Tag Archives: Vera Blinken

The Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at Central European University

A few months ago I wrote a review of Anna Porter’s biography of George Soros titled Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, in which I concentrated on Soros’s philanthropic activities in Hungary. Nowadays Soros’s name is frequently bandied about in Hungary, often as a result of Viktor Orbán’s sudden “discovery” that Soros is responsible for the refugee crisis. He is one of those internationalists, along with Jürgen Habermas, the renowned philosopher, who wants to destroy European culture as it exists today. Of course, every time the names of Orbán and Soros are mentioned in the same breath someone will recall that Orbán’s student association benefited from precious copy machines and individual scholarships to study abroad funded by a generous George Soros.

Soros spent both time and money trying to lead Hungary toward his ideal of an “open society,” which is described by the Open Society Foundations as “a vibrant and tolerant society whose government is accountable and open to the participation of all people.” The Foundation seeks “to strengthen the rule of law; respect for human rights, minorities, and a diversity of opinions; democratically elected governments; and a civil society that helps keep government power in check.” As things stand now in Hungary, George Soros’s efforts haven’t borne fruit, but there is one institution he funded and still funds, Central European University, that might be Soros’s most significant Hungarian achievement as István Teplán, one of the co-founders of the university, told Anna Porter.

Originally, George Soros established three campuses of Central European University (CEU): in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. Shortly after Václav Klaus became president of the Czech Republic in 2003, Soros decided to close the Prague campus due to Klaus’s antagonistic attitude toward both Soros and his idea of an open society. The Warsaw campus didn’t thrive. On the other hand, the Budapest campus has become an important university in the region since its opening.

CEU is accredited in both the United States and in Hungary and offers English-language master’s and doctoral programs in the social sciences, humanities, law, management and public policy. It has approximately 1,400 students and 370 faculty members coming from more than 130 countries. The student: faculty ratio is 7:1. (By way of comparison, the Yale ratio is similar at 6:1.) Forty percent of the students are on a full CEU fellowship and 21% are on partial scholarship. Only 5% of the students pay full tuition. The drop-out rate is low: 2.5% of those who spend one year at CEU and 4% of those who are enrolled in the two-year program. The situation is different in the doctoral program where the drop-out rate for the graduating class of 2014-2015 was 27%.

The crown jewel of CEU is its archives, which as of November 3 is called the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum will recall that I wrote a brief review of Vera and Donald Blinken’s book Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return. Donald Blinken was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998, and his Hungarian-born wife Vera did an enormous amount of good work in Hungary in those days. In one short post I could cover only a fragment of the Blinkens’ work in Hungary in promoting closer U.S.-Hungarian relations, but their contribution was noteworthy. Donald Blinken is considered by many to have been the best U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the last 25 years.

Vera and Donald Blinken at the dedication ceremony on Nocember 3, 2015

Vera and Donald Blinken at the dedication ceremony on November 3, 2015

What is the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives (OSA)? It is “one of the world’s most valuable archival collections related to the Cold War, human rights movements and grave international human rights violations.” It holds more than 9.5 linear kilometers of paper records and 12 terabytes of digital records related to communist-era political, social, economic, and cultural life. It also includes the extensive collection of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute, personal papers of a number of political, cultural, and counter-culture figures from the Cold War, and samizdat literature from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary. The Archives is also the depository of documents related to human rights, such as the investigative material on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, papers of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights as well as the Index on Censorship. It is also the official archives of the Open Society Foundations established by George Soros.

The Blinkens, with their generous bequest, have now made the Archives’ future secure. This, by the way, is not the Blinkens’ first gift to the Archives. Back in 2006 they made a contribution to establish the Donald and Vera Blinken Collection of interviews with Hungarian refugees from 1957-1958, which was digitized on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. You may want to take a look at these interviews, which are available on the Archives website.

We all ought to be grateful for this gift that will further research on the communist period in Hungary.

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.

Hungary between 1994 and 1998: The memoirs of Vera and Donald Blinken, Part I

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.

Bill Clinton in Taszár, in the background Vera Blinken / MTI

Bill Clinton in Taszár, with Vera Blinken in the background / MTI

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.