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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Andras BARSONY: “Meeting EU membership criteria is more important than making political declarations”

27 March, 2007 - 00:00

Last year Hungary had its own “tapegate.” There were mass public protests, and many people predicted a revolution. Budapest recently saw another protest march, and the prime minister was showered with eggs.

Is a colored revolution, like those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, possible in Hungary? Why does Hungary prize NATO membership? These and other questions are answered in The Day ’s interview with Andras BARSONY, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Hungary to Ukraine.


The latest opinion polls in Hungary show that a growing number of Hungarians are dissatisfied with the transformations that have taken place since 1989. What is behind this discontent and can it lead to a revolution similar to ones that took place in Ukraine and Georgia, especially since there have been so many demonstrations in your country in the past six months?

“I think a revolution within the framework of democracy is philosophically impossible. We should admit that there has really been stratification in Hungarian society over the past 15-17 years. One part of the population lives better and believes that life is good. The other part is experiencing severe difficulties and thinks that living standards are low. But the cause should be sought in economic and social conditions rather than politics. I think about 30 or 35 percent of Hungarians do not have the possibilities that other citizens do. This primarily applies to the older generation that in both our country and yours was not prepared for changes. These people do not work in professions that are in demand today.

“Another aspect of democracy should also be taken into account. The election defeat of a political force creates a situation where this force and a proportion of the population consider themselves the opposition. In a democracy, this force has the right and the opportunity to organize itself for the next elections and win them or, at least, to take a better position. Our conditions differ a lot from the ones that existed in Ukraine.”

So, in your view, there is no threat of revolution?

“No. Demonstrations are not a revolution. Hungary’s current problems are typical of other countries. Like other countries, we have social and civic groups that do not like the democratic system. If you look at traditional Western democracies, you will see that the situation there can very easily change and resemble the one in our country. Other countries also had such problems. I believe this is a normal part of the democratic lifestyle.”


Let’s go back to Ukraine, where there is a struggle for power between the president and the prime minister. The opposition is submitting demands to the ruling coalition, which ignores them. What do you think of all this? Is this democracy or a sign that the coalition has usurped power?

“All that was going on in Ukraine, and still is, is part of democracy. Your current problems are a bit like Hungary’s. Just like in our country, the opposition derives no pleasure from being in the opposition.

“So it wants to fight by any means that it deems democratic. At the same time, there are differences between the two countries as far as constitutional reform is concerned. It was clear in Hungary from the very beginning that we had opted for the parliamentary system. In Ukraine, though, this has been one of the most controversial issues since the early 1990s. Naturally, it has not been 100-percent solved.

“There were presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Like it or not, it is the majority that rules the roost in a democracy. But how it is formed is a totally different question. Your country has a parliamentary majority. Opinion polls confirm that the political lineup in the Verkhovna Rada is practically the same as it was during the parliamentary elections.

So the current majority is going to set the tone until the next elections, no matter if somebody likes it or not. But constitutional changes are an entirely different thing because this requires an even broader majority in parliament.”

Is what is now going on in Ukraine — the defection of MPs to other factions (whether for money or not is another question) — also typical of Hungary? All this is taking place to the accompaniment of claims by the ruling coalition leaders that they will soon secure 300 votes.

“We were close to this kind of situation 10 years ago. I think these things sometimes happen in young democracies. There were such things in Poland and other newly democratic countries. There is talk here in Ukraine about MPs being bribed. I think it is possible, but nobody knows for sure. I’d like to remind you that something similar occurred in West Germany in the 1970s, when the Liberals defected from the Social Democrats to the Christian Democrats, and then Helmut Kohl became chancellor. But what is going on behind the scenes and who knows about this is a different thing.”


Considering that we are a young democracy, will a speedy and unregulated transformation of the coalition and hasty changes to the Constitution and our form of government represent a danger to the democratic system of Ukraine? Is it better to carry out such radical changes via a referendum?

“We have a law on referendums, which says that only simple questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer can be put to a referendum. Holding a referendum on the Constitution is a difficult matter, because this document consists of several hundred articles. So it is impossible to just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ In our country the law states that changes to the Constitution are the prerogative of parliament. Moreover, the decision- making majority is 67 percent. Therefore, I think that those who want a referendum on the Constituion are playing with people and rules. Incidentally, 90 percent of citizens do not even know how many articles there are in the Constitution.”

Could there be a referendum on NATO? Is this a simpler issue?

“That is a different issue. We held a NATO referendum, although the Constitution does not call for one. At the time, our government decided it would be better to hold one. The question was very simple: are you for or against Hungary joining NATO? Eighty-five percent of Hungarians voted for NATO membership.”


Taking into account Hungary’s experience of joining NATO, can you say how much this benefited Hungary? Why do you think most Ukrainians don’t see the benefits joining NATO?”

“In the late 1980s we had an army of almost 120,000-130,000 soldiers. Today there are no more than 30,000. All NATO members have rights and equitably distributed joint duties. As far as I know, you had a huge army in the early 1990s. It takes a pretty penny to modernize one. Besides, this creates enormous social problems for those who retire or are demobilized. Cooperation within the alliance framework was a great help in solving these problems. I think this will also help Ukraine a lot. Another question is whether we need an army armed to the teeth. In the framework of the alliance, I don’t think we do. If we wanted to ensure defense by ourselves, we would have to re-form many of the units that no longer exist in the Hungarian army. I think Ukraine faces the same problem.”

Do you agree with Moscow that NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders is a threat to that country? How does NATO enlargement threaten Russia?

“When Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, this fear could be discussed and even taken into consideration. But today’s Russia is no longer the Soviet Union in terms of not only size but also philosophy. Russia cooperates with NATO, and I think it even tackles many common problems with the alliance, such as combating terrorism and defending the continent. Cooperation between Russia and NATO is a reality, not just a political slogan. So I think nothing bad happened when the three Baltic states became NATO members. Their accession to NATO does not pose even the slightest threat to Russia. If Ukraine joined NATO, it would not be dangerous for Russia. But, naturally, this depends on the people and the political will of Ukraine.”

Another factor that has brought about a face-off between Russia and the West in the last while is the projected deployment of US anti-missile defense elements in Europe, including Poland and the Czech Republic. If the question came up to station some US air defense installations on Hungarian territory, would your prime minister give a positive answer or follow the example of the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who said that Slovakia would never allow the deployment of US anti-missile defense elements?

“I will be able to give an answer when this question is raised. It has not been raised in my country yet. But NATO decided that a radar system will be installed in Hungary. The radar being installed in the Czech Republic performs other functions. I think it goes without saying that if a country has been admitted to this organization, it has not only rights but also duties.”


Let’s talk about Ukraine’s integration with the EU. You must have noticed that last year Ukrainian diplomats insisted to their European Union counterparts that the future Ukraine-EU agreement should include the prospect of membership. Now the European Union is hearing the same thing from Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Do you think Ukraine really has the right to insist that the EU include this prospect in the new agreement?

“The Amsterdam Treaty states clearly that any European country is eligible for EU membership. Naturally, there are membership conditions. I think that as long as the Amsterdam Treaty is about European countries, and Ukraine is a European country, this document does provide a guarantee. On our part, we will not oppose the inclusion of the prospect of Ukraine’s EU membership in the new agreement. Of course, dates of accession are a totally different thing. In this case all the countries were and still are subject to very strenuous conditions, known as the Copenhagen Criteria, in the sphere of law, the economy, and politics. It is now a question of complying with these conditions. I think it will be good if this document makes some reference to the Amsterdam Treaty.”

If the item about the prospect is not included, can this affect, i.e., slow down, Ukraine’s integration into the EU?

“I don’t think so. When we began cooperating with the European Union, no documents mentioned the prospect of Hungary’s EU membership. At the time it was not so important for us that it be written down word for word. If this is important for Ukraine, I think we will come to terms. This will not present any difficulty for us. The real difficulty lies in meeting the criteria. It will be good if they are met. The same problems exist in Turkey and other countries that have EU membership prospects. But meeting the criteria is more important than making political declarations.”


Do you think there is a risk that Ukraine’s current cabinet and coalition will make a U-turn towards the Single Economic Space?

“When we embarked on the road to the European Union, we knew only too well that modernization, transformation, and reforms were a must for us — not because we were eager to join the EU but because we wanted to see a modern, competitive Hungary. I believe this is also important for Ukraine. Becoming an EU member sooner or later is not as important as building a new modern Ukraine for the Ukrainian people. Membership can be a mere formality. So it is very important to build a new Ukraine that will offer the same conditions to the Ukrainians as France did to the French. So I think that no matter what government is in power, it will share these goals. Therefore, the people and the government are fundamentally interested in this.”

Can your country help Ukraine integrate into the Euro-Atlantic system?

“There are a lot of opportunities here. We have both positive and negative experience that we have gained over the past 17 years or so. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany told Messrs. Yanukovych and Yushchenko that Hungary’s extensive experience is open to Ukraine, like a file. We have no right to teach anybody, but our moral duty is to help others and, above all, Ukraine. Both the Ukrainian people and the government can take advantage of this experience. We will show that we have the proper methods, both Hungarian and European. Naturally, it is up to Ukraine to decide which experience and methods it wants to use.”


Hungary’s prime minister said recently that his cabinet supports the Russian and European gas pipeline projects. Is this a contradiction or a manifestation of Hungary’s pragmatic policy?

“There are no contradictions here. We don’t think we are still living in a system where it used to be thought that if one side wins, we don’t need the other one. We think differently now: if we want to win, we will win for ourselves, not against somebody. We believe that we should consider all likely partners. It is the duty of our government to find such partners. We maintain very positive trade relations not only with Ukraine but also Russia. I can say it is of tremendous interest not only to us but also Ukraine. Positive cooperation between Hungary and Russia is very useful for Ukraine. There is no contradiction here. The point is I have never seen a chair with only one leg.”


Speaking of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations, are they also assuming a pragmatic nature? This conclusion can be drawn, for example, from the fact that Ukraine wants to up the price for electric power being supplied to Hungary.

“We maintain a very positive kind of electric power cooperation with Ukraine. We no longer use so- called ‘friendly’ prices. The Republic of Hungary is very well aware of what it is to be a player on the international market, when prices are the same for us and our partners. Nobody likes it, of course, when prices go up. Still, when they correspond to the world level, it is normal, especially when competition ensures equal, clear, and open conditions for everyone.”

Does Hungary view the fact that Ukrainian business is purchasing Hungarian enterprises as a risk?

“We live in conditions where not only does foreign capital come to us but our capital also goes abroad. What does this mean? We consider it normal that Ukrainian firms purchased Dunaujvaros, one of Hungary’s largest industrial companies. Why not, if they brought money and bought the business at a normal, not the so-called ‘friendly,’ price? Moreover, the plant should work according to European Union rules. The Ukrainian investors are aware of this and are working accordingly. I think this kind of cooperation is very beneficial both for us and for you. We regard this as quite a pragmatic, rather than political, matter. Of course, speaking of Hungarian interests, 90 percent of our economy is in private hands. So, all that the state should do is ensure market-oriented conditions. The state does not engage in business; that is the preserve of players. This is what we call a pure pragmatic policy, not a political issue.”

How does Hungarian business feel in Ukraine? Has the investment climate in Ukraine improved?

“Judging by statistics, not only are trade relations developing but capital is also giving positive signals. Naturally, sometimes there are problems in the details. In some cases the conditions are not as transparent as, for example, in France or Germany. But we had the same problems 10 to 15 years ago. This is why our businessmen are more tolerant than their Western counterparts. They understand that Ukraine is developing, and there is also the factor of time. So impatience is out of place here. Of course, legislation is a crucial problem in Ukraine. But in most cases Hungarian businessmen have a positive experience of working in Ukraine. For instance, our largest bank, OTR, is already operating here, and I think it is functioning very well.”


The media are reporting that Hungarian diplomats and soldiers will take part in settling the Transdnistrian conflict. Is your country really determined to play a great role as an intermediary in resolving this conflict?

“There are not only opportunities but also duties, as far as the common European Neighborhood Policy is concerned. Obviously, experienced countries are more active. Naturally, we have a better knowledge of the neighboring territories than, say, the Portuguese or Spanish. So Hungary is participating in European Union-sponsored cooperation. An experienced Hungarian general, Ferenc Banfi, is leading the EUBAM mission, which is working very successfully. In all likelihood, both Ukraine and Moldova want to continue cooperating with this mission. We can help resolve the Transdnistrian conflict, which is a problem not only for Moldova but also for the people of Transdnistria. Ukraine and Russia also take a dim view of this conflict.”

Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

“Up to now the international impact on this conflict has been negligible. I think none of the participants has made an all-out effort to resolve the Transdnistrian conflict. Why? This was a lawless territory with a market that flouted international rules of the game. The interests of money-laundering groups were concentrated there. But, after all, I think that sooner or later all the players will want to find a solution to this problem. This cannot continue indefinitely.”


I know that you often visit Ukrainian regions with Hungarian minorities. What do you think of the way Ukraine recognizes the rights of Hungarians living in our country?

“The socioeconomic situation in Transcarpathian oblast used to be far worse than in other parts of Ukraine. I think that conditions for the Hungarian minority are improving. I can say the economy is developing here thanks to tremendous interest not only from our country but also Slovakia and Romania. Fundamental problems are now being addressed, as well as the question of instruction in Hungarian. The opening of a school in the presence of Gyurcsany and Yushchenko was a positive signal. It would be correct to say that a lot of plans are being fulfilled in Transcarpathia. There are still problems, like anywhere else in Ukraine, but the trend is positive. We, as well as some Hungarian organizations, maintain very good relations with the local authorities.”

On Jan. 1, 2008, Hungary will join the Schengen Agreement. How will this affect the existing visa regime between our countries? Will this complicate the movement of Ukrainian citizens across the Hungarian border?

“There is a bilateral treaty between our countries, which will remain valid within the Schengen framework after Hungary joins. If somebody declares that they are going only to Hungary, he or she will be eligible for a free national Hungarian visa. Even today our visa requirements are almost the same as the future regime. Hungary’s admission to the Schengen zone will not make it more difficult for Ukrainians to get a visa. All the conditions will gradually become the same as in other Schengen countries.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day