Peace in Europe is a priority for the Hungarian government

ABOVE: Mr. Márton Ugrósdy, Deputy State Secretary, Head of the Political Director’s Office of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary. (Photo: Ákos Kaiser)

Since the re-election of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2010, Hungary has been forging its own path in Europe. The culturally conservative medium-sized European nation populated almost exclusively by ethnically Magyars has not enthusiastically followed all of the policies and views pushed by other European Union States, including Germany, France, and Belgium, on topics relating to mass migration, European integration, and the war in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Orban is often portrayed as a strongman in Western media and a partner of Vladimir Putin. However, Orban is extremely popular in the country. The PM cut his teeth in the 1989 democratic revolution that brought about the fall of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe.

Hungary suffered more than most other Eastern European states under totalitarianism, with Soviet soldiers crushing the 1956 pro-democracy revolution. Thirty-three years after this formative event, Orban was among the first to call for Soviet troops to leave the country. First elected Prime Minister in 1998, the prime minister remains extremely popular in Hungary, taking 54 percent of the total national vote and winning the highest share of votes of any party since the collapse of communism.

Earlier this week, in co-operation with the Embassy of Hungary in Canada, Ottawa Life was honoured to speak with Mr. Márton Ugrósdy, Deputy State Secretary, Head of the Political Director’s Office of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary. As a close aide to Prime Minister Orban, Mr. Ugrósdy provides insight into the Orban government’s policy line.

OLM: What is Hungary’s desired outcome in the Ukraine Crisis?

Mr. Márton Ugrós: First, we want peace as soon as possible; that’s one thing. The other, and the prime minister has said it publicly many times, is that we want Ukrainian sovereignty to be restored within its internationally recognized borders. Unfortunately, in Europe, these two things seem contradictory at the moment, but if you look at the battlefield reality of what is achievable, I think we should aim for peace first, and then we can figure out the rest later. We cannot accept any foreign country invading another sovereign country.

It goes without question who the aggressor is here, which is Russia, and who has been attacked, which is Ukraine, and whose side the international community should be on, as per the UN charter. However, we must also be realistic about where this fighting leads and how we can avoid the worst outcome. In order to achieve this, I think it will be crucial to start some kind of negotiations to find out how this can end and all the details, the border, all the national communities, and so forth, can be taken care of later.

We must be realistic in the sense that this is going to end at the negotiating table. All wars end like this. The sooner, the better. But we are a bit pessimistic when it comes to the European stance on war because everybody seems to be just too happy to have this conflict going on. Whereas we see it as detrimental to Ukraine.

OLM: Nearly a million Ukrainians have sought refuge in or passed through Hungary since the war began. How does this impact the country?

Marton Ugrósdy: Obviously, it takes a monumental effort to take care of these people. Now you have to know that since we are in the Schengen zone and people are free to travel wherever they wish to within the zone, nobody has any tangible numbers on how many refugees have actually stayed. We have had good relations with Ukraine regarding labour migration before the war, but it was regulated though. Ukrainians applied, and we granted them working permits, so Ukrainian labour in the Hungarian labour market was nothing new.

The war turned the whole thing upside down, and the kind of assistance that needs to be provided to refugees is also different. It was usually working-aged people who came for specific jobs. Whereas after people started to flee the war, it has primarily women and children who needed a completely different kind of assistance and help. Obviously, they can use the Hungarian welfare system, and they can send their kids to school if they wish to. We have Ukrainian language instruction in certain schools, which is a joint effort with the self-governing Ukrainian minority living in Hungary. All Hungarian schools are open as well, but a language barrier exists there. The Hungarian healthcare system is open to Ukrainian refugees as well.

All of the charitable organizations went to the border to provide help on-site and organize travel into Hungary, or in some cases, beyond our borders for people who wanted to reunite with their family or loved ones who fled to a different country. It took a lot of effort, but what was really encouraging was that the entire Hungarian society took part: the churches, the NGOs, civil society, individuals going to the border and just doing small things like making sandwiches and welcoming people. It was a heartwarming experience that unfortunately didn’t make the situation or the war any easier, but at least it was a significant sign of solidarity towards people fleeing the war just next door to us.

OLM: Although some Western media outlets have described Mr. Orban's government as autocratic, he won 54 percent of the popular vote. Where do his popularity and that of the Fidesz party come from?

Marton Ugrósdy: There is a saying, that I cannot actually quote who said that “populists are just politicians who are popular, but we don’t like them.” I get the sense that much of the criticism aimed at the prime minister is aimed in a similar vein. Obviously, he reads the Hungarian nation very well. The measures Prime Minister Orban introduced, and the government have been working on, in the last thirteen years have clearly contributed to the country's economic welfare. If you look at the per capita GDP, over a million jobs have been added over the last twelve years despite the pandemic; this shows that the tangible results are there. People’s everyday lives are much better than they were twelve years ago.

There is a saying in the United States that you don’t lose an election if the economy is doing well, and the economy has been doing fairly well in the last twelve years since Mr. Orban was re-elected in 2010. Of course, the big question remains with the sanctions the European Union put in place after the Russian aggression in Ukraine are so serious because they have a significant economic impact, and it’s not because of popularity, not because of re-election prospectives but because of the success story we were able to build in the Hungarian economy in the last thirteen years that it is so crucial that the economy keeps on functioning.

If you disregard the price of energy and if you look at the economic data, it’s still encouraging. You have record numbers of direct investments coming to the country; you have low unemployment in the country, with around three percent of the labour force being out of a job; obviously, it is harder to get it any lower. We still have growing wages, but on the other side, we have inflation as a result. Altogether though, the foundations of the Hungarian economy are strong and sustainable. The big question is what will the price of energy be in the long run, because that is something we don’t have that we will have to import from abroad and if the prices on the international market get higher, then we have to pay more for it, and that affects our competitiveness and will affect the labour market.

These kinds of uncertainties that are ahead of us will be very challenging, but we do have some ideas on how to tackle them. We are going to focus on a few key industries, the defence industry being one of them, higher education, and R&D fields, in order to escape the middle-income trap and the mid-tiers of the global chain where we are most of the time. We would like to produce more added value and would like to be more technologically advanced. This is going to be the challenge for the upcoming decade.

OLM: In Western media, Hungary is often portrayed as a more conservative-leaning country, as are other former Eastern block states like Poland. Do you think Hungary has shifted more to the right since the collapse of communism?

Marton Ugrósdy: Well, looking at the grand scheme of things, I think what’s important to see is that most of our national identity is based on who we are and what we stand against. We’ve been occupied many times, as have many central European countries. Poland had the worst of all with the partitioning of the country three times, but we had been under foreign occupation for centuries, and the only way to retain your national identity is to uphold a national myth, to be religious, and to be brave enough to stand up against foreign occupiers.

This is why the Soviet Union fell apart; we decided to stand up against their ideological and military occupation. What became really interesting is that especially when different European institutions, primarily the European Parliament and also the European Commission, started to be more ideological and progressive — telling us how to live, how to think, how to behave, and how to raise our kids — these reflexes that we have been holding for centuries (on how to withstand these kinds of outside pressures from people who pretend to know better on how to live our lives) kicked back in.

It’s not only that these societies are more conservative because they haven’t been able and were not allowed to have their own political and national belonging during the foreign occupation, but it is also a natural resistance towards the outside ideological influences which were forced upon these countries. Just because somebody in Brussels says that you must have transgender education in schools because that’s the future, does not mean we’re just going to believe that. Many times over, people tried to tell us what to do, and we were just immune to that, to a large extent.

OLM: The Hungarian Foreign Minister has stated that he was sick of Western criticism of domestic affairs. Does Hungary see a future in the European community?

Marton Ugrósdy: Well, three things. The first is we believe in non-interference and respectful relations with other countries. We’re not going to tell Sweden or Finland or Canada and the United States how to live, and, in exchange, we expect them not to tell us how to think and how to live. I think that is correct when it comes to international relations. Second is that the core foundation of Hungary as a nation is rooted in Judeo-Christian values and a sense of European belonging.

We’ve always belonged to Europe, but sometimes we were dragged a little further in other directions, especially during the Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries, and we could very well argue that the Soviet occupation of the country between 1945 and 1991 was a similar time because we did not belong to Europe as much as we wanted to.

With NATO and EU membership, we have finally, officially and institutionally, got to where we always wanted to belong. Now, it’s a different question that we have and different opinions on certain issues, but these are political issues. With all due respect to the European leaders, how you raise your kids is a political question to some extent on which most people, even in the West, are ideologically divided. So, what we stand for is that we should have political debates on political questions because that is the natural way of things. Just because somebody says that these are European values or this is the way to go, does not mean that we are going to accept that. We’re going to debate it first, and if they can convince us, then we might conform to their expectations. Or, if we can convince them, that’s even better because then they will conform to ours.

The latter has already happened. If you look back to 2015, when illegal migration really hit Europe, we said that borders should be protected and we should identify all the people who come in, that they should be fingerprinted and brought into different databases, and we should build a border fence, and so on and so forth. Everybody said this was xenophobic and refugees should be welcomed. Fast forward eight years, and most of the European countries are now building fences on their external borders, and the European Commission is actually funding these fences as physical protection against illegal and illicit outside influence in Europe.

The prime minister used to joke that the Hungarians were not right, but they will be right; I think that is the case. We are not afraid to have political debates on political questions because this is what will solve the internal inconsistencies of the European Union in the long run.

This brings me to the third part of the question, whether we would seek a different future. Absolutely not. We are committed to remaining in the EU, but that does not mean we are going to accept everything at face value that they want us to do. We dare to disagree, and we dare to stand up ourselves, and what we see is that it’s inconvenient at times, but we do have some very firm values for which we are always going to stand up. If you look at Central and Eastern Europe, you will find many countries like that. Poland is another great example.

OLM: How would you characterise Canada-Hungary relations in 2023?

Marton Ugrósdy: Well, I think that if you look at the economic and cultural cooperation, it’s very good. We are an outlier in the Western block on the war in Ukraine, and obviously, we have a few disagreements there. I do understand that the government here is quite progressive, but it’s not up to us to decide whether this is good or bad for Canada; the Canadian people have the opportunity to decide that during elections.

We are going to work with any Canadian government which may be elected by the Canadian people, but I think altogether, the question of Ukraine is the overriding issue these days, and anything which relates to that. We just voted in the parliament to allow the ascension of Finland, and it was passed by a majority. When it comes to how we can help Ukraine, I think there are minor differences between our countries, with Canada providing lethal weapons and Hungary not providing them, but we provide all other kinds of support for refugees and economic assistance. We are pretty much on the same page.

OLM: How would you describe Hungary’s relationship with China, and what is your view on the proposed peace plan that President Xi has put on the table for Russia and Ukraine?

Marton Ugrósdy: China is an interesting question because they are not an existential but a major challenge for the United States as the hegemon of the world. We are not the world's hegemon, so for us, it is a completely different perspective. Hungary is a small and open economy, and an overwhelming amount of our GDP is being traded with foreign countries. Eighty percent of our trade is with the EU, and roughly the same indirect investment comes from the EU as well. The real weight of China in the Hungarian economy is a question we often debate, but so far, the position has been that we do not differentiate with investors based on the country of origin, and if you look at China, you’ll see that they have high tech and clean energy solutions on much bigger scales, and they are far away so they are not a traditional national security threat to our country.

I just mentioned that we do not comment on how other countries organize their lives and choose their government, and we will not do so in the case of China. It is not our business to tell the Chinese under which political system they should live, so we have a respectful relationship. Now we are getting signals that the collective West will have a different point of view on how China is to be handled, but I think it will be the EU who should make a decision on that, with China being the biggest trading partner of the EU in goods. We are for pragmatic cooperation with China, nothing ideological, just doing business.

China became Germany’s biggest trading partner three or four years ago, surpassing the United States, so it is not only us; everybody in the EU is trying to trade with China. As per the Chinese peace proposal, it is a theoretical question in the sense that President Biden and Zelensky said that this is a non-starter, so we very much appreciate all the efforts which are aimed at bringing the warring factions to a table to have some sort of conversation on how this is going to end. We recognize the effort of Turkish President Erdogan in this respect and his efforts to mediate some kind of solution to the Ukrainian grain crisis, which was a major issue last year. Anything that brings us closer to peace is welcomed by the Hungarian government, but obviously, a solution that is acceptable to both sides will be the one that is sustainable in the long run. At the end of the day, they will have to be the ones to come to an agreement.