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Viktor Orban, Keeping It Realist

Hungarian PM on the urgent need for a ceasefire, and on defending Hungarian families and sovereignty from Brussels
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As you regular readers know, I live now in Hungary and have a side gig doing some work for the Danube Institute, a think tank that receives, indirectly, funding from the Hungarian government. I tell you that to be completely up front. I've done two visiting fellowships with Danube, and nobody has ever told me what to write, and they never will. The day they do is the day I resign. But the veteran journalist John O'Sullivan runs the show, and he is a consummate professional. Anything and everything I have written, or will write, about Hungary is entirely my own opinion. Americans who have never been here to Budapest, and who have been catechized by the US media or the Washington blob, assume that any American who says anything nice about Hungary or Hungarians must be on somebody's payroll. Those who have been here know that the place sells itself.

Anyway, that's a prelude to my encouraging you to read this transcript of a long interview Hungarian PM Viktor Orban had with two journalists from Cicero, a German monthly magazine. I've said in the past that Orban is the leader of what remains of the West as it used to be. This absolutely extraordinary interview shows what I mean. This man is a hell of a thinker, and a hell of a patriot. Some excerpts below.

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On Hungary's position regarding Ukraine:

I think most Europeans agree that in this situation a shared goal is to help Ukraine. Now, after the invasion of 24 February, the impression is that Hungary isn’t really on the side of Ukraine, but is at least as much on the side of Russia. For several weeks after 24 February, the Hungarian defence minister wasn’t prepared to call the Russian aggression an invasion. On 7 March he spoke of an attack – and I quote – of “limited purpose”. Why have you been so hesitant to call Putin’s war of aggression what it was and what it continues to be?

I called it aggression on day one, and we accepted the European interpretation. Our thinking about the war is the same as the European Union’s position, of which we’re a part. So there’s no Hungarian position which is distinct from the European position: we share the European Union’s position. This is aggression.

Moreover, I’m a lawyer, I was once – or, to be more precise, I went to law school. Legally, the situation is absolutely clear. There is international law, and the Russians have violated it. This is called aggression. They’ve started a war. Whatever the reason, it’s an international violation, and there’s nothing more to talk about. It’s aggression. And in this regard the Hungarian position is quite obvious.

The question is this: when we think about this situation, what starting point do we choose? I’m often asked – as you’ve done – whose side we’re on. We’re on the side of the Hungarians. And I think that our inability to contain this conflict is a very big problem.

You know, of course, that I had some fierce duels and debates with Angela Merkel on certain issues – particularly on migration. But what Angela Merkel did during the Crimea crisis [of 2014] was a masterstroke. So “Danke, Angela!” This war could have broken out during the Crimea crisis, because at that time there was a clear international violation, but it didn’t turn into a war. Why didn’t it become a war? It was because the Germans – with the Chancellor in the lead – immediately initiated negotiations: they went to Kiev, they went to Moscow, they invited them to Brussels and they isolated the conflict. So the conflict in Crimea remained a Ukrainian-Russian conflict, and it wasn’t allowed to escalate and draw in all of us. That was a great diplomatic achievement.

But now when this war broke out there was no one from Europe even attempting to isolate it. It all blew up immediately and we all got drawn in. And now we’re all talking about being Ukrainian or Russian, instead of talking about what’s in our own interests. So Hungary doesn’t want to be in a position in which it’s not acting in its own interests.

So I’m not willing to help the Ukrainians, while at the same time destroying Hungary. I’m not willing to help the Ukrainians while at the same time Hungarians are dying. This is a boundary that must be acknowledged. Good intentions are important, but – and this may surprise you – in politics accountability isn’t based on intentions. It’s not a question of who is a good person. Of course it’s good to have a lot of good people, but the question is about who will solve the problem. In politics one is accountable for one’s results, not for one’s intentions. We’re accountable for whether or not we solved something, not for whether our thinking was right or wrong.

I want to solve this problem, and so I belong to the peace camp. So there are two camps in Europe today: the war camp and the peace camp. And I stand for an immediate ceasefire, I stand for immediate negotiations. This is regardless of what the Ukrainians think. As a Hungarian, it’s in my interest that there should be a ceasefire as soon as possible and peace negotiations as soon as possible. This is what distinguishes me from you, who are deducing what needs to be done from the Ukrainian point of view. So I stand in a different position.

On the self-defeating foolishness of the EU's sanctions regime:

Okay, the main argument for sanctions is that we won’t support Russia or help Russia finance its war against Ukraine. That argument seems quite plausible. You say that we need to be more intelligent in the way we design sanctions. What do you mean by an intelligent sanctions regime that harms Russia and doesn’t harm the European Union so much – or perhaps even benefits it, and above all benefits Ukraine? 

What did we want? We wanted to stop financing the Russians. What are we doing? We’re financing them! Prices have gone through the roof, and the Russians are making money from this. In the first six months of the sanctions, the Russians made a whole year’s worth of money. So the sanctions were crude because they aren’t strangling Russia, but giving them extra money. They made 158 billion euros in six months, and we paid more than half of that. What kind of sanctions are those?

What I’m saying is that when the oil sanctions first came up, the argument was what you’ve said: because we’re not buying oil, the Russians will have less money. I told you that I represent a small country, but how much money someone has depends not only on the quantity bought, but also on the price. If prices go up, the Russians will sell less oil, but they’ll make more money. What was the response to that? “No, no, that won’t happen.”

Has it happened? Yes, it has! So sanctions must only be imposed intelligently. And sanctions must also be handled with care, because sanctions should be used in a situation when you’re the stronger party. So sanctions are always imposed by the strong on the weak. Now, in terms of energy, we’re dwarves and the Russians are giants. Now the dwarf’s sanctioning the giant, and we’re wondering why the dwarf’s dying. So here we have to act more intelligently. Craftsmanship: you have to put it together more skilfully. It isn’t good like this.

On Europe as an American energy satrapy:

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... What’s in Europe’s interest? It’s not in Europe’s interest to replace Russian energy dependence with American energy dependence. We don’t want to change masters; we want independence. So we want to have alternatives: from here if we want, from there if we want, from somewhere else if we want; from Algeria if we want, from Qatar if we want, from America if we want, from Russia if we want. That’s our business. So we need independence, not extreme vulnerability. What we’re doing now is replacing dependence on Russia with dependence on America.

Of course this is more comfortable, because the Americans are democrats, unlike the Russians; this may be politically more comfortable for us, but it’s not good. We need a good structure.

So the question is not whether or not the Russians will supply, but how many other places we can get supplies from, and then we’ll make them compete with one another. We are customers. It’s good for us if there are four or five offers on the table, and then we’ll buy from whoever we want – for economic or political reasons. The problem isn’t that there’s Russian gas and oil, the problem is that there’s nothing else. And therefore we’re at the mercy of others. This is our logic. In the longer term it’s in Europe’s interest to have a lot of options, and not to replace one master with another.

On the weakness of the West:

You've just posited that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was a local conflict as far as Crimea was concerned, but that since then this has become an escalating international conflict. Now if we come back to the embargo and the sanctions policy, we have to conclude that there’s a European perspective, there’s a Russian perspective and there’s a very large perspective from India and China. We said earlier that these are the third world, the non-aligned. So from a European perspective we should unify our negotiating power, precisely so that we can create this open competition: so that we can meet our energy needs and at the same time have fair prices. And in this how can it help for Hungary to oppose the European negotiating position that’s being defined at the moment? In tactical terms, isn’t this in fact playing into the hands of the Russians?

This is the accusation. So I’m accused of being Putin’s Trojan horse. I always say that we represent the interests of the Hungarians, and that’s that. I think that in the next few months there will be a lot of books written and a lot of presentations given on these issues.

China. Now we’ve driven the Russians into the arms of China, to whom they’re delivering energy. India has refused to close ranks with the West. The OPEC countries have, in essence, humiliated us: the Americans went there to persuade them to produce more so that energy would be cheaper; the Saudis said “good luck”, and then announced that they were going to cut production. So the consequence of this whole conflict, which the West has taken on, is that our weakness has become obvious.

So previously the Western world – especially when the Americans with their huge military – said something is the right thing to do, and then most of the world stood by them. I’ve been in international politics for thirty-two years, and I’ve never seen a situation in which the Americans are dismissed like this: China says, “No, we don’t agree with you”; India says, “We don’t agree”; the Arabs say, “We don’t agree either”; Iran says “Well, after all, we don’t agree”; Africa says, “We’re not interested in the West anymore.” Globally we’ve never been so weak, and now it’s become obvious.

I don’t think this is good. But it’s very important that politicians avoid replacing action with rhetoric, speculation and lectures. Because if we want to end the conflict by first coming up with a long-term solution, and then start negotiating only when we’ve found it, then this war will go on for years.

On the Visegrad 4 -- Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia -- and the cultural dividing line in Europe:

We’ve now entered a phase in which geopolitics has become the most important thing, and this is torturing the V4 – it’s pulling at its seams. But there are two other things here that I don’t know whether you Germans are used to talking about.

If you look at the map of Europe’s values, you’ll see that on migration, on family issues, on gender issues, on the concept of the family, on the issue of national feeling, there’s a line dividing Europe that starts at the top, runs along the western edge of the Baltic states, comes down to the Czech Republic, comes down to Hungary and ends at Slovenia. Those to the east of this line think in terms of the traditional family, reject gender and reject multiculturalism. These countries don’t want migration, seeing it as a threat rather than a help. And east of this line, where we live, national feeling and national pride is the main driving force, and is a positive thing.

To a German ear, national pride probably sounds like a terrible thing. But east of this line I’m talking about, every country says that you need three things to live: your mother, your father and pride in your nation – otherwise there’s no life.

So this is why it’s important that the V4 represents a Europe based on conservative values. We understand what you’re doing: migration, the fact that here same-sex couples can marry, that soon there will be some kind of group thing here. We understand all that. We understand that migration should be welcomed, and that from a German point of view this is surely logical.

But we don’t think that way, and we have a different conception. Ours is under constant attack, and it must be defended. It’s easier to defend it together than individually. This is one of the reasons for the V4.

Forgive me for speaking at length, but there’s another reason which is perhaps even more important: the British. Everything that’s wrong has its roots in the British: if the British hadn’t left the European Union, the internal dynamism of the EU that has prevailed for the past thirty years would have been maintained, because together with the V4 the British never accepted a federal conception for the European Union. You Germans and the French wanted a federal Europe and we didn’t – along with the British. And this was more or less in balance, more or less in equilibrium. And if we wanted to come to an agreement, neither side was dominant and we had to agree. Now the British have left, and so the federalists – the Germans and the French – have gained the upper hand and the dynamics have changed. If the British had stayed in, there would never have been a rule of law procedure in the EU, there would never have been a conditionality procedure, there would never have been a debt community.

All these are national rights that are being taken away: what used to be national law is now being transferred to Brussels. The British always opposed this. Now that the British are gone, we are left without them. We’re small and you Germans and French are forcing these federalist conceptions on us. If the V4 cannot cooperate for geopolitical reasons, things that we don’t want will be forced on us. So the weakening of the V4 because of geopolitics is a big blow. It’s a big blow to us, to the nations of Central Europe – and also, I think, to conservative people in your country and in Western Europe who understand and share our values in the way we organise Central Europe.

On Ukraine's future; Orban says yes, the Russians are brutal, and yes, Ukraine ought to be offered the opportunity to draw closer to the EU as a sovereign nation. However:

But we definitely shouldn’t [help Ukraine] at the cost of destroying ourselves in the process. So it’s no help to Ukraine if German industry is destroyed. It’s no help to Ukraine if the Hungarian economy is ruined. It will not help if we fall into a two- or three-year recession – as now very many of us will, because of the sanctions. We won’t be able to help anyone if there are 5 million unemployed in Germany again, and if the recession in Hungary takes unemployment from 3 per cent to 12 per cent. So we must help the Ukrainians in a way that’s good for them, without ruining ourselves. ...

On how history will remember him:

At a global level we’re currently experiencing a tectonic shift. Even someone as cautious as our current chancellor, Mr. Scholz, is talking about changing times. How do you think our children or grandchildren will look on these politicians and their actions? As a possible lead-in, how did you as a young man – as an opposition politician before the Berlin Wall came down – view the generation of politicians that preceded you? And today you’re in a similar position. How do you think you – or our children and grandchildren – will look on us, and on our actions today?

To answer your first question, what was I thinking in the 1980s? Hungary is on the fault line between East and West. We’ve always needed to look to three places: Berlin, Moscow and Istanbul – the Hungarian magic triangle.

We live in this region, and from history we’ve learned that there have always been great powers that have come and tried to tell us how to live. The Turks came and told us what the true faith was. Then the Habsburgs came and told us what a good Catholic is, what a good Christian is: Catholic – that’s the answer. Then the Nazis came, who told us where we belonged in the ranking of races. Then came the Russians, who said that they would re-educate us as Homo sovieticus. So everyone was always trying to tell us Hungarians how to live.

And in the 1980s I thought that communism needed to be overthrown in my lifetime whatever the cost, because I refused to die having lived a life in which I was told how to behave and how to live. They would be impossible! And now – under democratic conditions, of course – when people want to tell us what a Hungarian family should look like, what the ethnic composition of Hungary should be, whether I or we should let in people from abroad, then I will simply say that I fought against that. I will not be told from Brussels, Berlin or Paris what the Hungarian family should be like, who we should let in as migrants, who we should not let in, and what the ethnic composition here should look like. How is that right?

In Hungary, freedom, the choice of a free life and national independence are interlinked. In Hungary feeling for the nation is something positive, because feeling for the nation is freedom itself. If you’re not free as a nation, you’ll never be free as an individual. This is the Hungarian law, this comes from experience. So we’re both nationally motivated and freedom fighters. These two can only go together in the Hungarian mind.

Now, as far as our children are concerned, the question is what one’s concept of life is: what human life is. I don’t know what the answer is in Germany, but in Hungary the answer is that life is an alliance: it’s an alliance between Hungarians who have died, Hungarians no longer alive, Hungarians who are alive now, and Hungarians who will live in the future. My life is nothing but this alliance itself. What I’ve received from it that is good, I must preserve at all costs: the language, the love of freedom, everything that is good in Hungarians. Not everything is good, but what is good must be preserved.

The second is that I must not bequeath a world in which my children cannot choose how they want to live. I must not pass on to our children a country that regulates the family, migration and multiculturalism on the basis of a Brussels directive – that is an impossibility! Nor can I pass on a country that is in a debt trap. I am opposed to the principle of a community of debt. So I don’t agree with those who think that good collective debt in Europe will create a new European unity. That’s the worst thing that can happen.

We must not burn through our children’s financial future by sinking ourselves in debt now. We want to leave our children a free world in which they understand what it means to be Hungarian, in which they understand why I lived, why my father lived and why my grandfather lived – and on that basis they’ll decide how they want to be Hungarian. This is the Hungarian conception. So for our part we want to leave to our children the legacy of the most independent, sovereign and free Hungary. This is the greatest gift that I can give my children.

... I’ll have to add another sentence. So I want our children to look back on this period when their father and mother fought well for Hungary’s independence and didn’t let any alien point of view influence the way Hungary should be. We live in a historical age in which we need to defend our freedom and our national identity. And I’d like our children to remember that their fathers and grandfathers fought well during this fateful period.

Read it all.

This right here, this is the core of any meaningful conservatism:

Now, as far as our children are concerned, the question is what one’s concept of life is: what human life is. I don’t know what the answer is in Germany, but in Hungary the answer is that life is an alliance: it’s an alliance between Hungarians who have died, Hungarians no longer alive, Hungarians who are alive now, and Hungarians who will live in the future. My life is nothing but this alliance itself. What I’ve received from it that is good, I must preserve at all costs: the language, the love of freedom, everything that is good in Hungarians. Not everything is good, but what is good must be preserved.

Do we have a single leading conservative politician in the United States who thinks this way, and who acts this way? If we do not, then you begin to see what is wrong with American conservatism -- and how it could be made right. America is not Hungary. American conservatism, therefore, cannot be Hungarian conservatism. But we should take these same principles -- conservative principles that are more clearly seen and better articulated in Hungary today than in America -- and figure out how to make them work in our own country. And that means observing how the Orban government works in terms of its policies to implement these principles, as opposed to merely talking about them.

I flew back to Budapest yesterday from a week in the US, giving speeches and meeting people. Everywhere I went, people -- I'm talking about religious conservatives -- were very curious to know about what's going on in Hungary. My sense is that they understand that we are being lied to and misled by the Regime -- that is, the state, the ruling class, and the media -- and they want to know what life is like outside the information bubble. Well, keep reading TAC, and keep watching Tucker Carlson Tonight, and you'll be informed.

UPDATE: Roger Scruton, from Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition:

We human beings live naturally in communities, bound together by mutual trust. We have a need for a shared home, a place of safety where our claim to occupancy is undisputed and where we can call on others to assist us in times of threat. We need peace with our neighbours and the procedures for securing it. And we need the love and protection afforded by family life. To revise the human condition in any of those respects is to violate imperatives rooted in biology and in the needs of social reproduction. But to conduct political argument as though these factors are too far from the realm of ideas to deserve a mention is to ignore all the limits that must be borne in mind, if our political philosophy is to be remotely believable. It is precisely the character of modern utopias to ignore these limits – to imagine societies without law (Marx and Engels), without families (Laing), without borders or defences (Sartre). And much conservative ink has been wasted (by me among others) in rebutting such views, which can be believed only by people who are unable to perceive realities, and who therefore will never be persuaded by argument.

Let us begin, therefore, by listing some of the features of the human condition that define the limits of political thinking and that, most conservatives will claim, are given due prominence in their philosophy. First among these features is social membership. Human beings live in communities, and depend on communities for their safety and happiness. In a tribal society people relate to each other through kinship (which may be partly mythical); in a religious society membership is determined by ritual and faith; in a political society relations are governed by law, and in the modern secular state law is made by the citizens, usually through their elected representatives, and imposed by a sovereign authority. All three forms of society – tribal, religious and political – can be witnessed in the world today, though it was the emergence of political order that was the original inspiration for modern conservatism. On one reading of events, indeed, conservatism arose as an attempt to hold on to the values of kinship and religion in communities that were being reorganised by a purely political law.

Who is the most faithful avatar of this kind of organic, Scrutonian conservatism on the scene today: Viktor Orban, or well, almost any American conservative politician? The question answers itself. It's no coincidence that there are three coffee shops in Budapest today named "Scruton". They understand Sir Roger here, and cherish him. Would that were the case in London and Washington... .

UPDATE.2: A Czech emigre reader writes:

I talked with my mom yesterday. I truly did not know how crazy the situation in CZ (and in Europe) really is. E.g., her friend, a 92 year old woman with a monthly pension of about 20,000 Czech crowns was just informed that her monthly natural gas deposit/prepayment is 35,000 crowns. Fortunately, her daughter — a doctor — lives with her, so they will manage somehow. For comparison, in 2019, it was around 3,000 CZK monthly. My mom (actually, my father), a true conservative, never converted to gas (electricity only), never got rid of her coal and wood burning stoves and the shed is still brimming with coal and firewood. She will not freeze but is not entirely crazy about lugging the coal bucket through the house again at her 82. 

Epitaph: 

"So everyone was always trying to tell us Hungarians how to live.” And they did the same to Slovaks, Romanians,  Serbs; Slovaks to Ruthenians, Rusins and Gypsies; Brits to the Irish; the Irish to the Travelers, and so on … each a perfect reflection of the larger image. What a wonderful idea the US was. When New York City was still semi normal and livable, I used to go to a Basque pub on Lower East Side where every Tuesday Spaniards and Basques got together, ate tapas and played flamenco. Only in the US!, I used to muse. Too bad that it's all about to fall apart. It turns out that an economy-based culture cannot survive; not just a bad economy, but virtually anything. 

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Zenos Alexandrovitch
Zenos Alexandrovitch
Russians: pass anti-grooming law
Rod: meh...

Hungary: passes similar law a decade later
Rod: It's the bee's knees
schedule 3 months ago
    JON FRAZIER
    JON FRAZIER
    I seem to recall Rod speaking approvingly of Russia's law. There's much else that Rod disapproves of in the Putin regime and the fact that it passed one law he likes does not grant a pass on everything else. As opposed to Orban's regime which Rod mostly does approve of.
    schedule 3 months ago