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INTERVIEW WITH THE JÁNOS ÁDER PRESIDENT OF HUNGARY

“I took on the representation of Hungarian interests and values”

CSERMELY PÉTER–VILLÁNYI KÁROLY
2022.05.10. 23:28 2022.05.10. 23:47
“I took on the representation of Hungarian interests and values”

After two five-year cycles, Hungarian President János Áder, will finish his term on May 9th and sat down to speak with Magyar Nemzet. The President will be leaving the Sándor Palace with peace of mind as he believes that he fulfilled his commitments. János Áder discussed his future plans, the war, the pandemic, baseless attacks from the opposition, his discussions with the Holy Father, one of his most difficult speeches, and the Hungarian fish soup that he cooked for the members of the Hungarian mission to Afghanistan.

The history of mankind is constantly plagued with famines, epidemics, and wars. During your presidency, two of these phenomena hit Hungary. First the coronavirus, and now the war. Is there any way to prepare for these situations?

The outbreak of the pandemic was a surprise for everyone; however, scientists have already warned us that our current lifestyle – daily overconsumption colonizing the environment – can lead to pandemics. Habitats of so-called pathogens are getting increasingly smaller and this can then lead to new infections through domestic and wild animals. Many are saying that this current pandemic is just the introduction to what awaits us in the upcoming decades if we do not make a change to our lifestyles. I truly hope they are wrong. Coming back to the current pandemic: there was no way to prepare for the coronavirus. The initial shock was so distinctive because we did not have the protective materials we needed. Just remember: there were not enough masks, not enough ventilators. It took a while to develop the vaccine. If you compare how many people were infected on a daily basis in the first wave – and the restrictions that lead to – and the numbers today, there are many more daily infections now than then. Yet we barely have any restrictions now. We have acclimated to the virus, spiritually as well, and also have vaccines and immunity to protect us.

The effects of the pandemic will be with us for a long time though – for example post-Covid and the economic downturn.

Indeed, almost everyone has a family member still dealing with the long-term effects of the virus. You can read many analyses on the negative impacts of the pandemic on the Hungarian, European, and global economies. What is more, as soon as things started getting back to normal – Hungary was delivering very promising results – the Russian invasion was launched and war broke out.

How did you find out about the outbreak of war and what are your views on it?

I got a phone call – but in the age of the internet this does not really matter because everyone finds out about everything at the same time, political leaders and internet-users alike. Every war involves horrors and a lot of suffering; millions of refugees have left Ukraine, many of them have left their homeland for the long-term. Hungary’s perspective has been clear since the beginning: we consider this an act of aggression and we will fulfill our obligations as an ally, as a NATO member. Any news that reports otherwise is not a reflection of reality. As a neighboring country with a significant national minority living in the war-torn area, it is in our interest to reach peace as soon as possible, or at least a ceasefire. We must try to help this along with every diplomatic tool possible. Of course, we know the room for manoeuvre of Hungarian diplomacy along with the fact that without the United States, the big EU countries – Germany, France and Poland – we cannot establish lasting peace.

After decades in the front lines of politics, you have had to continuously prove that, despite the opposition, you represent all Hungarians at the highest level of government. The left’s position was quite simple: if you do not act as the opposition dictates, then you are nothing more than a government agent. Ten years is a long time – what did you think of this?

Every profession, including politics, comes with its own difficulties. Many times, you feel that your work is being criticized even though you are working to the best of your knowledge in accordance with constitutional rules. If you cannot get used to this, then you will probably give up on this profession. Blasphemy and unwarranted attacks never feel good. But a politician must focus on whether the decision they made was humanly, morally, and legally correct. When I was elected in 2012, I emphasized in my speech to the Parliament that I am taking on the representation of Hungarian interests and values. Looking back at the past ten years, I can say with peace of mind that I fulfilled this commitment.

In your speech to Parliament ten years ago, you said: “If I receive 100 impeccable laws from Parliament, I will sign all 100. If I receive 100 bad or flawed laws, I will reject all 100.” How did the balance sheet turn out?

Though the numbers are telling, a presidential term cannot be evaluated based on that. I vetoed 37 laws accepted by the National Assembly: 28 in my first term and 9 in my second. Additionally, I turned to the Constitutional Court on eight occasions: 5 times between 2012 and 2017 and 3 times after 2017. And it should not go without mention that all this was alongside a government formed by the party alliance that nominated me.

Especially if, for instance, we note that Árpád Göncz turned to the Constitutional Court only seven times during the MDF government and once during the first Orbán government. During the Horn government, he did not turn to the Courts even once and only used his veto twice.

Everyone can make their own conclusions based on this. Instead, for me it is more important that the Constitutional Courts always found my observations well-founded. But if we are on the topic, there were multiple constitutional amendments in the past ten years. On each occasion, the opposition demanded that I not sign them and send it to the Constitutional Courts. However, if you read the basic law, then you will learn that in these cases, the President must sign legislation, otherwise he is violating the Constitution.

For a while now, ell-known left-wing jurists have been saying and researching how they would amend the Constitution with only a half majority (rather than two-thirds). Was it not important for you to speak out on this matter? After all, the referenced jurists along with the opposition politicians, were prepared to violate the law in an unprecedented manner.

These unconstitutional and politically dangerous aspirations are entirely unacceptable. I considered speaking out, but luckily others did so instead of me. The President of the Constitutional Court wrote an open letter where he clearly and precisely argued why this would be unacceptable. But several other representatives did so as well who do not belong to the governing party. For example, Péter Hack, former member of SZDSZ (The Alliance of Free Democrats) and the Constitutional Committee, also condemned these efforts, going one step further to say that if the opposition parties went through with this, then civil war conditions could break out. I believe that most of the legal community condemned these efforts so, as President, I did not have to get involved in this debate with jurists who seem to be forgetting some fundamentals of the profession. If the opposition would have won, and these efforts would actually stand a chance, then I would have had to act.

A topical question now: are there any plans to pardon György Budaházy who was recently sentenced to 17 years in prison by the municipal court of Budapest?

I have no such initiative before me and there will not be one. The regulations surrounding this are clear and unambiguous. There are two types of pardons: public and individual. In both cases, the Minister of Justice must first submit a proposal, which I have not received. If this does arrive, then my successor will be the one to decide.

During your ten years, how many individuals did you pardon?

I pardoned 120 people.

You always placed great emphasis on spiritual reconciliation: you regularly commemorated the victims of communism and the Holocaust, and after your inauguration, the Serbian head of state was your first guest in the Sándor Palace. Why were these gestures important to you?

My first foreign guest was the Serbian President at the time, Tomislav Nikolic. I offered that he come, namely to resolve an old debt: the painful chapter after World War Two. In 2013, as a result of the meeting and lengthy preparations and in the spirit of Serbian-Hungarian reconciliation, President Nikolic and I paid tribute at the site of the innocent Hungarian and Serbian victims slaughtered after WW2 at Curug (Csúrog). With this historic recognition, we could finally put an end to this painful and long past.

You visited Hungarian minorities living across the border in the Carpathian Basin, as well as diaspora communities around the world from the USA to New Zealand. What was your most memorable encounter?

No other President in office had ever visited the Hungarian Csángo minority in Moldavia. It was a very fulfilling encounter that I am sure I have told before, but indulge me! When we arrived, the leader of the Csángos of Moldavia greeted me with the following words: for 400 years we have waited for a Hungarian King or a President to visit us, thank the Lord this finally happened today. This was a memorable moment for both me and my colleagues.

This was not your only first. You regularly visited Csíksomlyó (Șumuleu Ciuc), site of the annual Roman Catholic pilgrimage.

Indeed, with the exception of the two years of the pandemic, my wife and I visited the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage every year at Pentecost. After being among those there, I got the impression that they appreciated our presence.

You cooked Hungarian fisherman’s soup for the Hungarian soldiers posted in Afghanistan. We have not heard much on how you managed this.

During my ten years, I visited every mission that had a significant number of Hungarian soldiers. Among these, the one in Afghanistan was the largest. We went before Christmas, and since it was Advent, we could not arrive empty-handed. It was clear that most of the soldiers would not go home for the holidays. We got in touch with their relatives and delivered presents for each of them – though most of these were familial, personal items. Then someone proposed that we make Hungarian fisherman’s soup (traditional for Christmas dinner). I said okay, but for how many people? At first it was for 80-90 people, but by the time everyone heard about the dinner, we were cooking for 120 soldiers. I have never cooked for so many people, maximum 20 – so I based my calculations on that. We started cooking the broth in three large cauldrons. I will not explain the whole recipe, but I prefer when the lean meat, cleaned of skin and fat, is added with the onions after straining the broth. In the end we had 70 liters of broth that we froze for them.

So, freezing it was the key.

Yes, this is how we could transport everything, from the broth to the six kilos of fish meat, along with roe and milk. When we arrived, the soldiers set up the cauldrons. Since it was quite cold, the 12 cauldrons were put in tents, so we were tearing up the whole time from the smoke. But from here, cooking was easy; we just added the fish to the broth, and the food was quickly ready.

You may not have been just the first Hungarian President to cook for 120 people – presumably this gesture, this Christmas present for the soldiers was one-of-a-kind.

I have not heard of anything similar, but the point is, there was not a single spoonful of my soup left.

You met with Pope Francis five times. Your relationship was characterized by environmental protection. Which visit was most memorable?

If I had to rank them, I would highlight the first and last visits. The first because we addressed one of the most poignant challenges of this century: drinking water. I bought a bottle of water as a gift from one of the most famous Hungarian pilgrimage sites, Mátraverebély. He opened the bottle and drew a cross on my forehead. During our conversation, we got to the point where the Holy Father was preparing to publish an encyclical on the subject of water. The last visit was the International Eucharistic Congress, following the pandemic. Our conversation in the Museum of Fine Arts covered environmental protection, or more precisely, the decisions we have brought on the topic since we have met; we also discussed family protection measures. He expressed appreciation for everything our country has done to protect families. It was a very good conversation, so it is perhaps no coincidence that after the meeting he said he hoped to visit Hungary again soon. So, we look forward to seeing him.

You mentioned the International Eucharistic Congress where you gave public testimony. What did this mean to you?

Cardinal Péter Erdő asked me personally to do the testimony, so I could not say no. I knew it would be one of the most difficult speeches and reflection of my life to write. And so, it was.

The position of president was always reserved for older gentlemen –yet even after two terms, you still qualify as a young politician. Thus, retirement afterwards may not be obvious. What does the future look like? Can a president even be a civilian again?

I will have an active retirement. The legal situation is clear: after two terms, a president cannot be elected again and I think this is right. It is also right that, since 1990, the law ensures that any former president will not end up demeaned, having to beg for a job. Upon departure, the president is entitled to a salary, a secretary, and the necessary infrastructure, among other things. So, even after a president ends his term, that does not exclude him from taking on any public roles in the future. This does not only pertain to parliament or government offices; civil life is much wider.

In other words?

I am the founder of two charity foundations. They are the Regőczi István Foundation and the Kék Bolygó (Blue Planet) Foundation. The former is probably more well-known for those following the news. Not only do we provide aid for children and youth orphaned by the coronavirus, but we support them all the way through getting their diploma and finding a job. There are some babies who unfortunately will only be able to see their mother in photographs; they will receive support from our foundation for the next 18 years. We will need to ensure funding for at least the next two decades. This was relatively easy in the first year given the stream of depressing news and photos. But as the years go on, more and more tragedies will pass and the Covid disaster will be forgotten. Our mission will be to prevent this.

How many orphaned children are in your network?

We know of 1500 orphaned children, most of them have already received financial support from us. Obviously, we cannot replace the love they would have received from their parents, but we do not want these children to give up on their dreams and abandon their talents.

Tell us about your other foundation.

The Kék Bolygó Foundation is lesser known but has significantly grown over the past three years. It has become the sponsor of the Gödöllő Nature Fest and Film and now we fully organize and fund the event. We also fund the Sustainability Week organized by Miklós Matolcsy. We also produced two textbooks that make sustainability easier to teach in schools. With the ministry we also agreed to make sustainability a focus for high schoolers. We established a venture capital fund to support various innovations. Among these there are a few start-ups and businesses which are much farther along but did not have enough money to enter the market. Some of these innovations include processing plastic waste, recycling rubber, developing irrigation technology, preserving land productivity, energy storage, and much more. There are many Hungarian ideas which will require a lot of work from our foundation and from me.

This seems like plenty of work then.

I have one more plan, but first the government must agree to it. After three successful Budapest international water conferences, we organized a sustainability expo last year and we would like to organize another in 2023. The number of visitors and deals from it speaks for itself, so I hope it will continue. I can even imagine Hungary becoming a center for this.

Will you continue the podcasts?

I have no reason to stop, especially since this allows me to explore given topics in depth. I think many listeners are interested in learning about the connections and new information that they cannot necessarily get from the media.

Are you not disappointed that environmental protections and sustainability did not get their own, independent ministry?

If the Prime Minister asks me, I will gladly share my opinion. In the past two years, even under the current government, this idea has gotten traction: protecting the environment, preventing water crises, and sustainability. I expect that in the new government structure this field will get even more emphasis.

When you took on the issue of water and climate protection as president, did you not feel that this topic comes with a lot of empty promises, “shoulds, coulds”, but minimal results?

I agree, and I expressed this many times. I have said that we need to act now in several international forums. The numbers and predictions are shocking. We need political will and money to be able to utilize existing technologies; for example, to prevent wastewater in developed countries from ending up in lakes and rivers untreated. But let us look at another example, to get back to the climate. It is often said that we need to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Is this correct? Yes. We must shut down the coal-fired power plants! We are closing them. Get rid of fossil fuel, oil and gas! This is also plausible in the long term. At the same time, we do not want to give up on energy in our usual lifestyle. What should we do? Where will the energy come from? Sun and wind. However, we still do not have an answer to the issue of storing energy. We are unable to store summer’s energy until winter. Everything comes with sacrifice: if we get rid of fossil fuels, we will need nuclear energy. Saying no to everything is irresponsible and pointless.

Photo: János Áder (Photo CRedit: András Éberling)