“I defended Viktor Orbán, for perhaps too long” – Radoslaw Sikorski on war, Hungarian cynicism and misunderstood sovereignty
“Backing an authoritarian loser, such as Vladimir Putin, will have consequences. It already has on the Polish–Hungarian friendship”, former Polish minister of foreign affairs and national defense Radoslaw Sikorski tells Válasz Online. The politician of Poland’s Civic Platform suggests there is no justification for Hungary to delay to do what is necessary for the unity of the Western alliance when there is a war in the neighborhood. Válasz Online met Mr. Sikorski in Strasbourg on 14 December – hours after the European Parliament had decorated the brave people of Ukraine with the Sakharov Prize – to discuss the Polish opposition’s (and Donald Tusk’s) chances of scoring an election victory next autumn, the death of Visegrád Group as well as his world famous tweet about the explosion of Nord Stream.
Last week the deal between Hungary and the EU was finally done. Are you happy that your former schoolmate scored another victory?
We never actually met at Oxford. Viktor Orbán attended Pembroke College for one academic year, 3 years after I left. We only met in politics years later. Something similar is happening in Poland as it happened in Hungary over the past weeks. The government has proposed a law that would fulfill the rule of law requirements of European treaties. I hope it happens but I will still feel humiliated as a Central European that we are having to do this under external pressure. These people talk about sovereignty and they end up adopting laws dictated by external institutions.
Shouldn’t they adopt them?
This is what fanaticism leads to. They have the wrong conception of sovereignty but they undermine their own conception because they are having to do what governments, that behave themselves according to agreed treaties and procedures, don’t do.
Are you suggesting that if they were really attached to their own ideas, they shouldn’t have agreed with the EU?
Their ideas of sovereignty are completely wrongheaded. They understand that sovereignty is like a piece of sausage that you have and you can hand over and then you have lost it. That is not how sovereignty works.
Sovereignty is your right to voluntarily enter into agreements with other entities – nation states, international organizations – and it is not its restriction that you then have to abide by the rules you have voluntarily agreed. It is like entering a marriage.
You voluntarily enter it and it imposes certain duties. You can get divorced but while you are in a marriage, certain duties obtain. That does not mean you have lost your freedom. It just means that you have made a deal – a promise. The governments of Poland and Hungary, having lost already billions of euros for their own citizens, are now having to eat humble pie and belatedly recognizing the dire state in which both countries have found themselves. Poland and Hungary are among the states with the highest inflation in Europe. That is what national socialism leads to – nationalism in rhetoric and socialism in economic policy.
As for divorce, when Fidesz left the EPP…
… they did not leave. We expelled them. We told them they were going to be chucked out, and only then did they leave.
Was it a moment of sadness or relief?
For me, a moment of sadness because I defended Viktor Orbán, for perhaps too long. Everybody has his breaking point. The last straw for me was to have passed a law whereby a Central European University (CEU) led by a liberal Canadian could no longer operate in Budapest whereas a Chinese state university could. That is how far Hungary has gone in its cul-de-sac.
We have no idea whether the Chinese university will actually operate.
Alright. The point is rather that even if CEU’s leftism was true, which it was not, leftists also should be allowed to have universities.
In 2020, you had an exchange of letters with one of Fidesz’s MEPs, Tamás Deutsch. You wrote that “those of us who have for decades counted themselves as friends of Hungary are astonished and saddened”. By what exactly?
I first noted the existence of Viktor Orbán when, as a young man, he made a speech at the funeral of Imre Nagy in which he said that the Soviet-imposed communism was an alien civilization and praised someone who defended Hungary from a foreign invasion that succeeded in reimposing Soviet domination on Hungary.
There is a man who today shares those ideas of that Viktor Orbán and is trying to prevent his country from being reoccupied by Russia and feels that Russia is trying to impose an alien civilization on him. The name of that man is Volodimir Zelensky.
I would have expected Mr. Orbán to recognize that rather than to restrict the transit of assistance to Ukraine and resist sanctions on Russia.
In that letter you have also pointed out that the Hungarian government was “sucking up to Vladimir Putin”. Do you still believe that?
Blocking macroeconomic assistance for Ukraine is cynical because you are doing it partly in order to get EU concessions on other matters. But I am sure the thinking is also that it will score brownie points in Moscow.
Yet, the Ukraine deal is done.
It is but Hungary definitely delayed it just like it is delaying the accession of Sweden and Finland into NATO.
When push comes to shove, shouldn’t one play all cards in hand?
Instead of helping the victims and working for the unity of the Western alliance, is there any justification for delaying to do what is necessary when you have a war on your borders? Backing an authoritarian loser, such as Vladimir Putin, will be noted and will have consequences.
It already has consequences on the Polish–Hungarian friendship. We do not understand why Hungary is not rallying around a victim of aggression like we do.
Do you believe Visegrad Group is dead?
Visegrad is a useful tool for pre-coordinating positions on things we agree on. If you try to use it for other purposes, you will just break the instrument. There is clearly no consensus in Visegrad on the most important question we face – the Putin-attempted conquest of Ukraine.
After the Nord Stream’s explosion in late September, you managed to make a hit in the international media with your infamous “Thank you USA” tweet. Could you describe the circumstances of creation?
Not everybody appreciates my sense of humor and the joke did not work.
The Russian propaganda did not use it as a joke.
Of course. That was the trouble. They ridiculously portrayed a deleted tweet as evidence. The mystery remains though as to who blew up those pipelines.
You suggestion was quite clear.
I do not see why Putin would destroy his own – financial and political– investment which he was controlling anyway. My working assumption is that if the Danish and Swedish authorities find evidence that it was Russia, we will hear it. If they find evidence that it was someone else, it will remain a mystery.
Have you followed the speculations and uproar in the Polish media on how that tweet was written?
Polish media are more hysterical than most.
I wonder, as a former defense minister, where do you think this war is heading to?
At the moment we have a stalemate. The question is whom will winter benefit more? Ukraine needs more help from the West. Financially, the support for next year is short, and we need to restart our production lines of equipment because we are running out of ammunition from the stocks.
If you had to bet, will it last until, at least, 2024?
I don’t see how it can end quickly because the red lines of the three sides that are involved – Ukraine, Russia and the West – do not meet at any point. However, you can never exclude events such as the rebellion of the Russian army or the termination of Vladimir Putin with extreme prejudice.
You used to credit yourself with Polish–Russian deals from the time you were minister of foreign affairs. Have you ever regretted them?
I was a fundamental critic of Nord Stream and Poland’s policy – talking to the Russians but at the same time spending 2 per cent of GDP on defense just in case it does not work – was correct. Before Putin became a war criminal, we were able to talk to the Russians and we had our reset with them. The reset itself was beneficial. In 2007, we unblocked Polish agricultural exports to Russia and had a local border traffic agreement in Kaliningrad region. We had a visit of the patriarch of Russia in Poland…
… you had Putin in Gdansk’s Westerplatte…
… even in Katyn in April 2010. We had visits of Russian mayors and counselors learning about decentralization and self government as well as the agreement of historians on the facts of our difficult history. All that was strengthening our credibility in the West because if Poland – or any Central European state – that has normal diplomacy with Russia is then more credible when she warns about Russia.
We did warn but unfortunately some of our partners, Germany at the head, did not listen to our warnings about Nord Stream or about the invasion of Putin. We have been vindicated. You have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst and we did that.
Aren’t your critics right when, retrospectively, they point out that you have made some concessions to a future war aggressor.
Name me one concession!
Haven’t you made any?
By having a small border traffic agreement, so that a million people from the Kaliningrad region and a million poles could travel without visas? Is that a concession or is that something that was good for Poland? Russians benefited but so did we.
Seemingly, you are focusing on the Polish domestic arena. Just the other day, you warned PiS’ leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, that “if a rocket hits Poland again and kills someone, the lives of these people will be on his conscience”. Quite harsh, isn’t it?
This is a really good example of how crazy this is in foreign policy. Poland gets hit by a missile, two Polish people die. Our NATO ally Germany says “we are very sorry for your loss, we want to help by sending, at our expense operated by German soldiers, a Patriot battery to protect the exposed southeast of Poland so that it doesn’t happen again”. First, the defense minister says “great idea, let’s do it”. The president says “interesting” then Kaczynski says “this will be just for decorations we do not want anything from Germany”. Then, when public opinion even in their own electorate says “why are you refusing strengthening?”, the president goes to Berlin and says how grateful he is to Germany and this is now going to happen. This is how crazy they are.
Yet, the suddenly-increased defense spending has a good PR. Politico, for instance, labeled Poland “Europe’s coming military superpower”.
Until this war, their entire activity was to do with PR rather than doing what is right for Poland. Over the previous seven years, the only system they fully integrated in the Polish military was the fleet of government aircrafts. All the operational equipment they have was purchased by their predecessors. Yet, they portray themselves as the first and last patriots. The defense minister makes speeches saying that the opposition disarmed Poland. At the same time, all the equipment that he has was bought by today’s opposition. This is what is so annoying about the hypocrisy.
Let’s suppose the opposition wins the next general election. Are you ready to keep up this magnitude of defense spending?
Every country has an army, either her own or a foreign one. Her own is cheaper on the long run. However, when we do spend 3 per cent of GDP on our defense, it would mean that we would be spending double in GDP terms what richer countries of Western Europe are spending on their defense. That is unfair and that is why nationalists are so wrong in resisting the development of European defense. We now have a European defense budget. It should be multiplied. If Putin is a threat to all of Europe, which he is, then all of Europe should spend the money to defend the eastern flank of Europe to deter him.
Does it mean that Poland should spend less and the others spend more?
No. It would mean that the burden of defending Europe against Putin would be shared more fairly.
Why would it be in, for instance, Portugal’s interest?
If I were Portugal, I would not feel threatened by Putin, but if I were Hungary, I would. Russia has invaded you before, whereas it has not invaded Portugal.
According to a recent poll, your party just overtook PiS in the popularity race. How do you see your chances at the general election next autumn?
We will win and we will win big. PiS is overstated in opinion polls because in Poland there is a little bit of fear. Not like in Russia but this is a semi-authoritarian government that has been misusing Pegasus as well as the prosecution and security services. A significant proportion of people asked for their preference refuse to answer. They are not likely to be supporting the ruling party. The signs of panic in the ruling camp are already visible.
Given that he is one of the most unpopular Polish politicians, should it be Donald Tusk who leads your party into battle?
Donald Tusk is a victim of an unprecedented smear campaign in Polish state media. Almost every day, for years, he is attacked with completely false accusations. I hope your readers appreciate just how violative it is. They are saying that he is not in fact Polish, that he’s German, just because as EPP’s president he made a speech to a CDU congress in which he inserted a couple of words in German. They constantly, literally hundreds of times, repeat these words in German to prove that the leader of the opposition – a former Polish prime minister for seven years – is actually not Polish. I am afraid that some people are sensitive to that kind of lie. Just like, in denial of all the evidence, they managed to convince a third of the population that there was an assassination in Smolensk. Propaganda works and in Hungary you know something about it.
This is why the question remains whether it would be wise to have Tusk as a candidate for prime minister.
Should we allow PiS to choose who our leader is? No! If we change the leader, they will do the same operation on whoever would succeed him. We cannot do that and we will not.
Donald Tusk is the leader of the Polish opposition and he will remain so, I can assure you of that.
PiS is in power for more than 7 years. Do you miss power and the feeling of being in charge?
We are speaking here in Strasbourg at the European Parliament. Just over this week, we voted through 18 billion for Ukraine and we have given the Sakharov Prize to president Zelensky and the people of Ukraine. I also spoke on recognizing Holodomor as genocide and in favor of a resolution to establish a criminal court in which Putin may be brought to justice. If I were an MP in Poland, I could not do that. There is real politics here now and EP is a good place to be, particularly when you are in opposition at home.
Cover photo: European Parliament/Alain Rolland