- The Washington Times
Friday, July 22, 2022

Hungary‘s top diplomat is calling for immediate talks to end the war in Ukraine, asserting that “all wars end up in negotiations” and that the world should be focused on a way to achieve peace by quickly bringing about a cessation of the 5-month-old conflict.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally inside NATO and the European Union. During a Washington visit last week, however, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto bluntly denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and openly spoke in support of Ukrainian “territorial integrity.”

“We’ve made our position clear many times that we condemn the military attack by Russia against Ukraine,” Mr. Szijjarto said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times. He also addressed Hungary‘s friction with the EU on a slate of other issues, including his government’s opposition to the proposed global minimum tax.

The Biden administration-backed initiative seeks to get countries to agree to a minimum 15% domestic corporate tax rate to prevent what supporters say is a race to the bottom among nations and the shifting of corporate assets and headquarters to lower-tax jurisdictions. Critics see the plan as a violation of national sovereignty and local control, and Mr. Szijjarto highlighted Budapest‘s opposition at a business forum of Americans for Tax Reform and in meetings with several Republican lawmakers on his Washington trip.

The Ukraine war dominates policy issues in Europe, and the outspoken Mr. Szijjarto attempted in his interview to thread a diplomatic needle by opposing the invasion while stressing that Hungary cannot escape its dependence on Russian oil and gas. He said the security represents a “definite red line for us.”

Mr. Szijjarto‘s appearance in Russia on Thursday underscored the importance of the matter for the Orban government. The 43-year-old foreign minister flew to Moscow after his Washington visit to push for a peaceful solution to the Ukraine war while trying to ensure that EU sanctions do not disrupt Russian energy supplies to Hungary.

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The sanctions have been a sticky matter for months between the EU and Hungary. Although Hungary is a part of the 27-member European body, it has had a tense relationship with the bloc’s major powers and the Brussels bureaucracy since Mr. Orban‘s nationalist, right-leaning Fidesz party swept to power more than a decade ago. Europe’s left accuses Mr. Orban of being an autocrat.

Hungary gets about 65% of its oil and 85% of its gas from Russia. Last year, Budapest inked a 15-year agreement with Russian state energy giant Gazprom for the purchase of natural gas. The deal was thrown into question after Moscow launched its war against Ukraine and the EU and the Biden administration sought to sanction Russian energy exports as a way to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from financing his war and exploiting divisions among Ukraine‘s Western supporters.

The Orban government initially rejected the sanctions but ultimately accepted them after negotiating a deal with the EU to allow oil imports to be delivered temporarily via the Russian Druzhba pipeline to Hungary and other landlocked EU countries. In recent weeks, however, Budapest has complained that the compromise has fallen short of preventing an “energy emergency” of disruptions and skyrocketing prices across Europe.

Mr. Orban told a radio interviewer this month that the EU has “shot itself in the lungs” with ill-considered economic sanctions on Russia. Unless the sanctions are rolled back, he said, they risk destroying the European economy, according to Reuters.

Mr. Szijjarto defended Hungary‘s position in the interview with The Times.

“We have adopted six packages of sanctions in Brussels. We have given our consent to all of them — all of them,” he said. “But I have to tell you that we made it very clear that we have some red lines, and a definite red line for us is the security of our energy supply. Whether we like it or we do not, we are dependent on Russia when it comes to gas and oil” because of Hungary‘s history, infrastructure and geography.

“Changing all this is almost impossible, if it is possible at all,” he said. “It takes a lot — a lot of years and a lot of money. So we made it very clear that we’re not ready to put the security of our energy supply at risk because it must not be the Hungarian people who pay the price of this war.”

As a country sharing a land border with Ukraine, Hungary has absorbed some 840,000 Ukrainian refugees over the past five months, Mr. Szijjarto said. “Our only desire is that this war comes to an end,” he said.

“We want peace, and we do believe that the international community should concentrate on how peace could be reached as soon as possible. We want an immediate cease-fire to be established, and we want peace talks to be launched. This is our position.”

With an ongoing and violent stalemate over Russia’s occupation of key parts of Ukraine‘s east, neither Moscow nor Kyiv appears ready to engage in such talks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the Group of Seven leading industrial nations to continue helping improve his country’s military position against Russia. Leaders of the economically powerful democracies, in turn, pledged to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

Mr. Szijjarto pushed back when asked whether Ukraine should be willing to cede areas of its east to halt the fighting and said some kind of diplomatic deal is inevitable to end the war.

“We don’t have such a position,” he said. “It’s up to the Ukrainians definitely to decide what they want and, of course, we have to stand up for territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. … But we want the war to come to an end. How can it come to an end? With negotiations, obviously. All wars end up in negotiations.”

Friction with the EU

Hungary-EU frictions have been swirling since Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party began using the parliamentary supermajority it secured in 2010 to enact a variety of conservative judicial, media, banking, immigration and religious laws that drew the ire of EU leaders and some international civil rights groups. Mr. Orban has said his agenda reflects the socially conservative views of a majority of Hungarians, who want to protect their small country’s sovereignty and cultural identity.

Mr. Orban forged a political alliance with President Trump, whose “America First” agenda also rejected what Mr. Trump’s supporters said was interference by international bodies in domestic political affairs. In January, Mr. Trump issued an unusual endorsement for Mr. Orban‘s reelection bid, and a number of American conservatives have traveled to Budapest to praise Hungary‘s policies.

Critics say Mr. Orban‘s “illiberal democracy” has resulted in the silencing of dissenting voices and policies that hurt the marginalized, even as the president builds up his personal power. By 2012, Freedom House had downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free” in its 2012 worldwide report on press freedom. More recent Freedom House rankings have criticized the Orban’s government’s “harsh policies toward migrants and asylum-seekers.”

Restrictions on media and measures relating to LBGTQ issues have come under particular scrutiny. Leftist political figures across the EU warn that Hungary is devolving into a kind of autocracy, with political power more centralized than in Western Europe.

With the EU having threatened to suspend funding to Hungary if it is found to be in breach of the European body’s rule-of-law standards, the criticisms appear recently to have become intertwined with EU frustration with Hungary over the war in Ukraine.

The EU executive intensified a legal standoff with Hungary last week by taking Budapest to the body’s highest court over a law that bans content portraying or promoting homosexuality. The European Commission said the law “discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Mr. Szijjarto said the EU is targeting the Orban government for its conservatism and defense of traditional values.

The EU has been “blackmailing us since we won the first supermajority back in 2010, [and] the major basis for this punitive, punishing policy against us is that we are not liberals,” the foreign minister told The Times. “We are a conservative government. Conservative, patriotic, standing on Christian Democratic values.”

He added that the EU is ruled by “a liberal mainstream, and … being successful with a non-liberal, with a conservative political approach is something which is indigestible by the liberal mainstream. This is the real reason and the real basis for the constant criticism and the blackmailing against my country.”

Asked whether Hungary wants to leave the EU, Mr. Szijjarto answered with a swift “no,” although he added that the EU leadership should show more respect for sovereign rights and pursue “a strong European Union based on stronger member states.”

‘A communistic proposal’

Mr. Szijjarto said his own foreign policy philosophy is to focus on “mutual respect” and to “never interfere in the domestic issues of other countries.” He emphasized during his interview with The Times that the Orban government stands firmly against the idea of a global minimum tax. The Biden administration has been pushing the initiative at international forums such as the meeting of representatives of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations.

The initiative would require countries to enact a 15% minimum tax and allow governments to tax large companies based on where their goods and services are sold, as opposed to where they have headquarters. The goal is to prevent companies from shopping for lower tax rates around the world.

A push by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to get more than 130 countries to sign on to the global minimum tax idea has been delayed, in part by opposition from Washington and Budapest to the details of the proposal. The collapse of Mr. Biden’s “Build Back Better” spending package in the Senate this month blocked a provision to advance the 15% minimum tax rate idea.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told reporters at the Indonesia G-20 summit this month that the Biden administration remains “very committed to moving ahead with this.”

This is a truly important global initiative,” she said. “I can tell you that we will continue to look for every possible opportunity that we have to move this forward.”

Congressional Republicans who conferred with Mr. Szijjarto on his trip may have something to say about that if, as many expect, they regain control of the House and possibly the Senate after November’s midterm elections.

Hungary has a corporate income tax rate of 9%, one of the lowest in the world.

“If we had to introduce a global minimum tax, that would mean a 6% increase of the corporate tax,” Mr. Szijjarto said. “Why would we want to do that under the current circumstances when inflation is so high, when energy prices are skyrocketing, when the European economy is suffering, when jobs are at stake?”

“Decisions about tax must be a national sovereignty issue,” he said. “We’re not ready to accept such a communistic proposal that someone from outside the country would give us instruction on what kind of tax rates we would have to apply. That’s unacceptable.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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