The Horn government and NATO: The Blinken memoirs, Part II

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)

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid after the NATO invitation to join

Václav Havel, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Gyula Horn in Madrid

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.

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Alex Kuli
Guest

Thanks for this, Eva. I will have to reconsider my position in light of your post.

Charles Gati
Guest
Mr. Kuli was indeed mistaken. The referendum had the opposite objective. It was to prove to NATO, and especially to the U.S., that Hungarians were eager to join NATO and would fully support its goals. The problem to which the referendum was a response was Washington’s uncertainty about admitting Poland and the Czech Republic or Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first tranche. Uncertain of a second tranche, the Hungarian government badly wanted to show Hungary’s readiness. The Horn government, and especially State Secretary Ferenc Somogyi, spent a lot of energy and time to conduct the referendum, hoping its results would tilt the balance in the West in favor of Hungary’s admission. Ambassador Donald Blinken played a very positive role in the process of conveying the significance of Hungarian attitudes to the Department of State. Washington (and NATO) did need convincing because on account of the authoritarian Meciar government in Slovakia, which was excluded from the first tranche, Hungary did not have a common border with a NATO member state. Therefore, there were strong arguments for delaying Hungary’s admission. To the best of my knowledge, it was — no doubt among others – then Deputy Secretary of State… Read more »
donlaszlo
Guest

Turnout was 49.2 per cent.

Charles Gati
Guest

Hungary has had six referenda since 1989. Turnout was never great by European standards. Here are the figures: referendum in 1989: turnout was 58%; 1990: turnout was 14%; 1997: as donlaszlo notes, turnout was 49.2%; 2003: 45.6% (it was about E.U. entry); 2007: turnout was 37.5; and 2008: 50.5%. Of the 49.2% of eligible voters taking part in 1997, 85.3% supported Hungary’s entry into NATO. E.U. entry in 2003 was supported by 83% of those voting. Quite convincing of the Hungarian public’s Western orientation in 1997 and 2003, I would think. While on both occasions Hungary had a government made up of socialists and liberals, Jozsef Antall — the country’s first right-of-center, nationalist prime minister — would have been delighted with the people’s choice.

Guest

Re: ‘I hope that the current Hungarian government will support a strong NATO as much as or more than most of its predecessors. The extremely dangerous situation in Ukraine calls for both unity and solidarity’

I certainly concur. What strikes me though is the fact that the country has been ‘getting closer’ to Russia in a few manifestations. As Russia invaded Ukraine, we can see she put the ‘bite’ on part of the country and hasn’t let go. My fear is that the Hungary-Russia relationship may perhaps give a push to compromise some of the former’s ideas and attitudes when it comes to its standing with NATO. Politics as we know can be a very fluid and dynamic process. I would not like to see Magyarorszag ‘bitten’ in any way again as well. And that position follows with the adage, ‘once bitten twice shy’.

István
Guest
Also Re: ‘I hope that the current Hungarian government will support a strong NATO as much as or more than most of its predecessors. The extremely dangerous situation in Ukraine calls for both unity and solidarity’ As I have repeatedly stated the current evolutionary path of PM Orban and Fidesz is towards Russia. If the USA responds aggressively towards the expansionist dreams of Putin it is my belief PM Orban, assuming he retains power, will at the minimum slow his movement towards Russia. This will not happen until President Obama leaves office and a more aggressive foreign and military perspective towards Russia can be implemented. But it is encouraging that President Obama is allowing even for the planning stages of storing a company’s worth of equipment, enough for 150 US soldiers, in each of the three Baltic nations: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Enough equipment for a company or possibly a battalion, or about 750 soldiers, would also be located in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary. The fact that PM Orban has said nothing that I have seen about this is extremely interesting, especially since the Russians are responding with massive saber rattling. The impression among retired US Army officers… Read more »
donlaszlo
Guest

“Quite convincing of the Hungarian public’s Western orientation in 1997 and 2003.” Yes, indeed. Anyway, for a clear picture about election results, you should always add turnout percentage.

dd34
Guest

No other regime sold out the Hungarians more than the Fidesz.

All smart Finckelstein slogans will not disguise this stain.

tappanch
Guest

Orban in his own words:
“bloody changes” have taken place in Hungary,
his system is “like pornography”

(reference to US Supreme Court on obscenity)

1:01:30

https://youtu.be/aVBARcSli3Q

tappanch
Guest

“Justice Potter Stewart’s concurred, holding that the Constitution protected all obscenity except “hard-core pornography.” Stewart wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.””

Member

While Orban rationalizes playing the immigration-menace card over and over by whining that big countries cannot understand the existential worries of small countries of 10 million or less, the following countries, all that size or smaller, don’t seem to be suffering such worries: Belgium, Greece, Czech Republic, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Norway, New Zealand, Croatia, Lithuania, Albania, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Iceland… He may have a point about the last Hungarian shutting the door behind him — but that will be from emigration, not immigration.

Member

It was more than that. Horn (as foreign minister) was the first to propose Hungary’s NATO membership as early as 1990, right before the elections, when there was still a consensus about neutrality. The opposition (soon to comprise 90 pct of the Parliament) shrugged it off as an election ploy intended to boost the Socialist Party’s chances. In 1989-90 Horn was a standard-bearer of Western-type democracy.

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