatome/Westinghouse are, of course, involved in the project.
How will the war in Ukraine change relations between Hungary and Russia?
Russia will remain a factor in European politics and will not simply disappear. The question is, after the war in Ukraine, will our relationship be like it was during the Cold War or will it be based on a meaningful foundation? What is clear, however, is that Hungary is a member of the EU and NATO and that will not change. This is the framework that will define our relationship with Russia.
However, at this time, one gets the impression that Hungary's relations with both the EU and the US are steadily deteriorating.
Foreign actors are heavily interfering in Hungary's internal affairs. They are trying to change the country's political leadership and Christian-conservative orientation. But the government is democratically elected.
So you consider all foreign criticism of Viktor Orbán's concentration of power and the shortcomings of the rule of law to be unfounded?
If we break the law, criticism is justified. However, it is often simply a question of judging conditions and circumstances that differ from country to country. But here I am also self-critical: perhaps sometimes we do not explain precisely enough to our foreign partners what the Hungarian position is and what socio-cultural context it stems from.
The rule of law mechanism introduced in the EU last year is precisely an attempt to establish objective criteria.
This is true in principle and could indeed have been the case in practise. But its implementation is questionable and often ridiculous. The process has been dragging on for what seems like an eternity, and new criteria are constantly being imposed as soon as the old ones are met. So there is never any progress. And this is an affront to Hungary's sovereignty. Therefore, there is also a danger that the clear support of Hungarians for the EU will be lost. But for the time being, we still have a lot of support for the EU.
How do you see your role in comparison to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who constantly provokes his European partners with his statements and actions?
I represent Hungary in international relations, in accordance with our Fundamental Law. I am Hungary's number one ambassador, if you like. My aim is to explain our positions and our way of life and to find compromises with our European partners. I use my office and my influence to improve our relations with Europe. I believe in European cooperation, even if the institutions sometimes go in the wrong direction.