Hungary’s FM pushes for talks to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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 how to achieve peace by quickly bringing about a cessation of the nearly five-month-old conflict.

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

“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, in which he also addressed Hungary’s friction with the EU on a slate of other issues, including his government’s opposition to the proposal for a 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 backers say is a race to the bottom between 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.

But the Ukraine war continues to dominate all other policy issues on the continent, and the outspoken Mr. Szijjarto in his interview attempted to thread a diplomatic needle by opposing the invasion while stressing that Hungary cannot escape its dependence on Russian oil and gas — the security of which, he said, represents a “definite red line for us.”

The importance of the matter for the Oban government was underscored by Mr. Szijjarto’s appearance in Moscow on Thursday, where the 43-year-old foreign minister flew after his Washington visit to push for a peaceful solution to the Ukraine war while also trying to ensure that Russian energy supplies to Hungary are not disrupted by EU sanctions.

The sanctions have been a sticky matter for months between the EU and Hungary, which is a member of the 27-member European body but 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, drawing the ire of Europe’s left, which accuses Mr. Orban of being an autocrat.

Hungary gets about 65% of its oil and 85% of its gas from Russia, and last year Budapest inked a 15-year agreement with Russian state energy giant Gazprom for the purchase of natural gas. But the deal was thrown into question after Moscow launched its war against Ukraine, with the EU and the Biden administration seeking 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 pushed back against the sanctions, but ultimately accepted them after negotiating a deal with the EU to allow oil imports to be temporarily delivered via the Russian Druzhba pipeline to Hungary and other landlocked EU countries. But Budapest in recent weeks has complained that the compromise has fallen short of preventing an “energy emergency” of disruptions and skyrocketing prices across Europe.

The outspoken Mr. Orban told a radio interviewer earlier this month that the EU has “shot itself in the lungs” with ill-considered economic sanctions on Russia, which, unless rolled back, 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,” citing 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, adding that “our only desire is that this war comes to an end.”

“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 ceasefire to be established and we want peace talks to be launched. This is our position.”

But 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, meanwhile, pushed back when asked whether Ukraine should be willing to cede areas of its east in order to halt the fighting, while adding some kind of diplomatic deal was inevitable if the war was to end.

“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 ruling Fidesz Party began using the parliamentary supermajority it secured back in 2010 to pass a range of conservative new judicial, media, banking, immigration and religious laws that drew the ire of EU leaders, as well some international civil rights groups. Mr. Orban has said his agenda reflect 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 former President Trump, whose “America First” agenda also rejected what it 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.

But 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, as well as other measures relating to LGBT issues have come under particular scrutiny. Leftist political figures across the EU warn 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 sharply criticized the EU, saying the Orban government is being targeted for its conservatism and its 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.”

But when asked if Hungary wants out of 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.” In such, he emphasized during his interview with The Times that the Orban government stands firmly against the idea of a global minimum tax — an initiative the Biden administration has been pushing recently at international forums such as the G-20.

The initiative would entail countries enacting 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 are headquartered — with the goal of preventing 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 also blocked provision to advance the 15% minimum tax rate idea.

But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told reporters at the Indonesia G-20 summit earlier this month 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.”

But 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 currently has a corporate income tax rate of 9%, the third-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.”

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