Not long after they were married, István Szabo and his wife Emília realized a career in the Foreign Service was set to be an adventure. Mr. Szabo’s first posting was to war torn Nigeria. Their son — then only four months old — would be joining them in a part of the world where guns were easier to get than basic food items, let alone baby supplies. So much for the honeymoon. The posting to Egypt that followed seemed like comparative paradise.
Today, with two university age children and the coups of Africa far behind, the charming, witty and gregarious Ambassador Szabo is approaching the end of a successful posting to the Czech Republic. His beautiful wife Emília, whom he is quick to point out provides 50 of the work of the Ambassador, active in the Diplomatic Ladies Association charities and promoter of Hungarian culture and wine, joined us for a conversation about politics, culture, economy, history and the future.
What initially attracted you to the Foreign Service?
The story is quite old and rooted back in my teenage years. I wanted to become a merchant sailor, an officer. At that time Hungary had a merchant fleet in different seas, approximately 12 ships. My desire was to travel to see as many countries as possible. I really love water. I love the sea.I love lakes. I love rivers. So I tried to apply to the technical university in Budapest. But due to near sightedness— I needed glasses — I was not admitted. Then as a second option I tried the University of Economics. I thought that international relations would be fine for me and I started to study. This was, at that time, a base for the Foreign Ministry, from which they recruited future diplomats. I went to the Foreign Ministry in 1980, 28 years ago.
Is it fair to say that you’ve been able to see the world asyou dreamed of?
I think so (laughing)!
In your opinion what are some of the ways in which Czech-Hungarian relations have changed over time and what are the key factors in Czech-Hungarian relations today?
Well, if we go back in history, let’s take the 19th century, we were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I would say that there were quite a lot of connections between Hungary and the Czech part of the empire. But we were within one entity, it was a huge entity. I think this had an effect on our bilateral relationship. As you know, after the First World War, the peace treaty, the relations were quite cold because Czechoslovakia as a new state belonged to the socalled “small Entente” and there was this cordon sanitaire because of Soviet Russia in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary was a little bit isolated. Our diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia go back to 1922.
After the Second World War the major difference between Hungary and Czechoslovakia was that we belonged among the losers. Czechoslovakia belonged among the victors. We both suffered under 40 years of communist rule. In the ’70s and ’80s Hungary became a very attractive country for Czech people. A lot of Czechs traveled to Hungary. They visited Hungary not only for the attractiveness of the country, for Lake Balaton, but also because they had the opportunity to meet those dissidents in Hungary who left Czechoslovakia during the communist régime. So Hungary was very popular. Due to the fact that we had more liberal “Gulaš Communism” under Kádár. We enjoyed much more liberty in the field of economy, so we could introduce the private sector at the end of the ’70s, in small scale of course, in a very controlled way. Our shops were full of different goods and the Hungarians could travel even to the West once every three years and later on once every year. So it was relatively better in the socialist camp at that time in Hungary.
Since the political changes of 1989 and 1990, we (Czechs and Hungarians) had the same foreign policy priorities, integration into the European Union and joining NATO. It was NATO that happened earlier than the EU. But we had the same goals. I think this was one of the motives behind the Visegrad cooperation, which was founded upon a Hungarian proposal at the beginning of the ’90s. It was a very good tool, a good forum fo consultation, mutual confidence building, a meeting place for our politicians. Later on it became a forum for very pragmatic cooperation on the expert level, in the field of infrastructure, migration, education, transport and so on. I could mention a lot of fields which are important and it’s still a very living cooperation. There are activities, a lot of meetings. The biggest challenge was that there was no structural form of the Visegrad Group. It is not an international organization, but has a fund of around 5 million euro per year. It is also very attractive for those interested in scholarships, and not only for the Visegrad countries but outside Visegrad, for example Ukraine, Belorus, Moldavia.
Do you see Hungary enjoying great benefits coming out of EU membership? Were expectations perhaps a bit unrealistic?
Let me just start with the most recent development, Schengen. I think Schengen has symbolic importance for us. It’s an extremely good feeling after 40 years of communism, plus the one and a half decades since the political changes, to cross the borders without barriers. Just to see the sign for the country and cross the border. The significance of this to small entrepreneurs, medium entrepreneurs, to take their goods to this country, that country, to do it freely and without any barriers, border control, customs etc., is enormous.
The other thing is that expectations were too high. But I think this is a natural human feeling. Public opinion expected more benefits, and quicker. But we, those who work for government, and deal with these issues, we knew very well that it would take some time We have a socalled interim transition period. We have had to learn a lot. We have to learn how to obtain EU resources, how to bring them to Hungary, how to bring these sources to the Czech Republic, and how to use them. We had to change a little, psychologically, in our approach. Not only to see the EU as a cow which always gives something to you, but to approach the EU with responsibility because there are commitments. You have to fulfill these commitments otherwise the benefits will be less and less. So responsibilities are important.
What do you see as the main similarities or differences between the Czechs and Hungarians in terms of culture, economics and politics?
When I arrived here a little more than three years ago, in August 2004, I was walking around Prague (I had been here several times before, even in the beginning of the ’80s, when I used to meet my wife here, before we were married. She worked in East Berlin at the Hungarian Embassy) and realized I had a very strange feeling. I didn’t feel myself abroad in Prague because the buildings are quite similar to what we have in Budapest and the people are dressed in quite similar ways. We share a lot of things in culture. If you go to a bookshop in Budapest or any town in Hungary, you will see Hrabal’s books, Kundera’s books. Jiří Menzl’s films are extremely popular in Hungary, like István Szabo’s (no relation) films are popular here in the Czech Republic. Hungarian actors and actresses are coming, Janos Ban, who played in Jiří Menzl’s films or Enikő Eszenyi (she used to perform here in Prague).
Going to more serious waters, I think that in the field of economy, the Czech Republic today is doing better than Hungary. I think and am optimistic that it is a very dynamic time. There have been so many changes, so many effects from the outside. It was different how Hungary engaged in privatization from the way it was done here. Certainly in all countries in central Europe there were pros and cons. In the ’90s Hungary was leading among these countries. We lost this role but I don’t consider it a failure because, as I mentioned, it’s just a transitional period of time. Hungary’s reforms in the field of economy receive great attention here.
Different governments make different policies. Sometimes, the political spectrum faces extremist phenomena, and it’s difficult to find the middle way, the right way, balanced way, and to find harmony. It is very important for the future that if governments change, major political consensus should remain on the most important issues affecting national interest.
What do you see as Hungary’s role during the Czech EU presidency? And how is that likely to change your role here?
The Czech EU presidency is a priority for us as well. Hungary will be in the chair of the EU in 2011, so my major duty here is to gather as much experience from the Czech preparation process as possible, to avoid future mistakes and in order to learn from positive experiences. The Czech Republic is making a lot of efforts in this field. They are working hard on the logistics, on the content, and you can already see and identify the Czech presidency’s priorities. It is important for us to benefit from the Czech experience.
What would you say are the key challenges and opportunities in Czech-Hungarian relations today?
For me, when I arrived here, I experienced a very favorable atmosphere for work. It was a very good, very appropriate atmosphere. My contacts were very open and have remained very open. You can discuss anything, there are no taboos. We share a lot of ideas and face similar challenges because we became members of both the EU and NATO at the same time. I think the major goal is to benefit from the EU in order to enhance your national interests. This is a big game, where everyone has to find the most balanced way of achieving the national goal. It’s a big team, where everybody has their own national interests. It’s very difficult to find a consensus on difficult issues, even on easier ones. And I think this is one of the biggest challenges.
Concerning bilateral relations, these are going very smoothly and very well. The economic cooperation is dynamic. The volume of trade is growing rapidly. Last year’s figure was over 4 billion euro. The two countries are absolutely comparable, because we have the same population, similar economic conditions, and similar territory (Hungary is a little bit bigger) in central Eastern Europe.
What is your take on globalization today? How do you feel about the challenges we face, whether economic, environmental, cultural… ?
Globalization is not the devil. You should not be afraid of it. You should consider it an opportunity from which you can benefit, especially in the field of economic development. On the other hand you have to be very, very careful and aware of the negative aspects of globalization, for example: in the environment, in the field of preserving your national culture, preserving your national language and to preserve your national identity, not just to be a small point in this whole mass but remain a visible country. You have to find the right balance. In this regard, globalization, which you can’t stop anyway, will go on. Whatever you do — like it or hate it — it will go on.
Do you feel that today sufficient resources are being dedicated to preserving national identities and cultures?
It’s very difficult to answer what is sufficient what is not sufficient. If you ask the director of our cultural institute here in Prague, Mr. György Varga, he would say that it is not sufficient. But if you ask someone else, well … Cultural life here in Prague is extremely active. You can go to concerts, exhibitions. The same applies to Budapest and there are a lot of jointly organized seminars. For example, recently there was an excellent seminar in our cultural center on the Hapsburg monarchy and how the Czech historians see this issue, how Hungarians see it and that they could discuss and debate Švejk and the mentality of Czechs and Hungarians.
Tell us a little bit about your personal and professional objectives while you’re posted here? Do you and your wife have any special projects or priorities?
One of the priorities when we came here was to make Hungary more visible. To make the country more visible and more popular through things which people are interested in. Among these issues I would say one is Hungarian quality wines. I realized when I was here at the best hotels and the best vinotekas in the city you could not get a bottle of Hungarian quality wine. Even when I asked for Tokaji, which is extremely popular and well known worldwide, there was none. They offered me Chilean wine, South African wine, Australian wine, American wine, everything but Hungarian. So we started to work on it. We also organized a Hungarian week in the Hotel Intercontinental. For the whole week you could have Hungarian food and wines, and not only gulaš, there is much, much more than that. My wife established a company and she represents one of the best five Hungarian wine producers and she is doing a lot in this field.
What would you say are some of your favorite aspects of Czech culture?
I’ve already mentioned them. I like Hrabal’s books, Jiří Menzl’s films and the classic Švejk of course. I read it when I was a teenager and then read it again when I came here. Of course the classical music, Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, and the jazz. And from this point of view I do love the concerts at the castle organized by the President. I am a regular Prague. I think you have more jazz clubs than in Budapest.
I will leave the Czech Republic this year with a heavy heart. I really enjoyed both the professional and the private part of this time. What I truly love is that this is a really beautiful country. Everywhere we went we visited the countryside and discovered the beautiful castles, the landscape, and the beauties of nature. Both of us love skiing, playing tennis and making excursions. From this point of view this place was ideal for us.