Rajmund Kiss is the Head of the Center for Diplomatic Studies, School of International Relations, at Mathias Corvinus Collegium and has worked at the Hungarian embassies in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In 2013, he served as the Business Development Director of the Századvég Economic Research Institute, and from 2014 to 2017 he was the Permanent Representative of Hungary to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva. In an interview with Neokohn, he talks about the opening to the East, the relationship between Hungary and Israel, and why he would give Hungarian diplomacy a distinguished rating.
How would you describe MCC for those who aren’t familiar with it?
The Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which has been operating for 25 years, is the largest talent management institution in Hungary, which now offers support to talented young people throughout the Carpathian Basin. The founders had very optimistic, grandiose plans even a quarter of a century ago, but in the past year, the institution has embarked on a whole new path of development. So much so that in September, 2,000 talented Hungarian high school students will start their studies at MCC, a number that could double in a few years by increasing the number of our centers in Hungary and abroad. But we also have elementary school and college programs that are becoming more and more popular as well. These programs are a good supplement to the education offered in public and higher education. We like to say that MCC starts where regular education ends.
How many students are currently studying in the University Program?
About 200 students participate in the University Program, which also includes junior training, but with the establishment of rural centers and centers across the border, that number is also expected to increase in the coming years.
What do you get for completing the extra training provided by MCC?
MCC courses, regardless of the age category or program, provide students with more specific knowledge and skills than traditional education. This is also due to the fact that the training takes place in small groups, so there is an opportunity not only to learn but also to collaborate. The trainings are conducted by instructors with extensive practical experience. This is also true at the School of International Relations, which has four workshops, one of which is the diplomatic workshop I run.
Your specialty is diplomacy. What grade would you give, from one to five, to the current Hungarian diplomatic performance?
I’m not currently working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and maybe I’m biased, but I would give them a five.
Well, take this past year, the period of the terrible pandemic, and look at the response of different nations. It is no coincidence that Hungary’s foreign policy, based on mutual respect, has matured not only in terms of foreign trade, but we have also been able to diversify our vaccine purchases, for example. Unfortunately, it must be said that the European Union was not on top of the situation. Of course, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Hungary itself, have received a lot of criticism for buying vaccines from China and Russia. Many complained that this was dangerous, despite the economy crashing, not to mention the millions of people dying, around the world. I think that the Hungarian government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also had a very significant role in the procurement of vaccines, responded well. In October, Péter Szijjártó was perhaps the only EU politician to start negotiating the purchase of Russian and then later Chinese vaccines.
Even according to independent statistics, we have won at least six to seven weeks, so this policy has been able to save this many lives. And we can see now that this amounted to some 500 billion forints.
Let’s talk about the much-criticized opening to the East. The whole world is afraid of the growth of Chinese influence. In the United States, it can be said that everyone from the right to the left fears this. No one disputes that China is a serious force, even just in terms of its numbers and economic influence. Are we not taking a stance against the mainstream opinion when forging closer ties with China, Russia, Turkey?
I think that even though we can pick our friends, we can not afford the luxury of choosing our economic partners. I believe we must follow an economic policy that focuses on the financial benefit to both parties and not pursue trade diplomacy based on ideologies. The attraction of Chinese investments to Hungary, or our entering the market there, was inevitable. Every country criticizing us today began trade-economic relations decades earlier with the then even more communist China and Russia.
Those who criticize us have very good bilateral economic and trade relations with these nations.
When from the second half of 2008, Hungary’s GDP and economy were in a rapid decline, we had to realize that although our European partners are very sensitive, we are even more sensitive than them. If Germany sneezes, we get pneumonia. What we don’t sell directly to Germany will end up there at the end of the day. Officially, exports to Germany make up only 30 percent of the total, but indirectly it can be as high as 70 percent. But last year, Korea was our largest investor, which is unprecedented since the regime change.
Aren’t we selling ourselves for pennies, even if it means our survival?
When companies invest, we give the same amount of support to our Western European partners as to others. There are 1,300 American companies from the United States in Hungary. One-third of our strategic partnership companies are from the U.S.
Thus, the opening to the East doesn’t hurt anyone; it simply gives us the opportunity to export the products and services of Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises to new markets.
Hungary is not a very large country, it does not have a very large population, but we are part of an important geopolitical game, which we are trying to come out of in a way that is good for everyone. I think our pioneering spirit is not liked by our Western partners, even though they will then copy a decision or two of ours anyway.
Does this also apply to the former Soviet nations of Asia? To the different “Stans”?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also deals with multilateral diplomacy. Hungary is a member of the WTO, UN and OECD, among others. I think foreign trade is a matter of national security. We cannot be an independent, sovereign country without a stable, sustainably growing economy. We have to offer Hungarian products and services all over the world. This also motivated me when I was a foreign economic diplomat in four countries before becoming deputy ambassador and then ambassador. I like trade diplomacy because you really don’t have to involve politics.
There is no doubt that Minister Szíjjártót has an amazing work ethic, and it seems that he also mainly responsible for the management of Hungarian investments.
Under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are various background institutions and government offices. One is HEPA, the Hungarian Export Development Agency, and then there is its sister, HIPA. One is responsible for exports and the other for investments. Since 2014, KKM has been exclusively supervising Eximbank. I remember the time when these offices belonged to four ministries. Centralization has had huge benefits, as the decision-making mechanism is much faster.
The relationship between the United States and our country is strange, to put it mildly. We are orienting ourselves to the Western world and are members of NATO, and, of course, America is the strongest power in the Western world.
In recent years, however, there has been a significant change.
Let us recall the low point of Hungarian-US relations under the Obama administration, when Viktor Orbán did not visit the White House for eight years and President Obama did not visit Budapest for the period of his presidency either.
However, under Goodfriend [ed. note: Mark André Goodfriend was head of the U.S. Foreign Service and served as an adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest], when the relationship between the two countries was really tense, investments were very strong. In Hungary, most large American companies received „strategic status” at that time, so economic actors here were still satisfied.
Didn’t Hungary expect more from the Trump presidency in terms of relations between the two countries?
Stronger political cooperation started in 2017, and a year later, President Trump welcomed the Hungarian Prime Minister to the White House. Among the main areas of our relations, the NATO partnership stands out, which is also reflected in the development of the Hungarian army, but the protection of Christians, the management of illegal migration and the further strengthening of economic relations were also important areas of cooperation.
With regard to Hungary and Israel, the last 5-6 years have shown a dramatic improvement in the quality of relations between the two counties. When Netanyahu, the then Israeli prime minister, was here in Budapest for three days, the Hungarian prime minister was by his side for almost the entire duration of his stay. Clearly, the two leaders have really good chemistry. Hungary is obviously very important to Israel. The attitude of the European Union, however, toward Israel is not very good; Hungary can use this to its advantage, as they do every single time. Now, there is a new government in Israel. Do you see a chance for a change in the relationship between the two countries?
There are not only areas of common interest but also serious emotions when it comes to bilateral relations. Let us remember that even before the formation of the new Israeli government, Peter Szijjártó visited Israel in June this year to express our country’s solidarity with Israel when it came to the events in Gaza. There, the minister stated that Hamas is not an NGO but a terrorist organization. He also said that if a friend of ours is in trouble, then we must be there.
We see this stance on every international platform, whether in the EU or the UN; we must stand up for our friends and for the protection of the Jewish people. So Hungary is fully committed to condemning antisemitism; you could say we have a negative tolerance policy, which will not change in the future.
So in this respect, Hungary is different than Poland, for example?
Well, right now, for example, there is a very visible conflict between Israel and Poland concerning one particular case.
The issue of migration is one of the issues that divides European countries. What do you think about migration from the standpoint of the Jewish community?
It is enough to look at what violent crimes have been committed against Jews in Europe. We see the atrocities that have taken place in Vienna, in almost every major European city.
Two years ago, it seemed that a new world had begun, one where national, conservative-minded politicians were gaining strength: Trump in the United States, Netanyahu in Israel, Boris Johnson in England, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and the strengthening of the national party in Italy and France. Now, many of these leaders have lost in their re-election campaigns. Can the trend continue?
We could also learn from the current crisis in that nation-states have responded much faster and better to challenges.
I think national-minded leaders will get stronger in the times to come.