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Péter Balázs: "[Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán always needs enemies ... he lives on conflicts"

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

In Their own Words: Former Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs (along with György Surányi, former governor of Hungary's central bank), sat down with foreign journalists and diplomats on 13th January to discuss the political and economic situation in Hungary.

Péter Balázs is a professor at the Central European University, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, ambassador to Denmark, Germany and EU, and a former European Commissioner, responsible for the Regional Policy portfolio. Photo CEU

The following is a (slightly edited) transcript of part of Prof Balázs' comments.

Péter Balázs, Introductory Remarks - A few words about the fundamental problems of the regime of Mr Orbán. I think that during his 12 and more years of continuous governing since 2010, he has maneuvered his regime into an impossible triangle.

You know this concept, the Penrose Triangle, which is an impossible [drawing of a pseudo physical body], and we use it in politics and economics when three conditions have to be fulfilled, but you cannot meet all the requirements. You can solve perhaps two, but not the third one.

What is the impossible triangle of Mr Orbán? First of all, he is very much attached to power.

Power has been acquired at elections, back in 2010, and after came a modification of the election law and constitution, and many other changes which made it possible to acquire a two-thirds majority in parliament with something more than 40% of the votes. This is a very advantageous position for those who are in power, but an impossible uphill fight for the opposition under any circumstances.

He has united the various branches of power, the government is controlling parliament, he can have a positive vote on any question that the government submits to parliament. The government and personally Mr Orbán is controlling the jurisdiction, plus the economy, the media, education, research and development, even theatres.

This is a very strong position. He admires and openly expresses his admiration for successful leaders like Bolsonaro, Trump, Erdoğan and many others [like these].

This is the first pillar of the triangle.

The second is a foreign policy which is on purpose contrary to his own alliances.

The alliances are the Trans-Atlantic family, consisting of the EU and Nato, and Mr Orbán is in an open conflict with the EU. He usually doesn't name the EU, he says Brussels, whatever that means. So, [for him] it's an international conspiracy, the centre of an empire in his vision.

[There are] much less open conflicts with Nato, but much more action against the mainstream of Nato. The number one proof is a very close friendship with Mr Putin. You may remember that a few weeks before the outbreak of the war, on 1 February last year, Mr Orbán was the only EU leader who paid a visit to Moscow, and since then he's been openly criticising the sanctions applied by the EU and some other countries on Russia.

The 'failed' sanctions, the 'bad' sanctions, and those that live in Budapest can see the billboards with the bomb symbolising those sanctions.

And the third pillar, Hungary badly needs external sources, for financing this very difficult situation. I think Mr Surányi will illustrate this.

Now, how to get out from this triangle? You have to sacrifice at least one out of the three. If you need the money, then you should change one of the two others. It would be easier for Mr Orbán to change the foreign policy.

To line up with Nato and the EU, to condemn the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and not only to vote for the sanctions, which he did - all the sanctions were voted on by Hungary - but not to criticise them. To accept them, even to give some positive evaluation about the impact of the sanctions.

If he did that, then he could have, perhaps, an easier handling by the EU, not forgetting the ratification of the Finnish and Swedish Nato membership.

If he doesn't do that, there is only one solution, to change the internal structure of power. I think, having listened to his early morning speech this morning [on the radio], he wouldn't do that.

He is just following his usual line, repeating the very same arguments, nothing new, and in that case, I can't see a way out for Mr Orbán, except if there is some movement inside Fidesz.

Pertti Anttinen, Ambassador of Finland: Hungarian relations to Russia – we hear that this is a pragmatic, gas and oil [issue] …, but is it going beyond pragmatic? What is the big picture here?

Péter Balázs – It is very clear that since 2009, Mr Orbán has had a very special, personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. He attended a conference in St Petersburg in late 2009.

Even before, it was in my time [as foreign minister], personally, I had a very good relationship with Sergei Lavrov. I speak Russian, I belong to the old generation, and I tried to get an invitation to Moscow, to deal with bi-lateral issues, mainly economic issues, because Russia was then extending its presence in Hungary.

I remember they bought a big part of [oil and gas company] MOL, Surgutneftegas was the company. And we had several issues, but they never invited me to Moscow. And, I tried to invite Lavrov to Budapest, but he never came. So, it was a frozen situation with the Bajnai government, because they were already preparing for Oban.

Nobody really knows what are the real secrets of that relationship. I have read a lot of articles, but I don't want to enter into speculation without having any proof of this.

It was a fact that, before the outbreak of the war, there was a yearly meeting between Putin and Orbán, which is quite unusual between top leaders, they do not meet with such frequency. And then, at the last meeting, on 1 February [2022], they spent four hours talking together, which is absolutely unusual.

Nowadays, top leaders can spare one hour, if it is well prepared. They don't have more time, and they don't have enough to speak about.

During four hours, you have to go out to the lavatory, have some food, and so on. So, what on earth could they be speaking about for four hours? Most probably they encouraged each other and approve each other's positions.

Now, there is a very strong presence of Russia in Hungary, in various forms, banks and companies. Of course, Hungary depends on Russian oil and gas, but we had, along with several other central European countries, a waiver for pipelines from the sanctions, which is logical. We have no direct access to the sea, it would be much more expensive to get LNG or any other [energy] sources.

But the problem is that the Hungarian government did not make any effort to substitute the Russian energy [sources], not like Germany, where there has been a very important turn. And yesterday, I heard on German television that they are well prepared for winter with gas, they have reserves and they have a new LNG terminal, and so on.

So, nobody really knows what is really behind [this special relationship]. It would be interesting, but this is the personal secret of Mr Orbán, everybody else is just assisting with his personal relationship with Putin.

Raul Toomas, Ambassador of Estonia: Mr Balazs, you mentioned the impossible triangle and foreign policy. What is your view about the rationale by Mr Orbán's government, about going against the mainstream of the EU and Nato? What is to [be] gained out of it?

Why have these very aggressive rhetorics, even about the EU sanctions policy?

We all know that the Hungarian government has joined with all the EU sanctions packages, so, blaming sanctions should be a question [why] the Hungarian government itself has adopted those sanctions and approved them?

Péter Balázs – First question: Why is Orbán going against the mainstream? This is one of his tricks, one of his devices for power. He lives on conflicts. There is never peace or a calm situation in Hungary, because he is always fighting.

This is his way of keeping power, creating conflicts. The problem is that at the beginning, he was creating artificial conflicts. He was attacking the migrants, for example, in 2015, that they shouldn't take away jobs from Hungarians. They didn't want to! They were running across Hungary towards better countries.

You know we have a funny political party, the Two-Tailed Dog party, and they proposed, when the big migration wave came to Hungary that you shouldn't put up a fence, it would be sufficient to write out the salaries on the border, and if they understand the salaries, they would escape and run to Austria and Germany!

This was the situation, but Orbán always needs enemies. And this is a very simple context: the nation is in danger! This morning, he has reiterated all the threats: the pandemics, war, the energy crisis, bad sanctions, inflation, migration.

This I noted when I listened to his speech. So, there are always threats, and he is the saviour. He is St George on the horse, fighting the dragon. And he is the saviour. And he is always saving Hungary.

Another trick is that he usually tries to go against the mainstream, believing then that he is the only one who does something different. And it could be a good solution, who knows, but it is different from the others, this is the unorthodox economy, and so on.

Another well known trick is the concentration, the maximum of concentrations of everything, institutions, power and all. Then identity politics, which is v similar to other dictators – make Hungary great again, mixing up all the past identities, issues going back to Attila the Hun, and so on. These are his elements.

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