After two years, on the 1st of February Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin will meet again. This time, the consultation – which have become a regular occurrence between the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Russian President over a decade – will take place in an extremely tense international climate. We asked Yevgeny Arnoldovich Stanislavov, the Russian ambassador in Budapest, about the development of bilateral relations, the Russian-American talks, the Ukrainian crisis, relations between Moscow and the European Union, the European energy crisis and his experiences in Hungary. The interview took place before the date of the summit was officially announced, so naturally the ambassador could not react to the written US response regarding Russia’s concerns about the new European security framework.
– Due to the coronavirus epidemic, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin have not met for the past two years, breaking a decade-long tradition. But bilateral relations have not been negatively affected by the lack of face-to-face talks between the two leaders. The question arises, then why was there a need for annual summits?
– The stable and continuous Russian-Hungarian political dialogue has proven its effectiveness at the highest level. This is the key to the dynamic development of relations between Russia and Hungary. This is particularly true in the trade and economic sectors.
“Also thanks to these regular consultations, there are no unresolved issues in the bilateral contacts”
Moreover, regular summits between the leaders of our countries allow for a meaningful and well-timed review of key aspects of bilateral relations, “synchronising our watches”, charting the way forward for further development of relations as well as discussing regional and international issues of common importance. While indeed the epidemic has indeed made meetings between the top leaders of our states less frequent, we nevertheless look forward with optimism.
– How do you see what benefits does one of the world’s most influential politicians, Vladimir Putin, and global great power Russia gain from such a prominent demonstration of good relations with Hungary, which carries a rather different weight?
– You know that the maintenance and development of good relations based on healthy pragmatism, consideration of each other’s interests, equality and mutual respect can hardly be called a demonstrative display of conscious, hidden motives and goals. But if we are talking about the spectacular display of relations, in only that context that the good relations between Russia and Hungary are an example of how two countries, which are in many respects different from each other, can and should negotiate. There are no serious irritating factors in our relations, which is largely due to the fact that we try to resolve all issues through honest and open dialogue, taking into account each other’s concerns and interests.
“I consider that the time has come to abandon the logic of block thinking, and to stop assuming that the value of relations between countries is determined by the size of these states, or by their “weight” or influence on the international scene”
We are living in a fundamentally new phase of world development. A multipolar world is taking shape, characterised by the synergy of national cultures and traditions, as well as the development of much more complex inter-state relations than ever before. The end of history as predicted by Francis Fukuyama has not come to pass; a new configuration has emerged on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ‘great chessboard’, and not at all what the author of this book would have liked. The role and importance of the pawns have suddenly increased, and they are having an increasingly serious impact on the course of the game, while the old antagonisms that had been pushed into the background in the era of the bipolar world order have been re-emerged.
“We believe that under such conditions, international relations should be defined by a balance of interests, respect for the sovereign equality of states alongside the sustainable and safe development for every country – whether it is big or small”
Such a model naturally presupposes cooperation with all the countries interested, so we have been and remain open for dialogue. This is absolutely true for Hungary, which is our important European partner.
– What do you say to the much-vaunted theory in some circles that “Orbán is Moscow’s Trojan horse in the EU”. With which EU member states does Moscow maintain such close relations as it does with Hungary? This circle is a smaller stud, isn’t it?
– The aforementioned multipolarity of the modern world order – unexpectedly for many – has opened up unprecedented opportunities for medium and small countries to develop independent foreign policies based on their national interests.
“It appears to me that Hungary has grasped the new realities and understood the transformation of international relations earlier than others”
I don’t know how diplomatic your ‘stud’ analogy is, but since you have raised it, let me go on and present it from a slightly different angle. Every economics textbook describes in detail the otherwise highly risky ‘pack mentality’ of stock market shareholders. It seems to me that someone has now put at the head of the ‘European stud’ Russophobic countries that serve no European interests at all. However, I am sure that the majority of Europeans have the good sense not to want their own harm.
“It is becoming increasingly clear to more and more countries that the current ‘bloc solidarity’, often imposed against national interests, is irrational”
In this context, it is to say the least inappropriate to interpret the policies of states seeking healthy relations with Russia as ‘steps taken in Moscow’s interests’ and to call these countries ‘Moscow’s puppets’. In my view, it is only to be welcomed if one acts rationally.
– Where is Hungary’s place in the Russian foreign policy thinking?
– Hungary is our important and reliable partner in Europe. Relations between the two countries have a long history and great potential. We appreciate the attitude of the Hungarian leadership to further strengthen the development of relations, which we believe meets the fundamental interests of our countries and our peoples.
“The key to successful work is that Russian-Hungarian cooperation is based on the principles of equality, pragmatism, mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests”
As we have repeatedly stated, Russia is ready to develop trade and economic cooperation with Hungary to the extent and depth that our partners in Budapest are prepared to do. We see considerable potential in developing mutual trade, investment, scientific, technological and industrial cooperation, as our economies complement each other in many respects.
– And let’s look at the substance behind these undoubtedly excellent relationships. That certain glass, according to the opposition, is very much full, while others say it is half empty. What do the figures show? How has the epidemic affected economic relations? What are the biggest projects?
– Economic cooperation between Russia and Hungary is first and foremost for the benefit of the people. For example, the conclusion of a long-term gas supply contract has secured Hungary’s energy supply. And not in imagination, but in reality. This not only allows Hungarian homes to stay warm, but also to keep down utility bills and prices.
“Last year, a new dimension of bilateral cooperation was opened up in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic”
Among other things, thanks to the procurement of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, lives have been saved, epidemic restrictions have been lifted and Hungary has been able to begin its post- pandemic economic recovery earlier than many European countries.
Special attention should be paid to our joint flagship project, the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Apart from its strategic importance – without exaggeration – in terms of strengthening Hungary’s energy security, its implementation will contribute to the achievement of the environmental targets set by the Hungarian government in the framework of the European Green Deal. Not to mention that it will also enable the creation of new jobs. The project has already become a stimulus for economic development in the surrounding regions. Businesses, transport hubs and business incubators are being built for the entrepreneurs involved in the project.
“As it is well known, a significant part of the work will be carried out by Hungarian companies, which will allow Rosatom to become one of the largest employers in Hungary”
The joint work on the production of Egyptian railway carriages continues. This is the largest order ever received by the Hungarian transport sector. New perspectives in bilateral cooperation in the field of freight transport have been opened up. An agreement has been signed between freight forwarders from Russia, Hungary and Austria, and this cooperation in the field of logistics will increase Hungary’s attractiveness for goods from the East, which is essential in the context of the expansion of international trade.
The tourism sector is experiencing a significant growth. The simplified entry regime facilitated by Hungary for Russian tourists has contributed to an increase in the number of our compatriots visiting Hungary during the Catholic Christmas and the long New Year holidays (in Russia, these lasted until 9 January). The spectacular influx of Russian tourists has increased the saturation of airline flights, local hotels and restaurants.
“As for the statistics, in the first 9 months of 2021, the volume of trade between our countries increased by 65% year-on-year, from €3.3 billion to €4.6 billion”
There is reason to assume that the completion of major projects such as the construction of two new units at the Paks nuclear power plant and the production of railway carriages for Egypt will boost trade turnover to over €5 billion this year.
– The ‘flagship’, or pillar, of the relationship is the long-delayed Paks expansion. Does Moscow worry about this? How could this process be speeded up?
– As far as the implementation plan for the Paks II project is concerned, I believe there is no cause for concern. The Hungarian customer, Paks-2 Zrt., is actively working on the preparation of the necessary documentation in cooperation with Rosatom, in line with the requirements of the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority. I am convinced that the project will be approved for implementation in the foreseeable future and that the experts will be able to start the construction of the nuclear power plant.
– The same is also happening with Rosatom’s project in Finland. Is this a coincidence?
– These two projects are not related in any way.
– The pandemic has created a new segment of cooperation. Despite the difficulties of European authorisation, Sputnik V finally made its EU debut in Hungary. There are also talks about domestic production of the Russian vaccine, but in official communication this seems to have been somewhat sidelined. How is the situation? Will a Russian vaccine be produced in the new factory in Debrecen, which will be ready by the end of the year?
– This question should rather be addressed to the Hungarian side, as we are talking about the construction of a Hungarian national vaccine production plant in Debrecen. My starting point is that manufacturing its own vaccine is in the interests of Hungary. As Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said, the capacity to produce the vaccine will be created there by the end of 2022. As for the transfer of technology for the production of Sputnik V, the relevant agreements were reached on 26 November last year at the 14th meeting of the Hungarian-Russian Intergovernmental Committee for Economic Cooperation in Obninsk, Russia. The Russian vaccine, currently considered the most effective in Hungary, is produced in several countries, including India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Serbia, Turkey and Vietnam.
“The results of the usage of the Sputnik V in Hungary are stunning”
This is clear for all to see from the statistics of Hungarian healthcare institutions. In addition, just recently, a study by Italian scientists was published on the effectiveness of Sputnik against omicron, which is much higher than that of other vaccines. However, I do not think that it is for the ambassador to determine the benefits of this or that medicine, and in view of the rapid and mass spread of this strain of the virus, it would be appropriate to ask Hungarian experts for their opinion on this.
– We are now past the first round of talks on European security and Russian security guarantees between Russia and the United States, as well as with NATO and the OSCE, followed by a meeting between the two foreign ministers in Geneva. How successful do you consider the start to be and will there be a follow-up?
– We are in no hurry to evaluate the negotiations, as their success will be judged solely on the basis of the results. I believe it is very important to conclude agreements that take into account the interests of all the players in the Eurasian region. I believe that the negotiations will continue.
– There are many problems with the European Union, but is it possible to discuss European security without Europe?
– Russia has sent the draft agreements on measures to guarantee its security to the United States and NATO because the European Union has already eliminated the mechanisms within which the practical aspects of security were discussed. With NATO – at least on paper – the Russia-NATO Council has been preserved, as has the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security signed between the two sides in 1997. With the EU, our European colleagues have ‘frozen’ all channels of communication. I would recall here the Franco-German idea to convene an EU-Russia summit, which then stalled in Brussels. This initiative was rejected by the same Russophobic minority I mentioned above.
At the same time, we see that some EU member states are increasingly raising the need for strategic autonomy on security issues. However, there is a strong lobby in the EU which opposes any attempt to break away from NATO on security issues and insists that the North Atlantic Alliance is also the key to the security of the European Union.
“But let’s be realistic. What we are seeing at the moment is that Europe has essentially abandoned its independent foreign and security policy, has tied one of the most important elements of its sovereignty to NATO and, typically, has transferred it not to one of the European countries but to the United States”
And the extent to which Washington takes the interests of the allies into consideration is shown by the circumstances of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the creation of Asian NATO, the so-called AUKUS, or the way Australia has declined to buy French submarines. Or take the INF treaty, for example, which the Americans withdrew from without consulting their European allies. But we could equally mention the Open Skies Treaty, from which they also left without consultation.
– Does this mean that Moscow has acquiesced to the US division of the broad Eurasian geopolitical space into two poles, European and Russian, which is unfavourable to both? Has it completely given up on engaging in dialogue with the European Union?
– Russia does not reject dialogue with the European Union. Most recently, for example, on the 2nd of December 2021, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Stockholm and reiterated that we are ready to continue the dialogue, but ‘the ball is in the EU’s court’. Everything depends on the political will of our European colleagues, the will to negotiate based on equality, mutual respect and the search for a balance of interests.
“We have repeatedly drawn the attention of our European partners to the fact that we are geographically and economically bound together”
From a historical, cultural and civilisational point of view, Russia is an integral part of Europe. We have encouraged our partners to engage with Russia on economic, political and cross-border threats without abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration. But Europe seems to have chosen a different path, driven by interests from across the ocean.
– The time has come when US strategists predicted a Russian attack on Ukraine. Reassure us, surely there will be no war!
– We have repeatedly rejected accusations of ‘aggressive actions’ by the West and Ukraine. I repeat once again, we are not threatening anyone and we will not attack anyone. However, I would point out that significant units and military infrastructure of NATO countries, including the Americans and the British, are moving ever closer to our borders.
“What is happening is what we call the military occupation of Ukraine by NATO structures”
Moreover, this is happening in the immediate vicinity of the conflict zone in Donbass, thousands of kilometres away from these countries. In Ukraine and Donbass, forces are being deployed and equipment is being stockpiled along the demarcation line with the support of a spectacularly growing number of Western advisers and trainers. Heavy weapons, including drones, explicitly prohibited by the Minsk agreements, are being used against Donetsk and Lugansk. All this poses a direct threat to our security.
“If you were to ask whether Russia will defend itself, then the only possible answer is a clear and unequivocal yes”
Unfortunately, ‘thanks’ to the efforts of the Western press, which deliberately distorts the facts and feeds its readers disinformation, many people see the situation not in accordance with reality, but in the opposite way. It must be understood that the issue is not – as our American partners are trying to portray it – that Russia is threatening Ukraine. It is about providing security guarantees to Russia in connection with NATO’s eastward expansion. As a result of the conscious action of the US administration and its controlled media, the concepts are now being reversed.
– What do you think Washington’s aim is with this (cold) war hysteria?
– I would not want to make speculations about Washington’s goals, but the constant pumping of the Western media space with speculations about allegedly imminent Russian aggression, the constant intimidation with the imaginary Russian threat is very alarming. Representatives of the US administration have already described in detail the scenarios of possible provocations, named the dates of the ‘launch of operations’, spread rumours about the alleged evacuation of Russian diplomatic missions in Ukraine, etc. I would like to draw attention to the fact that these allegations are completely unfounded and have not received any kind of confirmation. I would like our American colleagues to work with the same enthusiasm to force the authorities in Kiev to fully implement the Minsk agreements.
– And what message is Moscow trying to send with the recent increase in Russian troop movements along the Ukrainian border?
– The presence of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is not a show of force, but a reaction to threats to the security of the Russian Federation. We have already talked about how the configuration of armed forces in Europe has changed a lot. With its infrastructure, its trainers, its defensive and offensive stocks, NATO is gradually penetrating into Ukraine. Americans, Canadians, British have permanently embedded themselves in the Baltic and other European countries under the name of ‘rotation’. They are creating bases in the Black and Azov Seas. Right along the Russian border, there is a steady build-up of US and NATO forces, conducting large-scale exercises, including unplanned ones.
“Therefore, returning to the question of Russian troops stationed on – I stress – Russian territory, this is a reaction of constraint, a necessary precaution in a tense situation caused by the approach of NATO infrastructure”
Therefore, we have proposed to our partners to return to the principle laid down in the Charter for European Security, signed in Istanbul in 1999, which states that each state respects the rights of other countries and does not strengthen its own security at the expense of the security of others. Security must be indivisible and equal for all.
– Meanwhile, there is the ongoing energy crisis affecting Europe, compounded by the rampage of ideological green thinking in Western Europe. Saving Europe is not Gazprom’s job, but its business interests may well dictate it. What would have to happen for Gazprom to increase gas supplies after all?
– I think the answer is pretty clear. Gazprom’s partners should ask for it. The company books transport capacity on the basis of these orders, not the other way round. For example, in 2021, some of Gazprom’s European customers, mainly in France and Germany, have opted for the annual contract and have no longer submitted a separate request for gas supply. We have repeatedly drawn the attention of our European partners to the need to focus on long-term contracts, as pricing in this case is much different from spot market pricing. Gazprom is open to negotiations with all interested parties.
– Mr Ambassador, throughout your diplomatic career you have worked mainly in international organisations. Do you agree with those who say the world is going in a seriously wrong direction? Are institutions which can prevent derailment of the balance of power and the changing world order working? Can the new world order emerge without major conflict or without war?
– You know, I’m an optimist by nature, and I don’t want to end our interview by saying that the world is going to the abyss. That is not the case. Yes, we are living in turbulent times, but we must remember that we have something to hang on to.
“When Nazism fell 77 years ago, the ideology of aggression and hate was destroyed, and at the same time the foundations of a new world order were laid. The unquestionable basis for this is the UN Charter, which remains the main source of international law to this day”
However, it is now very important that the world organisation should be able to adapt to new challenges, not to become rigid, but to reflect the dynamics of the 21st century in its development. Our world is becoming increasingly complex and multidimensional. Our approach to reforming the UN is based on the need to take into account the interests of all countries and the diversity of viewpoints.
“It is important to understand that no international organisation, even the most ideal one, can solve global problems. It all depends on the member countries. It depends on how much they are willing to work together to find solutions within the framework of the mechanisms established in international structures”
According to our view, the UN-centric structure of international relations not only seems optimal, but also has universal legitimacy. Thanks to these qualities, it has repeatedly and reliably guaranteed the avoidance of tragic scenarios. It is time, therefore, to stop pointing fingers at each other and showing off, and to finally understand that we are all ‘in the same boat’. Our common task is to protect present and future generations from war, disease and hunger, and to build a peaceful and stable future for all.