Katalin Novák: There is a gateway connecting the President's Office and the Prime Minister's Office

June 20. 2022. – 06:15 AM

updated

Katalin Novák: There is a gateway connecting the President's Office and the Prime Minister's Office
Photo: János Bődey / Telex
  • Following her inauguration, Hungarian President Katalin Novák gave her first written interview to Telex.
  • She does not want to comment on who a member of the government gives or does not give an interview to.
  • She did not reveal the exact date when Viktor Orbán asked her to become President, but she did say that she did not immediately say yes.
  • She meets with Viktor Orbán on a weekly basis and said she has had the opportunity to criticize him, but as President, she does not feel that her main task is to be the government's chief critic.
  • When asked if she feels part of the NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere – The System of National Cooperation: pro-government businessmen who are regular winners of huge public procurements, and who, in exchange provide backing for the government's goals where needed), she said "the Fundamental Law is decisive for me in this respect, too. The President of the Republic is an actor independent of the government."
  • On the Russian-Ukrainian war, she said that an armed attack on a sovereign state is unacceptable. On her trip to Warsaw, she spoke about the statements of the Hungarian government on the war. She revealed what she had asked Polish President Duda to do.
  • No visit to Kyiv is on the agenda, and when asked whether she would travel to Moscow, she said "this is a theoretical question, and I do not see its relevance."
  • She will next travel to Riga and then to Brazil, where she will meet Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • It is conceivable that she will use her right to present a bill to Parliament in the next five years. But she did not specify the subject. She does not think it is time to amend the abortion law.
  • She has not attended the Pride Parade and does not plan to do so in the future either.
  • On the state of education, she said that higher teacher salaries were needed.
  • Her role models are her mother and both of her grandmothers. One of her favourite films is Pretty Woman.

Many people may be surprised at the fact that as President of the Republic, you are giving your first lengthy interview to Telex. We have asked you for interviews several times in recent years, but as a State Secretary and a Minister, you never gave us one. How is it that you have agreed to talk to us now, a few weeks after your inauguration? Did you need to have the office of the President to be able to give an interview to anyone?

First, I would like to point out a possible source of common joy. I don't know if you watched the England-Hungary match yesterday (the interview was conducted on 15 June, the day after Hungary defeated England 4-0), but I have not fully recovered yet. I would like to thank the team for giving us such a night to be proud of. It took almost a hundred years to inflict such a crushing defeat on the England team at their home. As for your question, as President of the Republic, I have to represent all Hungarians, and I would like to reach out to those whom I can reach through your platform.

You said that as President of the Republic you want to represent all Hungarians. Isn't that the duty of the members of the government as well? We regularly ask the Prime Minister and the ministers for interviews, but most of them do not even talk to us. Why do you think that is?

Of course, the government has a duty to represent the Hungarian people, and I believe it does so. I would not like to comment on who gives interviews to whom and how.

From the very first minute, it was clear that you communicate through different channels and in a different way from your predecessors. Your social media platforms, for example, have been stepped up spectacularly since your election. Is this where we can expect any major announcements from you?

I see the so-called social media – because I have doubts about how social it is – as an indispensable tool. I have used it in the past and I will continue to use it in the future to make sure that as many people as possible can follow what I say, what I stand for or what I do.

Can you tell us how many people edit your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, and how much control you have over the content? Are you even involved in any way in content production?

I don't have a staff member who works exclusively on social media. Since everything that appears under my name and face – whether it's a caption under a picture, a post on social media or an interview – is attached to my person, I not only monitor it but also shape it.

You beat Viktor Orbán in last week's Instagram likes ranking of Telex. To what do you attribute this popularity and what is your take on it?

I didn't enter any contest, and I'm not after likes. I use three different social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I see Instagram as a more personal, younger, more direct platform, where I see an opportunity to give people a glimpse into more personal moments in our lives that don't belong on Facebook or Twitter.

Do you in any way consult the government or the Prime Minister's Office, on the lines of communication and the messages that you want to send?

No.

In an interview with the public service media, you said that you had involved your family in the candidacy months before Viktor Orbán announced it to the public in December. When and how did the Prime Minister offer you this post?

The invitation came at the right time for me to have the time and opportunity to reflect on and prepare for the task ahead.

So you do not wish to reveal the exact date. But how much time did you have to think? Did you have any dilemma about whether to take on the task?

It would have been frivolous to say yes immediately. My husband and I have been married for twenty years, and we don't make a decision of this magnitude without each other. Especially when it is a matter that has a major impact on the life of the whole family. I had to discuss it with him, but I also tried to think about whether I was worthy and suitable for the job. I hope that in five years I will have proved that I am.

Whose advice did you seek before making your decision? Have you spoken to your former mentor Zoltán Balog or János Martonyi, for example?

Before accepting the invitation, I only spoke to my family, and I make no secret of the fact that, as a devout believer, and member of the Hungarian Reformed Church I also turned to God for guidance. I asked for the support of my husband here on earth and God’s support from beyond this world to make a good decision.

Photo: János Bődey / Telex
Photo: János Bődey / Telex

When you accepted the invitation, what did you and Viktor Orbán agree on? Did you, for example, define your understanding of your role and your responsibilities as head of state?

We talked about the period we were facing. We had been living with the Coronavirus epidemic for some time and we knew that unexpected difficulties could arise. I also had to consider personally whether I would be able to stand up for Hungarian interests in a very difficult period of crisis and whether I would be able to fulfill a sovereign position in a sovereign way.

How often do you talk to Viktor Orbán?

We meet weekly, for about an hour.

Do you receive the Prime Minister or vice versa? We have just walked out onto the terrace of the Sándor Palace (The President’s Official Residence), from where you can see the Carmelite Monastery (The Prime Minister’s Office is a former Carmelite Monastery).

There's a gateway between the Sándor Palace and the Carmelite Monastery. Sometimes the Prime Minister comes over, sometimes I go over.

How should we imagine your relationship? Can you, for example, criticise the government's policies, or do you not feel it's your job?

I spoke to the Prime Minister for the first time in my life in 2014. I have had the opportunity to make critical comments before now.

What was your most recent criticism?

The nature of these is that we discuss them among ourselves. I have done so for the last eight years and I think it is the right thing to do so in the future as well.

As President, do you not have the opportunity to criticise the government openly? You are in a different position now than before as a minister and member of the governing party.

Of course, I do have the opportunity. I have not been in a situation where I have felt the need to do so, nor do I see my main task as being the chief critic of the government. Recently, the Hungarian people decided with a very large, unprecedented majority on the kind of government the country should have. I honour the Hungarian people by taking their decision into account in this respect.

They say that the country is doing what Viktor Orbán and the government want it to do. How do you see it, should you keep a distance from the government's will? Do you feel part of the NER (the System of National Cooperation)?

The Fundamental Law is decisive for me in this respect, too. The President of the Republic is an actor independent of the government.

Are there any issues or causes that you have had to support as a Fidesz politician and member of the government because of party discipline, but now, as President of the Republic, you no longer feel obliged to do so as an expression of the unity of the nation?

Up to now, I have had a well-defined area of expertise, even though the issue of families is interconnected with almost everything else. I see my scope for action as having broadened so that my attention and responsibilities can now be more diversified. As President of the Republic of Hungary, I find it simplistic to think that Hungarian life is primarily about government decisions.

You have a clearly different voice on the Russian-Ukrainian war than the members of the government. Even before you were elected, you made it very clear that you condemned the war, calling Russia the aggressor and Ukraine the invaded party. Why did you say that?

At the time of my inauguration, and on several occasions since then, I have publicly stated a position that I believe is shared by the majority of the Hungarian people. An armed attack on a sovereign state is unacceptable. I also feel that the desire of the Hungarian people is clear: they want peace and we do not want to be part of this war. We stand by the victims, and this is not only true in words, it has also been manifested in deeds. I feel that the Hungarians have been able to put aside all previous grievances, and since the outbreak of the war, they have been helping where they need to.

Polls show that Fidesz voters are divided on the issue of the war, and there is a voter base that is more pro-Russian. As the President of the Republic, how would you convince a Fidesz voter that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine has been invaded?

For me, it is not a question. One can try to find the root causes, and political analysts and historians can talk about many things in the context of the war in Ukraine, but that does not change the fact that there is a sovereign nation-state, Ukraine, and another country has launched an armed attack against them. It is as clear as day.

Before your diplomatic trips, do you consult with the government, for example with Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on what to represent in the negotiations? To what extent does your standpoint agree with that of the government on your foreign trips? We are thinking here, for example, of EU sanctions policy. In an interview to the public service media, you spoke in the first person plural about the Hungarian government's position on the issue when it came to your trip to Germany.

My duty – and again I can go back to the Fundamental Law – is to represent Hungary. This is also the case on my trips abroad, I speak on behalf of Hungary when I express my position. The government is the prime mover of foreign policy, but at the highest level, I can represent the country. It is in our common interest that I sit down at the negotiating table with the right information. Therefore, when I talk to the Hungarian Prime Minister, foreign policy is of course part of the conversation.

Photo: János Bődey / Telex
Photo: János Bődey / Telex

Before your trip to Warsaw, you shared a photowith former Foreign Minister János Martonyi. You wrote under the photo that you still relied on Martonyi's opinion on important international issues. On what issues do you seek his advice?

I had the privilege of working as a close colleague of János Martonyi in his cabinet, we have a long-standing and good relationship and I highly value his knowledge. He is the most experienced diplomat in the country at the moment. I am also in good contact with the current Foreign Minister and consult him regularly, but I also listen to János Martonyi's views from time to time. Especially when I feel that the stakes are high, or when he has personal experience that can help me to make my way.

As Foreign Minister and ever since, János Martonyi has been associated with the so-called “Atlanticist”, pro-Western wing of Fidesz. Is that where you see yourself?

I am convinced that Hungary belongs in the system of alliances it is part of now. It is in our fundamental interest to be a member of NATO and the European Union, and this also follows from our values. I cannot imagine any other alternative for Hungary. This is where we belong and where we must best represent our interests.

Are you planning a visit to the United States, to Washington?

I will definitely visit the United States in the next five years. This autumn at the earliest. If not to Washington, then I will go to the UN General Assembly in New York.

Has there been any cautious probing about whether the President of the United States would host you for an official meeting?

There has been no such initiative on my part.

Which countries will you be visiting in the coming weeks?

I'm going to Riga next. There will be a multilateral meeting with a dozen European heads of state, and I will also have bilateral meetings with the Latvian, Bulgarian and Slovenian Presidents. The next foreign trip after that will be to Brazil. I am also invited because of their long-standing monitoring of how Hungary helps families. They are interested in how they can adopt at least elements of our family policy in Brazil.

Did Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invite you?

I have received invitations from several places, including the Brazilian President, and I will meet him as well.

Whose idea was it to make Warsaw your first symbolic visit abroad?

Mine.

What was the mood like? What did the Polish state leaders ask you?

The reception was worthy of the traditionally good friendship between the two countries. I found openness, interest, friendship and sincerity. These are rare treasures in the world of diplomacy. Of course, there was also talk of the war in Ukraine, sanctions, the differences in the two countries' circumstances and the resulting possible differences of opinion. I feel that the more we can explain the specifically Hungarian aspects, which we cannot expect anyone to be familiar with, the greater the understanding will be. Unlike Poland, we do not have access to a sea, so our dependence on Russian energy resources is much greater and we have fewer options for alternative solutions. You also have to understand that there are 150,000 native Hungarian speakers in Ukraine, and they have been severely affected by the language law. If we can also talk about these differences, we will understand each other better. And it is also true the other way round. For me, it is also important to understand why this war is such a threat to them and why they are even trying to provide military assistance in order not only to contain Russia but also to force it to make as many sacrifices as possible.

After the April elections, Viktor Orbán's choice of the Ukrainian President as one of his opponents in his victory speechcaused a stir. And László Kövér (House Speaker) recently saidthat Zelensky was suffering from psychological problems. Can you express your disagreement with the Hungarian government's rhetoric on your trips abroad? Have the Hungarian government's statements about the war been mentioned in these discussions?

This was also discussed in Warsaw. President Duda has frequent talks with the Ukrainian President, and I have specifically asked for his help in urging him to refrain from making provocative statements. It was not long after they said that the Hungarians knew that Russia was going to attack Ukraine. This is a serious, false allegation. The Polish Head of State understood this and said he would talk to the Ukrainian President.

Did you make contact with Zelensky? Are you planning a visit to Kyiv?

There is no such visit on the agenda at the moment.

And did you contact the Ukrainian President in any other way?

I have not contacted him directly. If only because I can see that his daily life is now quite understandably dominated by the war in his country.

Have you been contacted from Moscow since your election? Have you been invited to Russia?

No.

Would you go to Moscow if you were invited?

This is a theoretical question which I do not see as relevant.

Your Facebook postafter your visit to Transylvania caused a minor diplomatic storm. According to the Romanian Foreign Ministry's State Secretariat for European Affairs, under international law, no state can establish any right concerning the citizens of other states. Did you make a mistake here, or would you have written that Facebook post differently in light of what happened?

You mean I said that a Hungarian is a Hungarian, period? Would I say it again? I'll take that sentence any day. Even with an exclamation mark! A few days ago, I had a private meeting with Romanian President Iohannis, and he did not say anything about it. On the contrary, we agreed that it is in our common interest that the Hungarians of Transylvania should prosper as much as possible in their homeland and live in peace. I consider this a good starting point.

Is it just that a State Secretary overreacted here?

This is not the first time this has happened, and probably not the last.

To move on to domestic policy, you saidthat if you receive a hundred good laws, you will sign a hundred. But are there any cases where you want to take the initiative and are you preparing to submit a bill to Parliament as President?

For me, two things guide me when signing a law that has been passed. Firstly, whether it is in accordance with the Fundamental Law, and secondly, whether it serves the interests of the Hungarian people according to my good conscience. Accordingly, I decide whether a law is good or not. As far as initiating laws is concerned, the President of the Republic does indeed have such powers. It is possible that I will make use of this in the next five years.

Photo: János Bődey / Telex
Photo: János Bődey / Telex

On what subject would you initiate legislation?

I do not have any such plans at the moment, so I would not indicate a specific area.

So far, you have focused on family issues and the protection of life. When you were elected President, you said: “I will support those who take care of life from the moment of conception”. Some in opposition have taken this to mean that you support tightening abortion rules. Does this mean you can take the initiative to tighten the abortion law?

It was not about tightening the abortion law, I will not initiate an amendment to the abortion law. I believe that life is a value to be protected. If I can be of any help to anyone in further valuing and protecting human life, I will be happy to do so.

Would you sign a law to tighten abortion rules?

The government has no such plan because I would certainly know about it. Nor do I think it is time to amend the abortion law. It is gratifying that the number of abortions has halved in ten years, although it is still painfully high. I, therefore, wish to help as many people as possible to decide to keep the life they have already conceived. I am for protecting life, not against something.

In the area of the family, do you envisage that you will be proposing legislation?

I have good relations with all members of the government, including the Minister and Secretary of State for Families. I know what their plans are and they ask me for my opinion. I am sure that, just as families have been a priority area for the government in the past, this will continue to be the case in the future. I have a personal promise from the Prime Minister that family benefits will not be cut.

As President of the Republic, do you agree that a family is only where the mother is a woman and the father is a man?

My duty under the Fundamental Law is to defend the Fundamental Law. Moreover, the phrase contained in it – that the mother is a woman and the father is a man – is, for me, evident. The Fundamental Law also states that the family is based on the marriage of a man and a woman, and on the child-parent relationship. I will defend this in any case.

Then this also means that a family cannot be based on a same-sex relationship. After the amendment of the Fundamental Law, you have received criticism from several organisations on this. You did not attend the Budapest Pride in July as Minister of Family Affairs, will you be there now as Head of State?

I have not attended Pride so far and I do not plan to attend it in the future.

How will you then represent the LGBTQ community? You said you want to be President of all Hungarians. Do you not wish to gesture to this community?

I am not a President of gestures, but of actions. I want as many Hungarian people as possible to feel that I am their President. This includes, of course, the homosexual Hungarian people.

To change the subject, do you have a female role model?

My role models are mostly in my own family. Both of my grandmothers and my mother, I learned a lot from all of them.

Do you have any political role models?

I can only consider people I know personally as role models. If I've only seen or read about someone but don't know them closely, I don't really know them. Some people inspire me, but I would be careful about calling anyone my role model.

Who do you consider to be a promising female politician in Hungary? Do you feel it is your duty to help her?

I feel my duty is to make public life attractive to women who would be interested in it. If a woman wants a role, she should not be held back by the feeling that she will not have the same opportunities as a man. That is how I generally think about women's opportunities.

What is the reason why there are so few women in politics in general and in Parliament, but specifically in the governing party, there are so few women in the parliamentary group, and there is only one female minister in the Hungarian government?

The world of public life is not attractive for women, and often not for men either. On the other hand, I know a lot of talented women who are interested in public life and who are having babies or expecting children. I myself, with one brief exception, excluded myself from public life for six years while I was at home with our children.

A recurring problem in relation to the situation of women is the pay gap. What do you think you can do in this area to ensure that a man and a woman in the same job earn the same?

A woman should have the opportunity to take up even the highest position if she is qualified. I hope that many are encouraged by the fact that for the first time we have a woman as President of the Republic. But we also need to enforce the law that there should be no pay gaps between a man and a woman if they have the same performance.

But surveys show that the practice is different from what the law says. As President of the Republic, what can you do to ensure that there is no pay gap between men and women?

Women are more represented worldwide in areas where wages are typically lower. Hence overall they earn less than men. But in recent years, the gap between women's and men's wages in Hungary has narrowed significantly.

Is the quality of education in Hungary good today?

It could certainly be better, but there are many conscientious teachers who make sure that our children receive the highest quality education, and also ensure their physical, mental and moral development. This was also the case during the pandemic. We cannot be grateful enough.

Photo: János Bődey / Telex
Photo: János Bődey / Telex

Some teachers, however, are dissatisfied with the state of education and with their own salaries. Earlier in a blog post, you wrote about ridiculous teacher salaries. What teacher salaries would be appropriate now, or at least not ridiculous?

When I wrote this in 2010, I gave my opinion on the situation at the time. What is needed now is certainly higher salaries for teachers than at present. I am glad to see that negotiations between teachers and the government have started. I hope that this will soon lead to greater financial rewards for the teachers’ work. There have been several steps of pay rises in recent years, but now we need to take another step.

A few weeks ago, the teachers' unions asked you not to sign the law, which they say makes it impossible for teachers to strike. Did you have the leeway to sign it or not?

This law does not make it impossible for teachers to strike. The legislation sets out what is a sufficient service to be provided in the event of a strike to ensure that children can go to school and parents do not have to stay at home with them. Children's right to education must be guaranteed, as must teachers' right to protest. The law has created a balance between the two. I hope that there will be no reason for teachers to protest.

There are still a few more years to go, but what do you see as your greatest success at the end of your term as President?

I hope that, after five years, more people will look back and feel that I was their President, and I would be happy if the international world would have a better understanding of the Hungarian point of view and the Hungarian position. If I can contribute to making more people feel that it is good to be Hungarian, then we are fine. Just like it is good to be Hungarian when we beat England 4-0.

Compared to previous Presidents, you were elected to this post at a young age. What do you see yourself doing in 10-15 years? For example, is there a return to party politics, even to Fidesz?

10-15 years seems a long way off, I was elected for five years. In no way do I want to put pressure on our children, especially through an interview, but I'm already calculating when I can have grandchildren. The most wonderful time of my life was when I was at home with my children. I look forward to being a grandmother.

But would you return to party politics? Can you see yourself becoming Prime Minister of this country one day?

No.

Katalin Novák was born in Szeged in 1977. She graduated from the Budapest University of Economics and Public Administration and the University of Szeged and studied in Paris on scholarship. She is an economist. She spent six years at home raising her children. From 2010 to 2012 she was a ministerial adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from 2012 to 2014 she was chief of staff at the Ministry of Human Resources. From 2014 to 2020, she was State Secretary for Family and Youth Affairs.

From 2017 to 2021, she was Deputy President of Fidesz, and from 2018 she became a Member of Parliament. From 2020 to 2021, she was Minister without a portfolio for families. She is the holder of the Knighthood of the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. She speaks English, French and German at an advanced level and Spanish at an intermediate level. She is married and the mother of three children.

Her favourite books: The Bible, Géza Ottlik: School on the Border, Márquez: A Hundred Years of Solitude

Favourite films: The Stationmaster Meets His Match, Pretty Woman

Favourite food: poppy seed pasta, French toast, pistachio ice cream

Favourite artists: Péter Máté, Bee Gees, Magdi Rúzsa