Orbán’s Hungary – a member of NATO or Putin’s Fifth Column?: Hungarian Foreign Policy and Euro-Atlantic Integration, 1989-2019.

Springtime in Brussels and Budapest, 1999:

In 1999, during the first government of Viktor Orbán, when Hungary became a member of NATO, his foreign minister, János Martonyi wrote of the change in the country’s system of government that had begun with the mandate received from the first free elections, which had replaced the one-party-state system. The Prime Minister of the new Centre-Right coalition government of József Antall, on 23rd May, announced their intention to initiate its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Reflecting on this from the end of the decade, Martonyi commented that the system change presented Hungary with…

… a unique and irreproducible opportunity to reintegrate once and for all into the community of developed and democratic states which are bound together by their commitment to the basic values typical of all of them: democracy, the rule of law – with its institutional frameworks and substance, respect for human rights including minority rights, and an economy based on private property and free initiative. Not to miss such a historic opportunity this time must be the task and guiding principle of action of all responsible politicians, political parties and the government.

János Martonyi & Zsolt Németh (1999), “Hungarian Foreigh Policy and Euro-Atlantic Integration”, in Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This opportunity, the authors went on, had been well recognised by the Antall government of 1990-94. In his address delivered in the Hungarian Parliament on the government’s programme, József Antall had pointed out that:

“… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but at the same time, also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.

This formulation of these foreign policy priorities – Euro-Atlantic integration, good neighbourliness ensuring regional stability, and support for the Hungarian communities living abroad – did not apply to one parliamentary cycle only, and all the subsequent governments of the 1990s continued to see these goals as being of primary importance, through to the beginning of the first FIDESZ-led government in 1999. By then, the Hungarian national flag did already fly, together with the Czech and Polish flags, in front of the Headquarters of NATO besides the other sixteen, demonstrating that the community had been enriched by its new central-eastern European allies.

Revolution in Budapest & at the Border, Oct. 1988-Oct. 1989:

In order to understand developments in the attitudes of the Hungarian political parties and their voters towards the North Atlantic Alliance in the 1990s, we need first to look back into the period immediately preceding the change in the system in Hungary in 1988-89. The Communist government announced on 23rd October 1988, the 32nd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, that they would start negotiations for a Soviet troop withdrawal. They also announced the setting up of a historical commission to establish a true and official characterisation of the Uprising. Changes began to happen fast from that point. On 11th January 1989, Hungary’s Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the way for an eventual end to one-party rule. The following month, the groundbreaking report prepared by the historical commission of the ruling MSZMP reported, rejecting the official interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a “counter-revolution” rather describing it as a popular uprising against the existing state power and saying that, under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. Imre Pozsgay, who had become a prominent figure in the Politburo, acting largely on his own initiative, publicly announced soon after that the events of 1956 had indeed been a popular uprising rather than an attempt at counter-revolution. Even the Party Central Committee could not be induced to go as far as Pozsgay. Although by that time János Kádár had gone, it was still by far the most delicate subject in Hungarian politics.

Hungarian-Soviet improved when the Soviet Union withdrew two thousand soldiers from Hungary at the end of April, and Gorbachev stated that the Soviet goal was to withdraw ten thousand soldiers and four hundred and fifty tanks by May 1990, which raised the US and Hungarian expectations even further. Nevertheless, Hungary enjoyed an increasing sense of security and, as a demonstration of its independence, it began dismantling its fences along the Austrian border in May 1989. For forty years before that, the question of belonging to an alliance system was considered to be one of the strictest taboos in a Communist-led country occupied by the Soviet Union. It was much riskier to take a stand against the presence of Soviet troops in Hungary or even to raise the issue than to call for human rights or pluralist democracy. Besides the fact that the deployment of Soviet troops in Hungary was the main guarantee for the survival of the communist system there, the experience of 1956 had shown that a violation of Soviet military interests implied the threat of even more brutal repression. Due to this fear of the military might of the Soviet Union, even those opposition groups which took shape in the 1980s considered this issue of the country’s independence taboo and did not insist on placing it on the agendas.

But in June 1989 permission was given for the bodies of Imre Nagy, the executed former Prime Minister, and the other leaders of the 1956 Uprising to be exhumed. Nagy’s body was found buried in the waste ground at the Újkozmeto cemetery, wrapped in tar paper. On 16 June his coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square in central Budapest before being finally reburied. The public funeral was attended by an estimated a quarter of a million Hungarians and broadcast nationwide on radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the thousands of others who died in the retribution meted out by the revolution. While it was organised privately, several Hungarian officials attended part of the ceremony. It was there that the consensus of silence on Soviet withdrawal was first broken on 16 June 1989, when at the ceremonial reburying of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, Viktor Orbán, one of five speakers, declared that:

The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaks at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-conservative party and government.

“If we do not lose sight of the ideals of 1956, we will be able to choose a government which will instantly start talks on the immediate start of the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at Heroes’ Square, 16 June 1989, at the funeral of Imre Nagy and fellow martyrs in András Bozóki (1992), Tista lappal. A Fidesz a magyar politikában 1988-1991 (‘With a cleansheet. Fidesz in Hungarian policy 1988-91): Budapest, p. 155.

Orbán’s speech was a clear challenge to the reform wing of the ruling Communist Party (the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) to keep their word. From the point of view of the security policy, his reference to the ideals of 1956 equalled a claim for independence and, along with that, the neutrality of Hungary. These developments were accompanied by much public discussion of the events of 1956, as well as many other historical subjects. At last, Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was secured by a decision, taken by the Central Committee, to introduce a multi-party system. By then, Pozsgay’s own position seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to his own party. President Bush praised the Hungarian Government’s decision to begin discussions with the opposition parties.

The reburial of the 1956 martyrs, 16th June 1989:
Although himself a former Communist exile in Moscow, the 1989 exhumation and reburial of Imre Nagy and those executed with him, was a turning point in the accelerating changes and national renewal during the decisive year of 1989-90. The honouring of Nagy and his colleagues in this way confirmed the revolutionary (as opposed to the counter-revolutionary) nature of the 1956 events better than any legal rehabilitation could have done.

As a sign of the new US-Hungarian relationship, President Bush became the first US President to visit Hungary on 11th-13th July, accompanied by Secretary of State James A. Baker. By the time President Bush visited Hungary in July 1990, Hungary had effectively ceased to be either a Communist country or a Soviet satellite. He met with Hungarian officials and delivered an address at Karl Marx University in which he praised Hungary’s opening up to the West and its transition to democracy and a market economy, noting that “voices long stilled are being heard again.” At the ‘G7’ Economic Summit meeting, held in Paris on 15th July, participants agreed to provide economic assistance to Poland and Hungary to support their political reform process. Later in the summer of 1989, the civic organisations, in comprehensive negotiations with the leaders of the MSZMP achieved their declared goal of holding free, multi-party elections in the Spring of 1990.

President H. W. Bush participates in a bilateral meeting with PM Miklós Nemeth in July 1989 in the Department Room of the Parliament in Budapest.
Source. The George Bush Presidential Library.

When the BBC Journalist John Simpson visited Imre Pozsgay later that summer, he asked him whether he and his colleagues would be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing. His answer was:

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done.”

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades.
Hungarian PM Miklós Nemeth told the DDR Government it was simply being repaired!
An East German mother comforts her bewildered child at the Hungarian-Austrian border ‘picnic’ at which thousands escaped to the West in Sept 1989.

Hungary took another major step towards reasserting its independence when on 11th September, again at the instigation of Imre Pozsgay, it lifted restrictions on visitors from East Germany. It opened its borders with Austria, allowing people from East Germany (the DDR) on holiday in Hungary, to flood through to the West in such numbers that the entire future of the DDR was called into question, by dealing a fatal blow to its iron-fisted security system. Allowing them to leave Hungary to the west across the Austrian border, breached a twenty-five-year-old agreement with the DDR. The move prompted an exodus of tens of thousands of East Germans to West Germany via Austria.

Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

The second republic was ended by the second Orbán Government in 2010-11.

In October 1989, Hungary’s Parliament also adopted a new, democratic constitution, changed the country’s name from the “Hungarian People’s Republic” to the “Republic of Hungary,” authorised the formation of political parties, forbade such parties to operate in workplaces, scheduled national elections, disbanded the Workers’ Guard, and authorised reparation payments to persons arrested after the 1956 Uprising. On 23rd October, exactly one year after the changes had begun, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new Republic on the thirty-third anniversary of the Uprising. The Revolution of 1988-89 had reached its successful conclusion and the country’s transition to multi-party democracy and a market economy had begun. Developments throughout central-eastern Europe as a whole continued at a rapid pace. Warsaw Pact Foreign Ministers, including Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, met in Warsaw on 27 October and renounced the 1968 Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the Soviet Union had reserved the right to intervene in other countries whenever it believed that the government of a USSR-allied state was threatened.

The crowds outside the Parliament welcome the proclamation of a liberal-democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Another Country: The Transition to Democracy & Independence, October 1989-June 1991:

This was a major step in redefining the nature of relationships between the Warsaw Pact countries, and a decision of major importance given the 1956 and 1968 invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The second step came on 2nd November, at least as far as Hungary was concerned, came when Imre Pozsgay, as Hungarian Minister of State, met with President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy. By November, the position in East Germany had become so bad that the government of East Berlin could think of nothing better than to allow its citizens to move freely to the West. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the breaching of the Berlin Wall which came down on the night of 9 November. US officials watched closely events in central-eastern Europe as the crumbling concrete mirrored the fall of communism. On 28th November, President Bush signed into law the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act, authorising $938 million in aid to Hungary and Poland, now considered to be well in the lead in democratic reform. Between 1989 and 1993, the SEED Act provided more than $136 million for economic restructuring and private sector development.

Senior politicians in Hungary now talked seriously about joining the European Community, and even their jokes about joining NATO were not entirely fanciful. In the autumn of 1989, as the political parties began to lay out their programmes for the free electorate, they went beyond the ideals of “independence and neutrality” in their party platforms. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) considered…

neutrality to be attainable as a future goal, as a consequence of which the Soviet Union could perceive a country in its immediate neighbourhood that would be politically balanced and would not threaten its security interests.

Programme declaration, 1989, of the Hungarian Democratic Forum in The Hungarian Political Yearbook, 1990 Budapest: Edited by Sándor Kurtán, et. al.

The Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) pointed out that:

We have to point out … the fact that the Warsaw Treaty is a political reality, with its complete dissolution to be comprehensive international settlement. However, we must wait until the mutual dissolution of military blocs to implement Hungary’s claim for independence. Our goal is for Hungary to quit the Warsaw Treaty. On the other hand, we wish to bring about such retirement not through a unilateral announcement but rather to obtain the consent of the parties concerned.

Programme declaration, 1989, of the Alliance of Free Democrats, in: Hungarian political yearbook, 1990. Ibid, pp 597-598.

As was expected, Viktor Orbán’s then-nascent liberal party, The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), held the most radical view:

… we will have to review our relationship with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty. We will suggest to start immediate talks with the Soviet government on the earliest possible withdrawal of the latter’s troops from Hungary … Quitting the Warsaw Treaty and declaring the country’s independence could be imagined as maximum goals.

Programme declaration of 1989 of the Alliance of Young Democrats, in Hungarian political yearbook, 1990, p. 500

Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking to the Right.

The most cautious view was expressed by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which had emerged as an independent party out of the former ‘Reform Wing’ of the ruling MSZMP:

Our goal is for NATO and the Warsaw Treaty to become superfluous and eligible for dissolution simultaneously and still in the course of this century. While still being a member of the Warsaw Treaty, our country wishes to promote consent among blocs in an independent manner and through its initiative, as well as the strengthening of confidence and the exemption of interstate relations from ideological divergences of view … We are concerned that belonging to an alliance system must not be a basis for interference in a country’s internal affairs.

Programme declaration, 1989, of The Hungarian Socialist Party, in: Hungarian political yearbook, 1990. p. 583.

None of these programmes involved a sudden withdrawal of Soviet forces, however, nor did they propose or envisage applying for NATO membership in the short to medium term. In the early months of 1990, there was no indication of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire which was soon to take place. Hungarian politicians, Orbán included, were careful not to be seen as threatening Soviet security interests. The foreign policy slogan of the change of system – “change of orientation” – however, turned more radically into reality than was previously expected. The negotiating team of the last government of the socialist system reached an agreement in Moscow on the withdrawal of troops from Hungary on 9 March 1990, a mere two weeks before the first free elections. According to the agreement, the last Soviet soldier would leave Hungary on or before 30 June 1991 (as it happened, this event took place a fortnight earlier, on 16 June 1991). Two-thirds were to be withdrawn by the end of 1990.

Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

The Hungarian democratic transition gathered speed in the spring of 1990. When the final round of elections came, on the 8th of April 1990, the ‘Reform Communists’ or MSZP won only eight per cent of the seats (33), finishing fourth, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF, which won 164 out of 386 seats. In 1918, Hungary had emerged from an empire and found itself on its own; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. In May, Hungary’s National Assembly elected Árpád Göncz as its Speaker and Acting President. The candidate of the Free Democrats, Göncz had spent six years in prison for taking part in the 1956 Uprising. While still Acting President he made a private visit to Washington and met with President Bush to discuss private-sector development and democracy. He was confirmed as President in August. József Antall of the MDF became Premier. On 26 June 1990, the newly constituted multiparty parliament in Budapest requested the government to start the talks on Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Treaty.

Flushed with the refreshing feeling of sovereignty and drawing lessons from the wider international political process, in particular from the rapid change in Hungary’s security environment, the Hungarian political leaders gradually turned from the idea of neutrality to the concept of Euro-Atlantic integration. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky had already become the first leading representative of a Warsaw Pact country to visit NATO Headquarters on 26-28 June. He had talks with Secretary-General Manfred Wörner, who expressed NATO’s desire to develop relations with Hungary and accepted an invitation to visit Hungary. Alongside the obvious need for a transition in international security arrangements, as democratic reform began to take hold in Hungary, the United States and other Western countries agreed to help with the tremendous financial burden of restructuring the economy and preparing the country’s markets for global integration. In October 1990, Prime Minister Antall made an official working visit to Washington. President Bush noted the resumption of American business in Hungary. He had asked Congress for $300 million in economic aid for central-eastern Europe.

From the Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, July 1991 to NATO Accession, 1998:

At the beginning of 1991, the Warsaw Treaty itself received a mortal injury: in accordance with the agreement reached in Budapest on 25 February, the military organisation of that alliance was disbanded. Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland announced their withdrawal effective by the 1st of July 1991 and, in the event, the entire Warsaw Treaty expired on that date when at a final meeting in Prague, the Pact was formally disbanded. Thus, after nearly five decades of Soviet occupation, Hungarians witnessed what less than two years previously had been seemingly impossible: the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the removal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil. The Hungarian National Assembly approved this fact by unanimous vote. Almost simultaneously with the Warsaw Pact, COMECON also ceased to exist. At the same time, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) opened an office in Budapest, and between 1991 and 1998 USAID provided more than $240 million in direct assistance to Hungary. Having begun the reform process among the central-eastern European states, it had regained its full national independence ahead of its own timetable as a result of the internal collapse of the Soviet Union.

With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and subsequently, of the Soviet Union, the bipolar world order ceased to exist, with NATO remaining the only security alliance able to effectively influence political processes. From the point of view of Hungary’s security, the Balkan conflict which broke out in 1991 and continued with varying intensity throughout the decade in the former Yugoslavia (predominantly along the Hungarian border), border incidents – albeit mostly minor – highlighted Hungary’s vulnerability in a blunt manner. The fact that in a matter of not more than two years the number of Hungary’s neighbours had increased from five to seven, out of which only two (Romania and Austria) did not undergo a radical change of state territory, proved the uncertainty of the region. There was agreement among the Hungarian political élite that the only way to break away from the disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany proved that the institutional anchoring of a former Eastern Bloc country was possible.

In October 1991, PM Antall made a private visit to Washington, where President Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in the context of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia. In October 1992, the United States announced that it would contribute an additional $900,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to support refugees from the former Yugoslavia who had been granted asylum in Hungary.

In this rapidly changing political environment and after a certain initial uncertainty, the principle of “national consensus” in foreign-policy decision-making was accepted in Hungary by 1992. In essence, this rested on a gentlemen’s agreement by which the opposition would not overtly criticise the government in foreign and security policy and, in exchange, the government would consult with the opposition before taking important steps in foreign policy. This system of so-called six-party coordination was established in Parliament, as a consultative forum which, in contrast to the composition of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly, was operating on the basis of parity. The basic principles of security policy were adopted unanimously by Parliament in 1993 and the basic principles of national defence based on the first document constituted the peak of that process. The elaboration of these two important parliamentary resolutions had already started back in 1990 but substantial work had not been possible due to the constant changes in the international environment and the initial distrust among the parties. The Government submitted and withdrew one draft after another until, at the beginning of 1993, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited one representative from all six parties represented in Parliament to elaborate on the text of the draft resolution in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry. Besides the fact that they described the security of the country in harmony with the requirements of our age, the basic principles of security policy adopted on 2nd March became the first official document targeting fully-fledged Hungarian membership of NATO:

… we are suggesting concrete co-operation in the field of foreign and security policy as well as military co-operation that would gradually lead to establish the conditions for fully-fledged membership in NATO and the Western European Union.

Resolution No. 11/1993. of the Hungarian National Assembly on the principles of the security policy of the Republic of Hungary.

The “principles of national defence” were adopted a month later (14th April) also by consensus, as well-used even more unambiguous terms:

The goal of the Republic of Hungary is to join the already existing international security organisations such as NATO and WEU as full members. Existing co-operation with NATO member countries in the fields of security policy consultations, defence management, officer training, defence industry and human conversion, science and environmental protection provide valuable support for the transformation of the Hungarian Defence Forces in accordance with our necessities and capacities and for establishing the practical requirements of accession to NATO.

Resolution No. 27/1993. of the Hungarian National Assembly on the principles of the national defence of the Republic of Hungary.

With the Cold War over and the iron curtain having been torn down, both the American and Hungarian politicians and diplomats actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. In October 1993, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher visited Hungary. He met with Foreign Minister Géza Jesszenszky and addressed the American Chamber of Commerce. During the address, he said that NATO would propose outreach to central-eastern European nations through a Partnership for Peace programme. In December 1993, Vice-President Albert Gore attended the funeral of József Antall, Hungary’s first post-Communist Premier. Participants at the NATO Summit meeting in January 1994 formally announced the Partnership for Peace programme, which provided for closer political and military cooperation with central-eastern European countries. President Clinton, accompanied by Secretary of State Christopher, then met with leaders of the Visegrád states (Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), including President Göncz and PM Péter Boross, in Prague. In early February, Hungary joined the Partnership for Peace programme.

During the NATO meeting, the Presidents of the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine signed the START1 nuclear arms reduction treaty. Hungary had signed all of the OSCE’s follow-on documents since 1989. In December 1994, President Clinton and Secretary Christopher attended a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe summit meeting in Budapest. A decision was made to change the name of the CSCE to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and to expand its responsibilities. In June 1995, Hungary signed a ‘status of forces’ agreement relating to the programme. These organisations provided a good school for Hungarian MPs in the search for consensus and foreign policy cooperation beyond party interests. Except for the delegation to the Council of Europe, the composition of the Hungarian parliamentary delegation was based on the principle of parity and the members belonging to different parties were almost always put aside their disputes were almost always able to put aside their disputes related to internal policy in the interest of a more effective representation of national interests.

The North Atlantic Assembly (NAA), a parallel forum for legislators from member countries, maintained a close working relationship with the Alliance and submitted reports and recommendations for the North Atlantic Council. It was the first Atlanticist institution to open its doors to the countries of central-eastern Europe. As early as November 1990, it had accorded the status of associate delegation to several former member states of the Warsaw Pact, including Hungary. The Hungarian National Assembly accepted the invitation in its resolution adopted on 29th January 1991 and from that time on, the six-member delegation participated fully in the NAA’s activities. In the same year, one member of the delegation was nominated as a ‘special rapporteur’, the first time a delegate from a non-member state had been given this role. By 1994, the Hungarian delegation was allowed fully-fledged participation in committee work as well, and in May 1995, the NAA held its spring meeting in Budapest, the first such meeting to take place outside NATO territory. The NAA provided an excellent means of exchanging information and know-how about NATO’s functions on the one hand, and the goals of Hungarian foreign policy on the other. It was also in 1990 that the Hungarian National Assembly could join the work of the WEU Assembly by sending two ‘special observers.’ The redefinition of the role of the WEU at that time nurtured Hungary’s hope of joining the European Community (later the EU) as well as NATO through the links with the WEU. But by the mid-nineties, Hungarian foreign policy had not reached a position where it could decide between the ‘Atlanticist’ model, seeing the WEA as NATO’s European pillar or one based on a concept of a European defence identity within the evolving European Union.

By the end of the first parliamentary cycle following the change of system in Hungary, the joint political thinking that had been crystallised with respect to Euro-Atlantic integration suffered a severe setback when the opposition Socialist Party (MSZP) expressed reservations over a selective enlargement of NATO, stressing that it could only imagine Hungary’s accession to NATO only after a referendum on the issue. This variance in approach led to the predictable reaction against ‘leftism’ in Hungarian politics in the run-up to the general election. However, following a certain amount of hesitation after the elections, the consensus was restored by the newly elected Government, led by the MSZP, which had dropped its resistance to Hungary becoming a NATO member independently of others in the region in exchange for a referendum to ratify eventual membership. In the meantime, Hungary took several practical steps to aid the mission of the Western Alliance.

At the end of November 1995, following the initialling of the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, the Hungarian Government announced that Kaposvár in southern Hungary would become the principal supply base of the US components of the international peacekeeping force, the NATO-led Implementation Force. The Hungarian Parliament was almost unanimous in voting to allow NATO forces to use Hungarian bases, including the airfield at Taszár. From December onwards, the US First Armored Divisions passed regularly through the city of Pécs in southern Hungary en route to peacekeeping duties in Bosnia. President Clinton visited the US military personnel at the base in January 1996 and met with the Hungarian PM, Gyula Horn and the Minister of Defence.

The close working relationship between the Clinton administration and the Socialist-led Hungarian Government which developed through practical cooperation led to the transition to full membership of NATO. During the NATO Summit Meeting in Madrid in July 1997, Secretary-General Javier Salana invited Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to join NATO. A national referendum in Hungary approved membership on 16th November of the same year. Only 49.24% of eligible voters turned out, but of those 85.33% voted in favour of Hungary’s accession, leaving 14.67% against. It could therefore be concluded that only the staunchest opponents of the accession took part in the referendum, presumably including those opposed to accession for ideological, political and conscientious (pacifist) reasons, as well as those who were strongly attached to the notion of neutrality. Following the referendum, the acceptance of NATO accession gradually increased further to reach its peak of 63% by August 1998, while the level of opposition remained at just 16% (see the graph below).

Hungary signed the protocol for accession on 16th December 1997, and Parliament voted for membership in February 1998. In May of that year, the second round of parliamentary elections took place, bringing Viktor Orbán and his Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) – Hungarian Civic Party to power for the first time. To begin with, this did not herald a shift towards a more conservative foreign policy under Defence Minister, János Szabó, and, in any case, it was too late to reverse the decision to join NATO, even had the new government wished to do so. Furthermore, in a resolution passed on 15th October, the National Assembly agreed to consent to the use of Hungarian airspace by reconnaissance, combat and transport aircraft, in addition to helicopters taking part in NATO actions aimed at the enforcement of UN resolutions on the settlement of the crisis in Kosovo, without restrictions.

However, Hungarian public opinion was very quick in taking the country’s membership in NATO for granted. The issue rapidly disappeared from the forefront of popular attention and political discourse. Except for some unusual periods related to specific, topical and important events, such as the period immediately preceding the referendum, the issue of international security was not a significant one for the broader strata of Hungarian society. It might be argued that it has remained out of the limelight ever since, especially since the threat of the spread of war has receded, until very recently. On the list of public priorities, the matter of NATO enlargement was lower down not only than most economic, social and internal political issues but also matters related to EU integration.

The attention paid in Hungary to NATO-related subjects tends to cover, in addition to those which formerly dominated issues directly related to Hungary’s accession, more and more of the broader perspectives of the activities of the Alliance. For example, according to the last poll taken in August 1998, the Hungarian public had a positive view of NATO’s role in preventing and managing conflicts within the region. With respect to the situation in Kosovo, 55% of those asked were of the position that involvement with NATO would reduce the probability of a border conflict between Albania and Yugoslavia, and could prevent the outbreak of a civil war in Kosovo. The remaining 45% were equally divided between the disapproving and the undecided. By comparison, according to the USIA Survey, the number of those replying positively to the same question equated to 56% in Poland, 51% in the Czech Republic, 66% in Romania, 70% in Slovenia and 85% in Croatia. But support for Hungarian participation in such actions was substantially smaller, and while the overwhelming majority accepted that Hungarian airspace should be made available, only 46% were supportive, and an identical percentage opposed the participation of a Hungarian engineering contingent in the SFOR-mission in Bosnia. Even fewer, only 28%, agreed with Hungarian military participation in Kosovo, while 64% were opposed to such a deployment.

This data regarding public opinion on NATO provided an early warning to PM Orbán and other potential leaders about the political perils of ignoring the attitudes of voters towards the active military deployment of Hungarian forces. As far as NATO enlargement was concerned, however, public opinion was generally supportive of the potential membership of neighbouring countries and even the Baltic states. It was clearly seen as being in Hungary’s interests for these countries to comply as soon as possible with the expectations and accession criteria of both the Alliance and the EU.

The End of Foreign Policy Consensus: The Balkans, the European Union, Iraq & Afghanistan, 1999-2009:

In the decade following the end of the Cold War, the last of the twentieth century, the Hungarian people were finally able to redefine their country’s place in the global community, concluding with In the second decade, Hungary began the process of reintegrating itself into a new, unified Europe. The road back to Europe culminated on 1 May 2004, when Hungary joined the European as a full member.

The post-Cold War era brought new levels of cooperation between European nations, including those of central-eastern Europe, as they joined together to support democracy and the rule of law and, especially after the attacks on the USA on 11th September 2001, to work together to combat the threat of global terrorism. There were also threats from epidemics and international crime. Secretary of State Madelaine K. Albright, herself a refugee from central Europe during the Second World War, and a noted scholar, visited Hungary in December 2000 and met with PM Orbán. She was awarded an honorary degree by Szeged University.

In a sign of the close bilateral relationship with the US, and its multi-lateral relationships through NATO, in January 2003, Hungary was one of eight central-eastern European states whose leaders signed a letter endorsing US policy during the Iraq crisis. During the early stages of the war, Hungary invited the US Army to train Free Iraqi Forces as guides, translators and security personnel at the Taszár airbase. It also committed a transportation company of three hundred soldiers to a multinational division stationed in central Iraq. On 17th June 2004, Hungary sustained its first combat casualties when a roadside bomb (IED) killed one soldier and wounded another, south of Baghdad. Less than a week later, PM Péter Medgyessy made a working visit to Washington and assured President George W Bush that Hungary would keep its troops in Iraq. Secretary of State Powell visited Hungary in October to thank Hungary for its support of the coalition and to encourage its continued participation. The Hungarian Government also donated seventy-seven tanks to the Free Iraqi military. Although the mandate for the Hungarian forces in Iraq expired at the end of the year, Powell convinced the Hungarian Government to renew its soldiers’ mandate so that they would remain until after the pivotal Iraqi elections in December.

In early November, PM Ferenc Gyurcsány proposed to Parliament that Hungary would not withdraw its troops until the end of March 2005. The Fidesz-led opposition opposed the proposal, breaking the security consensus which had existed since 1990, but Parliament voted by 191 to 159 to support the extension. However, the vote fell short of the required two-thirds majority, the Government was forced to terminate the mission at the end of the year and on 20th December it withdrew its troops from Iraq. But the Gyurcsány Government continued to work with the Allies to provide alternative assistance to Iraq, including participation in the NATO Training Mission there, and also stepped up its participation in other military missions. In 2005, it augmented its contingent in the Balkan peacekeeping missions to a 450-strong force. In August 2005, it also sent a reconnaissance team of a hundred and twenty troops to Afghanistan, along with medical and administrative personnel. In 2006, Hungary assumed the leadership of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in northern Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations.

In June 2006, President G. W. Bush visited Hungary to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising and Hungary’s ongoing efforts to strengthen global democracy. During his visit, he made a speech on Gellért Hill in Buda in which he said:

The lesson of 1956 is clear: Liberty can be delayed but it cannot be denied. The desire for liberty is universal because it is written by our Creator into the hearts of every man, woman and child on this Earth. And as people across the world sep forward to claim their own freedom, they will take inspiration from Hungary’s example, and draw hope from your success. … Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and America is proud to call Hungary a friend.

As part of their commitment to NATO, the US and Hungary continued to stand ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the global war on terror. In November 2007, Hungarian Defence Minister Imre Szekeres announced Hungary’s latest contribution to this mission. A sixteen-nation consortium of NATO allies, plus two non-NATO states, selected the airport at Papa to host their strategic airlift fleet of three C-17 transport aircraft beginning in late 2008. Papa’s airport was supposed to play an important role in transporting logistics materials and provisions in response to worldwide crisis situations. It was a further demonstration of the excellent security cooperation that existed between the US, NATO and Hungary before the ‘second coming’ of Viktor Orbán in 2006. On the ‘eve’ of his advent to power, Marc J Susser, the US Department of State’s official historian concluded his study of US-Hungarian relations with the following comment:

Today, the two countries share a commitment to democracy, economic progress, and educational and cultural development. Shaped by a common experience of breaking free from an empire, the two countries have developed strong political, economic and cultural ties, marked by mutual respect. … relations between the United States and Hungary continue to improve, as Hungary continues to move ahead with its national commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy.

Mark J. Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary, Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State, p. 96.

The Reversal of Euro-Atlantic Integration, 2009-2019:

Since 2006, and especially since the beginning of his third term in 2014 in his sixteen-year rule in Hungary, Viktor Orbán has gradually returned his country to the Russian ‘sphere of influence’ and away from its supposed allies in the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. Following the flood of Syrian refugees crossing Hungary to seek asylum in other EU member states, such as Germany, in the summer of 2015, he began to criticise the management of the crisis by the EU institutions and member states, especially Germany.

Putin and Orbán in 2017.

By his own admission, Orbán is only worried about the fight against the EU as an institution that seeks to replace the nation-state. He is driven not by the healthy resurgence of national identity and patriotism in Hungary but seeks to pervert it into an authoritarian ‘nation-statism’ that belongs to the Horthy Era (1 March 1920 – 15 October 1944, see insert below) in recent Hungarian history, if not to the late nineteenth century when the country was finally emerging from its first general crisis. Orbán’s basic concept and strategy for European unity start from his observation that the EU is wealthy but weak. This, he suggests, is the worst possible combination… one that is acutely vulnerable to the single greatest threat confronting Europe – and Hungary. It is a threat, he claims, which is undermining his country’s financial stability and its precarious achievement in modernising the economy. 

If the EU is wealthy but weak, Hungary is both poor and weak, with its wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-decreasing oligarchy. The hard-working middle classes are reminded that they have his government to thank for its nationalist foreign policy (influence over its neighbours in and surrounding the Carpathian basin with Hungarian minorities), its restoration of ‘law and order’, ‘public safety against terrorism’ and its national culture that has slowly begun to flourish again after the long years of Communist sterility. The threat to all this comes, not from within, which has seen Hungary under his watch being returned to being one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, but from outside, from mass migration and its ‘mismanagement’ by the institutions of the European Union. On the significance of the Brexit vote, he drew his conclusion that…

… there used to be little doubt that the European Union was a major actor in global politics, capable of influencing developments not only back home but in remote corners of the globe. The secession of the UK marks the end of that era. The EU’s influence is even weakening closer to home, as it is apparent in the conflict in Ukraine. 

Viktor Orbán (2017), Hungary and the Crisis of Europe.

Yet, for all that we might worry about the effect of ‘Brexit’ on European integration, the early signs are that it will, paradoxically, strengthen the Atlantic Alliance which Hungary was so proud to become a member of earlier this century before it joined the EU.

In 2018, after securing a fourth consecutive term, Viktor Orbán turned his wrath on Ukraine, which had introduced a new law to ensure that the Ukrainian language was used as the main medium of instruction throughout the country. About a third of the people of Transcarpathia, over the Ukrainian border from Hungary, are Hungarian speakers. The new law did not exclude the use of other first languages like Russian and Hungarian in schools or elsewhere, but Orbán found common cause with President Putin in opposing the new law as a pretext for involvement in Ukraine’s internal affairs. This became related to Ukraine’s desire to join NATO in 2019 when Hungary declared its opposition to Ukraine’s membership of the Alliance and announced that it would seek to block it. Russia had already illegally occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014, and supported the Russian-speaking separatist forces in their paramilitary campaigns in the Donbas and other regions of eastern Ukraine, supporting them with arms and troops (allegedly providing trading) and enabling them to gain control of a large part of these regions. Until the beginning of the current Russian attacks on Ukraine and the NATO condemnation of them, Orbán did not criticise Russian actions and, even now, he is refusing to allow military equipment and supplies to transit Hungary and cross its border with Ukraine. He has also proved extremely reluctant to apply agreed EU sanctions and claims that Hungary can remain ‘neutral’ whilst also remaining a full member of NATO. According to the Treaty, of course, there is no such status.

For some time now, it has appeared to be Hungary and others among the Visegrád countries who have deliberately sought to undermine the efforts of NATO and the EU to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine, and to prevent them from sending clear signals to Putin about the independence of the Baltic states within the NATO-EU ‘umbrella.’ As he rightly admits, Hungary has benefited under this umbrella in the not-too-distant past, especially during the wars in former Yugoslavia, but more recently – under his rule – it has contributed very little. The Hungarian government will have to make up its mind in the near future whether it wishes to continue its commitment to NATO, as well as to the EU. To many Western observers, it seems that it wants to keep the resources from the west and east alike, but does not want to keep up its commitments as a member of these ‘clubs’.


Rudolf Joó (ed.) (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

Viktor Orbán (2017), Hungary and the Crisis of Europe, in Gyula Kodalányi (ed.), Hungarian Review, Volume VIII, No.1, January 2017. Budapest: Danube Institute.

Mark J. Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary, Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State.

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