From Empire to Modernity: A Pragmatic Hungary

Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic

The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #3

The Voices of the East: Hungary in focus
The Voices of the East: Hungary in focus

Interview with His Excellency Mr Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky

A brief glimpse into the history of Hungary, reveals a fascinating country that once governed an expansive kingdom in Europe for close to 1,000 years. It also endured 150 years of Ottoman occupation, before it became a partner to the Habsburgs in the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary towards the end of the 19th century. When the empire collapsed, the Hungarians lost over half of their former territory and population. This was followed by the perils of WW2, which in turn led to over four decades of isolation from the world under the dictate of communism. Freedom from Moscow would only come with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire
The Austro-Hungarian Empire

Today, the bygones are bygones for modern Hungary, a member of the European Union, as it looks back at the challenges and successes of its recent history. Yet, the country is not forgetting the painful lessons that history has, sometimes cruelly, other times harshly, inflicted on her people. The Hungarians refuse to be victims of their past. Instead, they leverage their experience in a multi-ethnic empire into present day politics. This experience gives Hungary confidence in addressing the complexities of the geopolitically important region of Central Eastern Europe. This is at the heart of the Hungarian presidency of the Visegrad group which the country took in July. A symbolic moment, considering it was during a political summit held in the Hungarian city of Visegrad in 1335, that the seeds of an alliance between the Czechs, Slovaks, Polish and Hungarians were first sown.

The Hungarian capital Budapest
The Hungarian capital Budapest

His Excellency Mr Szalay-Bobrovniczky talks about Hungary tackling the challenges of the 21st century by following a politics of sober pragmatism.

Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky
Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky

History has not been kind to us, which makes us true supporters of the European Union

The ideology-driven socialist system in Hungary has caused many economic and political defects in our country. After the ‘system change’ in 1989, as we call it, Hungary, similarly to the other Visegrad countries, made important and rapid developments. We joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. For our people, the Euro-Atlantic alliance carried a very symbolic meaning. It is still strongly supported by nearly 80% of Hungarians today.

The Union is one of Europe’s greatest achievements

The idea and implementation of a united Europe has brought peace to the continent and the accession process was mutually beneficial in a socio-economic sense as well. However, after years of prosperity on the European continent, the economic and financial crisis has had an adverse effect.

A politics of common sense and pragmatism is necessary today

The global financial crisis was followed by the Eurozone debt crisis, the tragic events in Ukraine, the migration crisis and of course Brexit. The political consensus of the mainstream in the last 30 years seems to have vanished. The recent changes in the world demand a different approach to politics. I believe that a politics of common sense and sober pragmatism is necessary today, but I do not see this happening in Europe.

Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things
Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things

Visegrad countries are much less ideologically driven compared to the rest of Europe

I find the Visegrad group refreshing. Our countries, for which it is only Hungary that I can really speak for, are very close to their electorates and the people that they represent. The Hungarian government was the first and so far, the only government within the EU to ask the opinion of its electorate on the migration issue, one of the greatest challenges Europe faces today. This gives us the ability to act according to the needs of our people, and not according to what some elites want.

The four Visegrad countries command a growing reputation in the outside world

Our countries represent combined a market of 65 million people, together they form the world’s 15th largest economy. They also have the third largest export capacity within the EU and an economic growth that is superior to other EU member states.

Migrants at the railway station in Hungary
Migrants at the railway station in Hungary

Together, we take a stand for things that are important to us, like the migration crisis

Our countries challenged the decision on the EU’s mandatory quotas, a compulsory relocation of migrants arriving in Europe. This was scandalised in the West, giving rise to many negative headlines for the region and Hungary itself. However, we now see that this perspective is fast becoming mainstream.

Our Visegrad countries have at last found their confidence

The future success of the Visegrad nations is our primary shared interest. The Hungarian Visegrad presidency strives to build on the achievements of this informal grouping. There are also pressing issues within the EU, Brexit being the most important, that we need to think about as a region too.

The Visegrád Group is an informal alliance of 4 nations
The Visegrád Group is an informal alliance of 4 nations

We created a situation in which every great power is interested in our success

Our goal is to maintain balanced relations with the major powers that determine the life of our region. This includes the United States, Russia, Germany, China and Turkey. The American-Hungarian relations are only improving and Hungary is also opening more towards the East, by increasing trade and investments with Asian countries.

Vladimir Putin with Viktor Orban in discussion in budapest
Vladimir Putin with Viktor Orban in discussion in budapest

Hungary is often criticised by the international community for being “pro-Russian”

However, our critics should consider the unique geopolitical situation and historical experience of Central Europe, being in the immediate vicinity of Russia. Hungary is also heavily reliant on the import of Russian gas.

We continue to stick to the sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine

This is, despite suffering sizeable economic losses and despite the fact, that we consider them unsuccessful both politically and economically. Hungary advocates for a transparent and pragmatic relationship with Russia. We think that the EU should maintain a sensible, open and honest discussion with President Putin.

Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky
Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky

Mr. Szalay-Bobrovniczky graduated from the University of Agricultural Sciences in 1993 to go on to complete a post-graduate management degree in Paris. Following his academic training, he worked in the Hungarian financial sector for six years. Consecutively, his path lead to a series of executive positions in the telecommunications industry, culminating his career as a CEO of a multinational tech company.

His appointment to the post of the Ambassador of Hungary to the Court of Saint James’s was preceded by a dive into the world of Hungarian public affairs. In 2004, Mr Szalay-Bobrovniczky became the Publisher and Chief Editor of a leading political weekly magazine. This paved his way to the prestigious Századvég Foundation, the largest and the oldest think tank in Hungary, where he was appointed to the role of the Executive Vice President in 2011. The institution is also the key strategic advisor to the Hungarian Government.

<u>Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova CEE and Corruption Expert</u>
Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova CEE and Corruption Expert
<u>Dr Zuzana Palovic CEE and Migration Expert</u>
Dr Zuzana Palovic CEE and Migration Expert
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