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Success in St. Petersburg: Top Hungarian diplomat says subsequent energy supply secured

Hungarian Foreign and Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto held a meeting with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller in St. Petersburg earlier this week. He sat down for an interview with TASS to share the details about the agreements that were reached, plans to launch the production of Sputnik V in Hungary, joint economic projects with Russia, and Budapest’s view on the situation in Afghanistan as well as other issues.

Q: My first question is going to be about COVID, if I may. More and more countries nowadays are announcing their COVID-19 revaccination programs, and the necessity of such campaigns seems inevitable in the foreseeable future. With that in mind, is Hungary planning to purchase extra doses of the Sputnik V and Sputnik Light jabs from Russia for revaccination needs?

A: We absolutely agree with those analyses which say that the more people got vaccinated the better we can protect ourselves from the fourth wave. So, it’s crucial that additional Hungarian people decide to receive the vaccine. Currently, there is 65% of the Hungarians who have already been vaccinated. And currently, the question is not whether we buy additional vaccines because we have enough, we have more than eight million doses of vaccines in the storage, and we have only around three and a half million people left who have not asked for the vaccine. So, currently we don’t have to think about buying, currently we have to think about how to convince the people to wish to get the vaccine. You know, for us it’s obvious that the number of the people getting the vaccine and the damages caused by the fourth [wave of the] pandemic are in a very strong interconnection with each other. The more people are vaccinated, the less damage the fourth wave can cause.

But in the long run, we are ready and eager to cooperate with the producer of Sputnik not only about buying the vaccine but about producing the vaccine in Hungary also. You know, we are now building our national facility to produce vaccines. The construction works will conclude in a way that the factory is going to be operational by the end of next year, 2022. And we have already been negotiating about the production of Sputnik in Hungary. According to the current stage of negotiations, technological transfer can take place already this year. And by the end of next year, when the factory is ready, we can start the production. 

Q: Regarding these inoculation drives, would Hungary be eager to buy extra doses of Sputnik for revaccination?

A: If we are out from the current, let’s say, storage facilities which is once again eight million doses, then we would definitely be ready to negotiate because Sputnik performs very good data in Hungary. We have vaccinated almost one million Hungarian people and our experience and the data showing the post-vaccination incidence is very favorable from the perspective of Sputnik. So, once we are out of our storages, we definitely would be ready and happy but currently it is not on the agenda because of the number of vaccines at the disposal already.

Q: Hungary intends to launch the production of Sputnik V in 2022. How much of the Russian inoculation is going to be manufactured in Debrecen? Would there be any possible delays here bearing in mind that there are also plans to begin the production of Chinese and Hungarian vaccines?

A: Look, there are currently three projects in the pipeline, let’s put it this way. First, our own national development or our own national project to develop a vaccine against COVID on the national basis. This is moving forward, but we cannot tell when we would be ready to produce our own vaccine because we are currently at the stage of trials and testing which does not allow us to put together a very clear timetable or schedule. So, we are not there yet. When it comes to Sputnik and Sinopharm, that can go parallelly, so that’s just a matter of capacity of production. And our understanding is that since COVID is going to be part of our life, unfortunately, it’s going to be one another virus against which we have to protect ourselves, the need and demand for vaccines is going to be there. And the Director General of WHO, Professor Tedros Ghebreyesus, made it very clear that the protection of the global population is a matter of production, a matter of capacity. So, what we understand is that from the humanitarian perspective and from the economic perspective as well, having such a capacity is going to be favorable and the more capacity we have to produce is the better because there’s definitely going to be a market for these products, unfortunately, in the future. So, negotiating with Sinopharm does not impact the schedule of producing Sputnik in Hungary negatively, absolutely not.

Q: The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has still not recognized Sputnik V. Does Budapest feel any pressure from Brussels due to the fact that the Russian medication is widely used in Hungary and plans for producing Sputnik V in your country have already been announced?

A: Look, since last October, the first time I negotiated about buying Sputnik V from Russia was October 30, 2020, so from that very day since it was obvious that we were looking for other options than just waiting for the European public procurement, we had been under enormous attacks. Enormous political attacks, enormous media attacks. But for us the major issue was only one thing - to protect lives of the Hungarian people. And we trust our national virology experts more than leftist politicians or mainstream media and journalists. We think that virology should be left to the virologists. And the Hungarian experts have completed a very thorough and very long procedure at the end of which Sputnik V was authorized in Hungary. That’s very important that according to the European Union regulation, there are two ways how a vaccination can be approved in the EU. First, by an ordinary procedure conducted by EMA. But there is a second option as well. The second option says that in case of emergency, which is definitely the case, the national regulator can authorize vaccines on an emergency basis as well. That’s what we have done in Hungary. So, the fact that Sputnik has been approved in Hungary is based on the European regulated procedure.

That’s why not allowing, for example, Hungarians who have been vaccinated by Sputnik to travel as freely as those who have been vaccinated by vaccines approved by EMA is a politically motivated decision. Because if this issue had been considered on a professional basis, there should be no problem. The fact is that the European Commission and some Western European governments and the international liberal mainstream media made a huge ideological and geopolitical issue out of vaccines. This is what we totally reject because for us vaccines are matters of saving lives of the people. And since we were able to buy Sputnik we have ensured the life and the health of one million Hungarians. What I hope is that the procedure of WHO should be concluded sometimes, of course, I can’t say when but hopefully soon. You know, it was really telling, it was real evidence that the EU and the European Commission still consider the issue of vaccines as a matter of ideology that even after WHO had approved Sinopharm, which is a global approval, even Sinopharm is not being considered in many countries on the same level as those vaccines which are approved by EMA.

If you put this forward, WHO gives wider coverage than EMA.

Q: Let’s talk about tourism. Vaccinated tourists from Russia can now enter Hungary without restrictions on arrival. How many Russian tourists have already visited Hungary this summer and do you have any plans to increase the number of flights between the two countries?

A: Unfortunately, tourism is among those couple of sectors which are hit the most. In our case, tourism represents around 11% percent of the national GDP. And of course, in the countryside domestic tourism could replace the loss, which was caused by the pandemic to a tangible extent. But when it comes to Budapest, 90% of tourism in Budapest is foreign tourism. Of course, five-star plus hotels, those services which have been developed are mostly targeting the foreigners. That’s why Budapest has really been hit very heavily. That’s why since we do believe that we have to find a consensus on saying that who has already been vaccinated is protected and so should get back his or her former life. That’s why we try to make agreements with countries on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates and allowing our citizens to travel there and back freely without restrictions in case the one has already been vaccinated.

We could make an agreement that both of us, both Russia and Hungary, give the biggest possible priority or the biggest possible favorability for the citizens of the other country according to our national regulation. In case of Russia’s national regulation, the biggest favorability is that if you have a negative PCR test, you can enter Russia. This is what we have been awarded by Russia. Our highest level is saying that those who have been vaccinated can enter the country. We will expect Russian tourists to come. We only had a couple thousands, unfortunately, because no one was prepared, it’s the end of summer and so on and so forth. But we count on the number to increase. Based on that, we increase the frequency of flights between Moscow and Budapest operated by Wizz Air, which is the Hungarian carrier, from four to seven a week. And we launch flights between Yekaterinburg and Budapest also once a week. And we relaunch the flight between Kazan and Budapest. And we also relaunch the flight between St. Petersburg and Budapest. So now basically there are four Russian major cities from which you can access Budapest non-stop and the frequency is increasing.

The most important for us was that we can increase the number of flights on a weekly basis from four to seven between Moscow and Budapest operated by Wizz Air. Additionally to that we have Aeroflot. So, I think the connectivity got back to the former level, so it’s relatively comfortable how you can travel there and back. And now we already have restarted issuing tourist visas for Russian citizens. And the consulate of the Russian Embassy in Budapest has already started to issue tourist visas for Hungarians to Russia. So, we have restarted, it has to pick up, of course, but with some promotion I think it’s possible.

Q: What are the chances of Russian tourists coming to Hungary during the Christmas holidays?

A: I understand that our regime is very favorable for the Russians. I mean once you are vaccinated you just submit your request for visa and come. And I understand that among European countries we are very unique in this regard. So, the most comfortable way to travel to a European country is the one to travel to Hungary.

We will promote this opportunity among Russians, we will have a promotion in order to make Russian people aware of this possibility.

Q: So, Christmas is possible?

A: I must hope! As usual, Christmas is a hope usually. And now it’s a hope from the perspective of Russian tourists coming to Budapest also.

Q: At last week’s press conference in Budapest, you mentioned the meeting with Gazprom in St. Petersburg about the new agreement on gas supplies. I’d like to ask you about the outcome of these talks, what deals have been reached? Is the Hungarian side satisfied with these negotiations? And what are the terms of these agreements?

A: Mr. Miller said at the beginning of the meeting that it was historic, and I agree with him because our long-term gas supply which was signed in 1995, meaning 26 years ago, expires this time. So, after 26 years, it is a new historical occasion to sign a new long-term gas agreement. My or our goal was to agree on all details of the contract today and the only thing which should be left now is to put it on paper and we make it. So, I have agreed on all terms with CEO Alexei Miller. I am grateful to him because he has already been a fair and correct partner for me. I can say that it’s not easy to agree on anything with Gazprom, which is natural, it is not easy to agree with us either. But so far what I have agreed upon with Mr. Miller in the last let’s say seven years since I have taken office was always kept by him, 200%, I have to say this. So that’s why I can say it very comfortably that since we have agreed today on everything, we’ve looked into the eyes of each other, we shook hands, I can say that the only thing is to put it on paper.

According to our common agreement, the contract will be finalized and signed in September. And then we have a new long-term agreement for fifteen years, this is a ten-plus-five-year agreement, meaning that we buy 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas on an annual basis and after ten years there’s an option for us to decrease the volume because you know we don’t know how the market of energy will evolve, renewables and so on. It’s flexible from this perspective, the price we have agreed upon is much more favorable than the price which has been enshrined in the agreement that expires now, much more favorable. It makes possible for us, Hungarians, to keep the lowest level of utility costs for the people in Hungary in the entire European Union, it was very important for me. We have agreed that we buy this gas in two directions, so diversification of routes is also being enshrined in the agreement. So, from the western direction through Austria and from the southern direction through Serbia. This is a new transit route. This is going to be operational from October 1, that is when we finish our infrastructure that connects the Serbia-Hungary border with our national system. So, from October 1, this new route is going to be operational and through these two routes we buy 4.5 billion cubic meters on an annual basis for ten plus five years on a price which is much more favorable than the one which is enshrined in the current agreement. So, I think the mission is completed in this regard and the safety of energy supply of our country is given for the next period and we had a very positive experience on the cooperation between Gazprom and Hungary, Russia and Hungary.

Q: During his visit to Austria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Vienna send a delegation to Crimea so that Austrian representatives could evaluate the situation on the ground and see what’s going on there with their own eyes. Did he also suggest that Hungary should send a delegation to Crimea during his visit to Budapest? What would Hungary’s response be, if it received this sort of proposal?

A: No, this was not on the agenda. We have not spoken about that issue. We know the positions of each other. That’s what we have fixed.

Q: With that in mind, how would you describe or evaluate the Kiev-run ‘Crimea Platform’ where the President of Hungary took part? Mr. Janos Ader himself, for instance, spoke at the ‘Crimea Platform’ about the rights of Hungarian-speaking citizens being violated in Ukraine.

A: Look, we have a national position in this regard. So, regardless of any kind of pressure which comes from outside we have a national position. Our national position is the following. First of all, we stand up for the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine. Second, we do not believe that the conflict on the eastern side of Ukraine could be an excuse for state authorities in Ukraine to violate the rights of the Hungarians. So, we stick to the protection or stick to the respect towards the rights of our national minority in Ukraine. Our national minority is clearly an indigenous minority in Ukraine since our communities have been living there for centuries. So, they are not migrants, they have always lived there. So, that’s why we cannot accept any kind of violation of their rights.

Now, since 2017, unfortunately, we are in a negative spiral in this regard. We continue the discussion with the Ukrainian authorities. And we will always continue it because I think discussion must be there because if we don’t have dialogue we don’t have hope. But still, those rights which were given to the Hungarians before 2017 are not given back. That’s the case. But I always tell our Russian colleagues that this position of ours regarding the national minorities has nothing to do with our relationship with Russia. Because what is usually said there is this position of ours regarding the minority in Ukraine pleases Russia. I say, I don’t care. Because the reason why I protect the rights of Hungarians in Ukraine has no Russian aspect. This is a very complicated picture.

Q: At the joint press conference, Foreign Minister Lavrov invited you to visit Moscow in order to continue the “friendly and beneficial” bilateral dialogue in Russia. Are you working on organizing such a visit now and when could it be expected?

A: Sure, I mean to be honest there’s nothing special here because we have a continuous exchange. And Sergey did not come since 2019 unfortunately to Budapest, 2019 was the last occasion he came. But this was because of the pandemic, obviously. So, I was coming in 2020 more than usual because it was easier this way that I came. Of course, I am happy to come in the second part of the year and I will come because I am the co-chair of the Russia-Hungary joint economic commission as well. And our last session took place in Budapest in November last year. By the way, that was the best possible timing and the best possible landscape of leaders because your minister of healthcare, Mr. Murashko, is the co-chair from the Russian side which is a great luck from the perspective of Hungary obviously because in the framework of the joint economic commission I could negotiate about the most important issue with him, which was the vaccine, no question. So, the basics of our agreement were laid down on that negotiation in November when he came to Budapest and on the negotiations I had with Denis Manturov. I have to tell you that we, Hungarians, should be personally thankful to him because if it had not been him to supervise the production of vaccine and operation of the RDIF I am not pretty sure we would have been able to make the contract and we would have received everything on time.

So, his personal contribution and the personal contribution of the three ministers of your government, Mr. Murashko, Mr. Manturov and Mr. Lavrov, was inevitable from this perspective. And that’s why based on the initiative of our government Our president has awarded the three of them with a very high-ranking award, one of which I already handed to Minister Manturov in Yekaterinburg. And on the next occasion I am coming to Moscow I will hand over the awards to Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Murashko also. But since we will have the joint economic commission to take place in Moscow in the second half of the year but Sergey asked me that once we had the date for the joint economic commission I have to let him know immediately in order to plan the foreign ministerial visit also at that time. So, it’s obvious but I was here in Moscow already in 2021 also visiting Sergey so it’s pretty frequent and I am thankful for that. I mean, there’s nothing more important in international diplomacy than constant dialogue but in order to have the constant dialogue by definition you need at least two parties. On your own you can’t make dialogue, at least normally. So that’s why I was always thankful to Sergey that he was always ready for such a dialogue. You see, there’s a very wide range of areas where cooperation is very important for us, and I guess for Russia as well. This continuous dialogue is crucial.

Q: On August 26, Hungary announced that it had completed its campaign to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan. As a member of NATO, how would Hungary evaluate the outcome of the West’s 20-year campaign in Afghanistan?

A: We have been there for 20 years. We sacrificed people and sacrificed a lot of money and we are where we were 20 years ago, the Taliban (outlawed in Russia - TASS) is back. So, once everybody within the alliance is finished with the evacuation and once we have the time finally to look into this issue honestly without any kind of exaggeration and any kind of imbalance, we have to look into it how these things could happen in this way. And we have to draw the conclusions, of course, because we might have another mission sometimes in the future on a similar issue. Don’t commit the same mistakes as we have committed. Because we had a plan, an idea that our presence will change Afghanistan in a way that it’s going to be a country free of terrorism and free of the Taliban, whatever. But this is a total failure and we need an honest assessment about it. And I hope that all parties within the alliance will be ready to make such an analysis because if you don’t make such an analysis then there will be a chance that we will commit the same kind of mistake in the future, which shouldn’t be the case.

Q: Is Budapest ready to recognize the Taliban as the new official government in Kabul?

A: Well, this has not been on the agenda yet. We have to see how things are going on there. Obviously, things happened in a much quicker manner than they should have or than everybody would have expected. So, we have not thought about the issue of what comes after yet because we have to evacuate and take care of the people. When we have evacuated, let’s see where the developments go. First, we definitely have to address this issue within NATO and we have to speak about which way to go forward because we were there for 20 years, things have failed, went another direction. So, I think it would be important to at least make an attempt to make a common NATO position on that.

Q: In addition, is Hungary ready to accept refugees from Afghanistan? And if so, how many?

A: We have evacuated those who have worked together with our troops, with our military contingent in Afghanistan and we are not ready to receive anybody else. We made it very clear at the very beginning that those whose lives are in danger because of working for us, it’s obvious that it’s our moral duty, our obligation to evacuate them. And we have done that. But we are not ready to take part in any kind of system of distribution or any kind of quotas, nothing. If we did so, then we would contribute to a situation similar to 2015. And in 2015, the EU had to face its most serious challenge ever with the massive influx of illegal migration. Those statements which say that all Afghans who would like to leave, let’s leave, are very dangerous and very irresponsible. Because if you look at the map then if the Afghans leave the first country which might stop them would be Turkey. But they are also under enormous pressure by those millions and millions of migrants who have already been on their territory. From Turkey, the Western Balkans are very close and with one step you are at the southern border of Hungary. So, we would like to avoid such kinds of situation.

Those statements that encourage Afghans to leave Afghanistan are very dangerous and irresponsible. We are not ready to take part in any kind of distribution mechanisms for sure.

Q: What is Hungary’s assessment of the opportunities for the Paks-II Nuclear Power Plant development project?

A: It’s extremely important for us because we do believe that nuclear energy is clean, safe and cheap and this project contributes to restore the achievements of our utility cost reduction policy. It contributes to the economic growth in the future because it offers cheap and sustainable energy. And it contributes to reaching our climate goals because it’s clean. So, that’s why for us this project is one of the highest priorities on our economic development agenda for the next years. So far, the groundworks have already been started. Most of the permissions have already been given. Now, we wait for the last one which is the establishment permit. Once it has been given, it is under process, once it is already given I think it is realistic to conclude the investment by the end of the decade. That would increase the share of nuclear regarding the electricity consumption in the country above 70%. That will put us in a position that we would be a kind of a distribution hub of electricity in the region.

Q: So, it’s expected by the end of the decade?

A: Yeah, that must be the case, 2029. I mean commercial use.

Q: Could you please brief on the current state of implementation concerning the Russian-Hungarian project on railway cars production for Egypt?

A: It’s our common project, let’s put it this way to be on the safe side. We have worked on a lot of this with Minister Manturov because it was not easy to come to this agreement for many reasons, it was big, one billion euros. We had to make a contract which was favorable enough for Egypt to enter into it. We had to make a contract which is favorable for us, which is sustainable and financial. So, that’s why it was important that the cooperation of the Hungarian Eximbank and the Russian Eximbank allowed us to make this contract, one billion euros. 447 carriages have already been delivered out of the 1,000, 1,300 is the total volume. 447 have already been delivered, 45 out of which have been produced in Hungary. You know, it will be half-half so the Hungarian content is 50%, that was a precondition. And now what we are negotiating about it is extending this cooperation with Egypt because their national railway company has been looking for 200 sleeping carriages. So, that would be another dimension because now we are building normal second and third-plus passenger seating carriages and, you know, producing sleeping carriages is different, it’s a much more sophisticated process. And now we are working on a good offer which would satisfy the wish of the Egyptians that some localization of the production would take place in Egypt as well. So, we are working on the extension of this trilateral agreement. You know, this project about these 1,000 carriages is the biggest order the Hungarian industry has ever received in this sector. It’s incredibly important for us.

Q: When do you plan to finalize this extension?

A: When I would like to do it? Today. But since we have to make an agreement, we have to sell it to the Egyptians. It is basically up to them when they are ready to do so. So, it’s not going to be short because first we need to deliver more than 500 carriages, so step by step. It will definitely take a couple of months to come to an agreement. If I look back at the ongoing agreement, the common declaration that we would like to do it was signed in 2015 with Egypt. And we finalized the contract in 2020. So, it’s time consuming, you have to be patient.

Interviewed by Alexandra Podervyanskaya