Janos Balla:

Moscow has become younger and more welcoming

In spite of the challenging situation in Europe and the sanctions, cooperation between Russia and Hungary continues to develop across a variety of different areas. At least this is what a lot of optimistic media outlets in Moscow and Budapest claim. But how are things coming along in reality? Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Hungary to Russia Janos Balla answered this and other questions in an exclusive interview with Capital Ideas.

In light of the sanctions against Russia, is there a lot of potential in terms of developing trade and economic cooperation between Budapest and Moscow?

There is always potential, but, unfortunately, the downturn right now is quite steep. The trade turnover between Russia and Hungary over the past two years fell by almost 50% (to $4.7 billion). In the first quarter of 2016, it shrunk by another 30% compared to the same time period last year.

Right now, as your country’s economy is going through challenging times, we understand that we can develop cooperation with our Russian partners through the regions. We have signed an agreement on regional cooperation with Russia and now various territorial entities of our two countries can collaborate, find new partners and new markets or fields for the implementation of joint projects.

We have to continue looking for common ground or new points of contact. The most important thing, as I always say, is that Europe’s continues to develop trust in Russia because this will help to bring back the business circles that decided to leave the Russian market.

During a meeting with Western entrepreneurs, Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin said that not a single big European or American company has left Moscow. Has Hungarian business left our country?

Hungarian entrepreneurs have always had a strong presence in Moscow. Although they can’t be compared to General Motors or BP in terms of scale. But they didn’t go anywhere. Take, for example, Gedeon Richter, which is a company with over a century of experience on the pharmaceutical market that has acquired a good reputation in Russia and four other countries. It didn’t go anywhere. It is successfully operating in Moscow and other regions of the country. Moreover, Gedeon Richter is currently expanding its presence on the Russian market.

Hungarian business has always been present in Moscow in the form of small and medium-size companies. Today, our companies continue to operate on the Russian market, working just as diligently as before in spite of the sanctions and the economic crisis. You can still find our products on the shelves at the store.

We have to admit that the sanctions have dealt a serious blow to the Hungarian agriculture sector, which has always been focused on the Russian market. This is why, during talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, joint projects in the area of food and agriculture that would be located in Russia were discussed. Today, cooperation is developing across fields like pharmaceuticals, the banking sector and, of course, the Russian construction market, which has become more competitive. We are working out the possibilities to include Hungarian comments in the construction of facilities of the FIFA World Cup in 2018.

The Hungarian automotive industry is offering new buses to Moscow. These are not the famous Icarus buses, but new Evopro vehicles. The new buses can run on diesel, gas and electric traction.

Evopro Modulo has proposed to cooperate with Russian business. A joint company, which has already released 50 experimental buses, has been established.

The Hungarian bus has already won a prize at the international contest Innovation Awards in the “City Transport” nomination category, during the international exhibition JEC World 2016 in France. Soon, the bus will set off on a journey across Russia with a presentation. If Russian business sees potential in the project, there will once again be transportation manufactured in Hungary.

Earlier, the Kremlin announced that, in spite of the sanctions, the RF will be able to cooperate with Hungary in the agricultural sector. Has the issue of easing the food embargo been brought up over the last few months?

We are not asking for any favors or benefits from Moscow that are not available to other European countries. Under the conditions of sanctions and the embargo, we are looking for new opportunities for cooperation, offering the Russian side our know-how in, for example, the food industry. We already have interesting plans in this sector. We have already managed to establish a major canned food factory in Dagestan. Hungary has made similar proposals to other regions in Russia, including to Moscow.

We have very advanced technology for domestic animal breeding. I think that the Russian side continues to not only implement these projects, but is considering new techniques for attracting foreign investors. I would like to point out that the transfer of grain breeding technologies to Russia is very important for the food industry. This is an important part of our business ties.

In terms of traditional areas of cooperation such as pharmaceuticals, Hungarian business is ready to not only sell drugs, but also to set up manufacturing here in Russia. This is a very important point, since the focus on import substitution affects the pharmaceutical industry as well. Hungarian manufacturing is ready to contribute to this.

Is it true that the initiative to name one of the streets in Budapest after Moscow belongs to you personally?

No, I just supported others people’s initiative. In the Soviet era, there was a square named after Moscow in the center of Budapest. About five years ago, based on a decision made during a regional meeting, it was renamed. Recently, it was decided that something on the map must be named after the City of Moscow. I think this is the right thing to do.

After graduating from MGIMO, you rarely came to Moscow. Then, in 2014, you were appointed to head up the diplomatic mission in Russia. How did you like Moscow after being away for a long time?

Moscow looks younger. There are a lot of new, wide avenues, tall buildings, construction projects everywhere. At the same time, a lot of old mansions and estates have been preserved. Of course, there were always architectural monuments in the city. But I don’t remember them being so well-kept during the Soviet era.

I have worked in many countries and have seen dozens of megacities. I can say for a fact that Moscow is a very clean city. There are a lot of squares and parks where you can take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, take a walk, play sports. There are bike lanes everywhere, plenty of playgrounds, amusement rides and cafes. But the most important change that struck me is that Muscovites have become a lot friendlier toward each other and foreigners.

Listening to you, one would think Moscow is the best city in the world….

Well, there are problems, like traffic jams. The problem here, like anywhere else in the world, has to do with how traffic flows are organized. But I hear that the Government of Moscow is actively working on this issue.

In Budapest (like in London), the authorities are considering implementing fees for entry into the city center. Moscow is probably also considering this and is researching similar initiatives abroad. But maybe it makes more sense to try to get people to use public transportation. We are actively developing the metro. There need to be more trams and trolley buses on the streets. Personally, I think the residents of our cities should start using bicycles.

Do you have any favorite places in the Russian capital?

My wife and I really like the Novodevichy Convent and the park with the lake located nearby. It’s especially beautiful there in the fall. Every time I go there, it feels like I am getting in touch with Russian history. I feel like I’m back in the 14th or 16th century. I try to get out to that part of the city often. But, unfortunately, my work schedule is extremely busy.

When I have some free time, we go to the city center. There, we walk through Bolshaya Bronnaya, around the Patriarch’s Ponds and Tverskoy Boulevard. I used to visit Sviatoslav Richter’s memorial apartment, which sometimes hosts phenomenal piano evenings. I’ve also visited the Evil Apartment, which is a museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov on Sadovaya. Those who like the novel The Master and Margarita will love it.

Do Hungarians still enjoy reading Russian classics?

For today’s younger generation, the Internet has replaced books. Nonetheless, interest in Russian literature and Russian language is always growing. At major Hungarian universities, Russian language and literature departments are more popular than, say, Chinese departments. A lot of Hungarian students would like to be able to read Tolstoy in the original language.

In Russia, aside from Moscow, Hungarian is taught at universities in St. Petersburg, Khanty-Mansiysk, Yoshkar-Ola, Saransk, Izhevsk, Syktyvkar, Petrozavodsk, and Yekaterinburg.

Bilateral student exchange programs are expanding. The leaders of the two countries have set a task - to increase the number of exchange students to 200 from each side.

Why aren’t there more Hungarian tourists in Russia?

In Hungary, there are a lot of people who are interested in historical monuments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway or visit Lake Baikal. But there were never a lot of Hungarian tourists here. I do know that a lot of our businessmen, athletes and artists come to Russia. Of course, it is important to inform Hungarians about cultural events in Moscow - plays, ballets, concerts and exhibitions.

At the same time, we see that Hungarians haven’t forgotten about Russia. They are ready to return. The fact that charter flights between Lake Balaton and two Russian capitals will be open this season serves as testament to this fact.

I think that Russians like Hungary for excellent service quality, hospitality and a developed tourist industry. The same is true for Italy and Spain, but our country is different because we have a lot of good spas and warm mineral water sources. In Russia, there are cold winters, short springs and long falls. In Hungary, these warm resorts operate year-round, and Russians are happy to travel there.

Do you think that cultural ties between Moscow and Hungary have also weakened over the past few years?

Our cultural ties are successfully developing. Recently, we hosted Hungarian Culture Days, which entailed 15 major events.

Pushkin Museum visitors in Moscow had the opportunity to see the Around Munkacsi exhibition, which featured one of the most popular artists of the 19th century, the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi.

The Gallery of Classic Photography hosted an exhibition of works by Imre Kinsi. Visitors got to see the last photos taken by the photographer who died in a Nazi concentration camp. The main subject of Kinsi’s work is Budapest in the 1930s.

During the Hungarian film festival CIFRA 2 in Moscow, we showed several popular films, including Swing by Csaba Fazekas, Demimonde by Attila Szász, Weekend by Áron Mátyássy and more. The selection demonstrated not only the abundance of Hungarian cinema, but also the ability to understand the past and adapt to the present.



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