It was a month ago that I wrote my first post on Eleni Kounalakis’s book about her years in Hungary which, I understand, will soon be published in Hungary as well. The book is of great interest to those who have been following recent Hungarian political developments. It was for that reason that I devoted, all told, three posts to a description of her book as well as to an analysis of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure.
In the first post on the subject I assumed, as it turned out wrongly, that “no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments.” Soon enough, I received an e-mail from a friend who called my attention to a memoir written by Vera and Donald Blinken titled Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return (State University of New York Press, 2009). Donald Blinken was U.S. ambassador to Hungary between March 29, 1994 and November 20, 1997.
It is an unusual diplomatic memoir because it is a joint venture of Blinken and his wife, Vera, who, as the title indicates, was born in Hungary. She was nine years old when, in 1949, her mother managed to leave Hungary, daughter in tow. Vera was not only a superb manager of the social aspects of the life of an ambassador, but her knowledge of the language and the national psyche was of immeasurable help to Blinken. It seems to have been a perfect partnership.
Donald Blinken was a political appointee, but his background in investment banking came in handy when the Horn government at last began to dismantle the outmoded state companies and started looking for foreign investors. In fact, Blinken developed such good relations with the Hungarian government that before his departure from Budapest he was invited to President Árpád’s Göncz’s office, where he became the first American ambassador to be awarded the Middle Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary, the country’s highest civilian honor. Göncz was sorry that he didn’t have two such decorations because, in his opinion, Vera also deserved one. In November 2002, in New York, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy did what Göncz couldn’t: he awarded her the same medal for her work with PRIMAVERA, a mobile mammography program that she initiated and managed.
My impression is that Blinken, in addition to his managerial skills and business acumen, also had good political instincts. By the time the Blinkens arrived in Budapest everybody knew that the days of MDF and its coalition partners were numbered. Elections were coming up and a socialist victory was expected. Some of the western journalists were certain that the return of the socialists would spell the end of Hungarian democracy. Blinken was convinced otherwise. He was right. During the four years of socialist-liberal rule Hungary made incredible strides toward a full-fledged market economy.
Although Blinken had what it takes to be a good ambassador, his goals in Hungary were greatly facilitated by a very cooperative Hungarian government. He and some of the officials in the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs often worked in tandem. Many examples of this happy relationship are described in the book. Here I want to call attention to one of the most important achievements of this Hungarian-U.S. cooperation–the establishment of a staging area for the Implementation Force (IFOR), which would be deployed in Bosnia and Croatia after a successful Dayton agreement. The U.S. military’s first choice for such a staging area was Hungary. Gen. William Courch, commanader-in-chief of the U.S. Army in Europe, came to Hungary and asked Blinken whether he would “be willing and able to persuade the Hungarian government to let us base our troops in Hungary.” (p. 229)
There were several considerations that might have made such a decision difficult for the Hungarian government. So soon after the Soviet soldiers had left, foreign troops would again be stationed in the country. Moreover, there was the worry that the Serbs might retaliate against the Hungarian minority in Voivodina. After a few minutes, however, Blinken decided to take up the challenge and told the general that “when you’re ready to call on us officially to ask for Hungarian cooperation, consider it done!” A few weeks later a military delegation came to Budapest to “ask the Hungarian officials if they could agree to allow American troops, vehicles, and equipment to enter and be stationed in Hungary…. Without missing a beat, the reply came from across the table: ‘We have been waiting for you since 1956.'” (p. 231) They also made it clear that their contribution should be accompanied by efforts to equip Hungary so it could operate alongside NATO. They expressed their hope for future NATO membership.
Time was of the essence, and the officials Blinken dealt with did everything in their power to expedite matters. As he put it, “Hungary’s robust response to our request for IFOR assistance set the bar high for other European countries and also earned them high marks in Washington and across the other NATO capitals. By putting aside both domestic politics and residual fears from forty-five years of Soviet occupation, Hungary’s swift action demonstrated in a manner no words could express that the country was intent on being taken seriously as a candidate for NATO membership.” (p. 238)
What followed was the reconstruction of an old Soviet airfield in the village of Taszár, not far from Kaposvár. With incredible speed the old dilapidated base was transformed into a permanent modern military station for 3,000 soldiers.
One only wishes that U.S.-Hungarian relations were in such able hands today as they were during Blinken’s tenure. Compare the Horn government’s response to global challenges to Viktor Orbán’s recalcitrant attitude toward European integration or transatlantic cooperation. Reading Donald Blinken’s memoirs, I can only bemoan the fact that Viktor Orbán, however narrowly, won the election in 1998. Four years later Hungarian foreign relations were in a ruinous state. The new government in 2002 had to begin everything from scratch. It was not an easy task and today, once Orbán is gone, it will be even more difficult. It is easy to lose trust but very difficult to regain it, and the damage this time is much greater than it was by 2002. Once a more accommodating government is in power, one can only hope that another Donald Blinken will be on hand.