This is something of an extended footnote to my book review of Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return. There I quoted Donald Blinken as saying that “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.” Alex Kuli, one of our regular commenters, remembers the events differently. According to him, “the Horn government did plenty of hand-wringing over NATO membership. Around 1995 or thereabouts, Horn proposed a referendum on NATO membership as a stalling tactic, saying he wasn’t sure Hungarians wanted to be a part of a new military alliance so soon after the Russian military had departed.”
I decided to revisit Hungary’s accession to NATO. I refreshed my memory and came to the conclusion that Ambassador Blinken’s rendition of the story is accurate. First, let me quote from an English-language article of László Valki, a professor of international law at ELTE, that appeared in European Security and NATO Enlargement: A View from Central Europe, edited by Stephen J. Blank (1998). In it we read that before the Madrid meeting in the summer of 1997, when Hungary was finally invited to join NATO,
a rather odd psychosis seemed to have overcome Hungary. The politicians in Budapest were looking dreamily toward NATO, plucking flower petals, and murmuring—loves me, loves me not. Every political act, every event had been assessed according to whether it furthered the accession of the country to NATO or hindered it. Hungary had been making enormous efforts to prove that it was fully fit to be admitted. (pp. 91-92)
We learn from Valki’s article that most parliamentary parties built their foreign policy programs around NATO accession and that their positive attitudes to accession became part of their legitimacy. (p. 95) Naturally, that also included MSZP. “One of the planks in the Socialist Party’s 1994 election platform was in favor of Hungary joining NATO and it included a commitment to holding a referendum on the issue.” (p. 108) So, Horn’s later references to holding a referendum had nothing to do with any kind of stalling tactic. He was simply reiterating the socialist promise of a referendum. As for the outcome of the referendum, according to Váli “the parties did not fear rejection but they were worried about low turnout.” Public support before the Madrid invitation was 61%; after, 69%. The actual results were even higher: 85.3%.
I think it is also useful to see what Gyula Horn himself had to say on the subject since he was present when the decision was reached in Madrid to extend an invitation to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join NATO. The quotations below come from Gyula Horn’s memoirs titled Those 1990s (1999). Still in Madrid, Horn promised to keep the Hungarian people fully informed and announced his government’s decision to hold the referendum soon, adding that “if the referendum brings negative results then we don’t deserve membership in the alliance.” (p. 454)
On July 15 he made a speech in parliament from which I will quote a few sentences to give some sense of Horn’s thoughts at the time. He called NATO
an alliance, a community that has been in existence for forty-eight years and which has been defending democracy, human rights, the freedom of political and economic enterprises, the foundations and instruments of prosperity. NATO that invited us never attacked anyone at any time anywhere … and at the same time it defends peace and freedom. … The organization asks us to defend together with them ourselves, Europe, the world against the enemies of democracy, against dictators and nationalists. …
NATO doesn’t command but invites us. A rare occurrence in our history… Accepting the invitation is our sovereign decision. Let’s take advantage of it…. At last we don’t show ourselves as a self-pitying nation…. Now we cross the threshold of a long and promising process that will hopefully lead, with our contribution, to the predominance of democracy in Europe and all over the world. We cross a threshold that will hopefully lead to a time when no one will be able to force regimes on nations that violate human dignity, human rights and free will ….
If we miss this opportunity and if we don’t realize this hope, then we can’t forgive ourselves, and our children and grandchildren will never forgive us. (pp. 455-456)
Honest to goodness, I never thought I would consider Gyula Horn a standard-bearer of democracy, but after four plus five years of Viktor Orbán, Horn comes across as the epitome of a western democratic statesman. One can only lament the sorry state of Hungarian democracy less than twenty years after this speech was delivered.