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Sergei Lavrov: Our formula for success stands the test of time

The Magyar Nemzet is the main daily outlet of Hungary. Founded in 1938, the Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) is a reference journal for the conservatives of Hungary. The conservative newspaper is close to the current Hungarian government lead by Viktor Orbán.

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This article was published online by the Magyar Nemzet on 25, August 2021.

“Cooperation between our countries has reached unparalleled levels” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov in his exclusive interview with Magyar Nemzet. He will visit Budapest on Tuesday at the invitation of Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Sergei Lavrov answered, in writing, the questions we sent regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Russian-American relations, and Ukrainian minorities.

– Despite EU sanctions on Russia, Hungary has sought to maintain pragmatic economic and political relations with Russia in recent years. Are there any unresolved issues you plan to discuss in Budapest? 
– We recognize that EU and NATO membership imposes certain obligations for Hungary, including support for sanctions against countries, even when it goes against Hungary’s national interests. Regarding this, we are of the opinion that in the XXI. century, there is little room for such forced manifestations of block solidarity.

Let us also add that sanctions are among the useless tools of politics, and in the case of Russia, futile. 

As for Russian-Hungarian relations, especially trade and economic relations, we do not see any noticeable stimulus that cannot be overcome through normal working discussions. Our formula for success has stood the test of time. It is based on healthy pragmatism, respect for each other’s interests and a focus on creative work on both sides. I would note that cooperation between our countries has reached unparalleled levels. This was made possible, above all, by the clearly expressed political will of the Russian and Hungarian leaders, their mutual need for the multifaceted development of bilateral relations, which undoubtedly meets the expectations of our peoples.

– EU sanctions also reduced Hungarian-Russian trade. In an increasingly hostile international environment, what opportunities are there for the development of bilateral economic relations? 
– After the European Union imposed restrictive measures against Russia in 2014, exchange of goods between Russia and the EU fell to less than half. While it was valued at $417.7 billion in 2013, it was only $192.2 billion in 2020. Of course, other European trading partners aside from Hungary also suffered because of this. Significantly, these EU sanctions hit Eastern Europeans hardest as meanwhile the big European powers were even able to take advantage of the conditions. My colleague Péter Szijjártó has drawn attention to this fact several times, listing compelling statistics.

From my end, I can confirm that Russia is ready to develop trade and economic relations with Hungary in the volume and depth that our Hungarian partners are prepared for.

In addition to the renewal of reciprocal trade relations, there is no doubt that the possibility remains for relaunching cooperation related to investment, technical-scientific and industrial fields. Our economies complement each other in many respects. It is encouraging that despite the obstacles posed by Brussels’ sanctions, not only were we able to consistently implement the major investments we have launched, but we are also able to identify future targets for our joint efforts. Speaking of which, I would highlight our successful cooperation in the new fight against the coronavirus pandemic. I would like to emphasize that Hungary was the first and so far, the only EU country to have authorized the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and to have purchased a significant amount of it. The possibility of manufacturing it in Hungary is currently being inspected. Therefore, overall, we can assert that Russian-Hungarian economic relations are quite promising. The same conclusion can be reached for the favorable dynamics of bilateral trade in goods, as the turnover between January and May 2021 was about 35 percent higher than in the same period of the previous year.

– Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán last held discussions in person in Budapest 2019. The Hungarian Prime Minister’s trip to Moscow was cancelled due to the pandemic. When can the next summit be expected? 
– Despite the eagerness of both sides to continue regular, personal summits, the leaders of our countries are forced to reckon with the risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic. We assume that the direct dialogue between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will be resumed once the public health and epidemiological situation has stabilized.

– Several European countries are extremely distrustful of Russia. Criticism of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline goes as follows: Europe will be even more vulnerable to Russia. What will it take to restore trust? 

– We consider the Nord Stream 2 construction project purely business and a mutually beneficial project. Allegations that the pipeline will increase European dependence on Russian gas supplies are unfounded. In our opinion, it is much more appropriate to talk of it as positive interdependence since Russia is also interested in Europeans buying their products and certain energy sources. The Nord Stream 2 will ensure further diversification of the gas supply routes without increasing their current volume. We can guarantee the shortest route for the stable supply of gas to European consumers which will also reduce the ecological footprint of transport. Additionally, we will continue to abide by our existing agreements regarding Russian gas supplies to Europe, with transit countries continuing to have to compete for the right to for the right to transit instead of dictating their own terms.

Consequently, strategically the Nord Stream 2 will strengthen Europe’s energy security for many decades to come. That is why the European countries interested in the project are clearly in favor of building the pipeline.

When it comes to trust, that is indeed a very complicated substance. It is well known that trust takes years to build but can be lost in the blink of an eye. If we are on the topic of energy, let me remind you that since the 1960s, we have never given any reason to doubt that we are reliable suppliers of hydrocarbon feedstock. Remember the frigid February and March of 2018 which went down in history as The Beast from the East. Who was the one to send urgent supplies of extra gas to Europe? As a matter of fact, our confidence in several of our European energy partners has been seriously shaken. In May 2019, the EU amended the so-called Gas Directive of the Third Energy Package specifically for Nord Stream 2. The amendments were adopted retroactively once the basic investments had been made. This dealt a serious blow to one of the principles of market conditions, the protection of the rights of bona fide investors. This obviously did not strengthen our confidence in the reliability of our partners.

It will take time to restore trust. The European Union could take the first constructive step by abandoning its attempts to politicize trade and economic cooperation with Russia.

In connection with this, Putin fittingly remarked at the online Davos Agenda 2021 conference in January this year: “Only one thing matters: we need to approach the dialogue with each other honestly. We need to discard the phobias of the past… and look to the future.” From our part, we are always open to constructive cooperation based on equality, mutual respect, and consideration of interests. The ball is in the court of our EU colleagues.

– Ukraine does not recognize neither the Hungarian nor the Russian minorities as indigenous peoples; both are restricted with the minority language and education laws. Do you see any possibility of this unfavorable situation changing? 

– The continuing decline of respect for fundamental human rights in Ukraine is a cause for concern. On July 21, Volodymyr Zelensky signed the discriminatory law on indigenous peoples of Ukraine, which, along with the laws on the state language and education, significantly undermines the interest of Russians, Hungarians and other peoples who have settled in Ukraine throughout history.

In essence, it is a matter of artificially dividing people into different categories of rights, which is very reminiscent of the theory and practice of Nazi Germany. It is completely unacceptable for Kiev to introduce a national ideology of intolerance in Ukraine that is primarily directed against Russians. 

I would like to remind you that in the beginning of August, Taras Kremen, the State Commissioner for the Protection of the State Language, advised that non-Ukrainian-speaking residents move out of the country. In an interview released on August 5, Volodymyr Zelensky advised the Russians to “travel and find a place in Russia for themselves.” We consider these statements incitements of ethnic conflict. In the European Union, Member States are subject to criminal liability for this. We have drawn attention to this issue at numerous specialized international organizations – the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, UNESCO. We will continue to try to ensure that Kiev fulfills its obligations to respect human rights, including the cultural and educational rights of national minorities.

It is important that the Ukrainian leadership also hears public criticism from European politicians. The so-called silent diplomacy that our western colleagues are so apt to refer to in the case of Ukraine, obviously does not work. 

Attempts by EU countries to agree sub rosa with Kiev to remove EU languages from the restrictions so that the bans only apply to Russian, is essentially doubly discriminating against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine when compared to the Ukrainian and EU language-speakers. Under the Ukrainian law on education, Russian-language schools were completely abolished on September 1, 2020. Children can only receive education in their mother tongue in the lower grades (1-4) but with compulsory, in-depth Ukrainian language studies. Nevertheless, students in the official languages of EU Member States were granted a postponement until 2023. The postponement was withdrawn from the Russian language learners. Another “exception” to total Ukrainianization was the right of the “indigenous peoples” of Ukraine to receive education in their own language, while Kiev only listed the Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks among the indigenous peoples. However, the number of these peoples living in Ukraine is quite representative: Crimean Tatars number around three thousand (out of 280 thousand), Karaites about four hundred (of 2 thousand) and Krymchaks about 120 (of 1.5 thousand). I would like to remind you that there are several million Russians living in Ukraine and the Russian language is spoken and used by the vast majority of the country’s population.

– Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden announced at their June Geneva talks that they do not want a new Cold War. Is the current security situation comparable to the icy atmosphere of the Cold War? 

– I do not think these kinds of historical parallels are necessarily appropriate. The current military-political situation in the world contains both similarities and significant differences in principle compared to the Cold War period. Either way, we have gotten far from the lowest point of Soviet-American confrontations, the 1962 Caribbean crisis, when we were literally on the verge of nuclear war. However, we cannot ignore the contradictions which are unfortunately deepening further between the most important global players. One reason for this is Washington’s decided aim to prevent Russian and Chinese development. Part of this policy is the unilateral dismantling of the system of arms control agreements and the expansion of US military capabilities on the European and Pacific battlefields.

Nevertheless, at the end of the meeting in Geneva, the Russian and American presidents adopted a joint statement reaffirming both sides’ adherence to the principle formulated 35 years ago: that a nuclear war can have no winner and should therefore never break out. 

On the American side this year, following the extension of START-3, this was the second step in restoring a responsible approach to addressing key aspects of international security. I would also consider encouraging the opening meeting of the Russian-American dialogue on strategic stability which was held in Geneva on July 28, as decided by the leaders. Discussions on cyber security must also be launched with a goal to establish system-wide cooperation to address common challenges. Among other things, the Russian President has made it clear to the public that we can achieve results on all these issues, as long as we hold negotiations and strike a balance of interests that satisfies both parties.

No matter what, we are realists and recognize that there is a bumpy road ahead to easing tensions. In contrast to the period of the Cold War, not nearly as much depends in this area on Russian-American agreements, but it is still important. 

The number of players and factors influencing the international security situation is now significantly higher. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia will continue to make a significant contribution to maintaining global stability by pursuing a responsible, pragmatic, and predictable foreign policy aimed at neutralizing general security threats and challenges, and creating favorable conditions for the peaceful development of all countries.

Zoltán Kottász