When Hungary voted overwhelmingly to join NATO in November, Socialist prime minister Gyula Horn’s government was quick to call the result a testament to Hungary’s commitment to democracy and desire to be part of Europe. Yet, while many celebrate the victory, a window of opportunity has closed, finishing the “period of transition” that began with the quiet revolution of 1989. At the very least, it’s the end of the beginning, though the beginning itself was rather stillborn.
There was never much doubt about the outcome, although the yes vote – 85 percent of ballots cast – surprised analysts, who expected the number of noes to be higher. However, the statistics are misleading, since under half the eligible voters participated: Only 40 percent of the voting public supported NATO membership.
Nevertheless, the government savored victory – after a low-intensity campaign with no real debate. Posters about the referendum appeared only weeks before the vote. Meanwhile, the population was softened up by the “NATO Top 5, ” a radio program that ran throughout the summer. At the end of each show, people could call in to answer questions and win prizes. Closer to the vote, TV propaganda took the form of a NATO quiz.
The mass media skillfully marginalized any opposition by linking criticism with the extreme Left (i.e., the Worker’s Party, unreformed communists) and the extreme Right (the Truth and Life Party of Istvan Csurka). Posters featured a multitudinous “yes” crowd. Reaganite Cold War films completed the government’s soft sell package. In this environment, launching an effective counter-campaign would have been difficult.
That said, some of the blame must rest with the opponents. The few organizations that did try, such as World Without War and the Humanist Movement, seemed more interested in self-advertisement. Rallies were poorly organized and publicized. In one case, it looked like more police and reporters than supporters showed up.
A Squandered Opportunity
Opposition to NATO membership was Hungary’s last chance to control its foreign policy. Having already surrendered economic control to the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies, the country has now totally lost independence. The red star of Soviet communism has been painted over with red, white, and blue corporate capitalism.
Given Hungary’s turbulent history and traditional yearning for neutrality, the ease with which Hungarians surrendered their independence is shocking. In its fight against Austria during the 1848 revolution, Hungary’s famous poet-revolutionary, Sandor Petofi, proclaimed that there should be “no Hungarians on foreign soil and no foreign soldiers on Hungarian soil.” That call was echoed during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 against Soviet domination. Indeed, the revolutionary government pulled out of the Warsaw Pact and declared neutrality before being brutally crushed by Red Army tanks. How quickly Hungary forgot its history.
The most common argument for NATO is security: Being a member is supposed to give Hungary a security blanket protecting it from Balkan instability and Russia’s resurgence. Yet, throughout its history, the country has been threatened from the West as much as the East, namely Austria and Germany. And, as the situation of Greece and Turkey – constantly within a hair’s breadth of war – makes apparent, NATO doesn’t guarantee security.
The disgraceful legacy of Western powers and NATO in Central and Eastern Europe is indisputable. At the Yalta Conference, the Allied Powers handed the region to Stalin. Neither did NATO or the US come to Hungary’s aid during the 1956 Uprising, although the people were throwing off Soviet domination. The Truman Doctrine had promised help in such a case; this unfulfilled pledge led to thousands of deaths after the Soviets regained control.
Deceit aside, Hungary squandered a chance to be a leader in regional and global politics. A neutral wedge between East and West could have thwarted US pressure as de facto global policeman. It also might have spurred other countries to support the UN, and led to the re-emergence of a Non-Aligned Movement – or another organization that acknowledges post – Cold War realities.
In any case, Central and Eastern Europe are now set to become the most militarized area of Europe. As an Alliance partner, Hungary looks forward to purchasing $12 million in Western military hardware per year. For a country with the highest per capita external debt in the region, it can be ill-afforded. Hungary has already received Soviet hardware as partial payment for Russia’s outstanding debt. Ironically, when idealism swept through the region in 1989, Hungary promised to reduce its army by a third. Although it may keep that promise by restricting the number of Hungarian soldiers, the reduction will be negated by foreign soldiers and weapons of greater destructive power.
Central and Eastern Europe are turning into dumping grounds for the military-industrial complexes of both East and West. MiG fighters, recently purchased by NATO in order to prevent them from going to “terrorist” nations, will surely wind up in the region.
Neither will the West’s desire to stockpile weapons be blocked by Hungary. At a NATO forum last summer, Hungarian foreign minister Laszlo Kovacs was asked what guarantees would be requested from NATO that nuclear weapons won’t be stored there. The minister replied that he wasn’t seeking any, since NATO has no such intentions. Perhaps not at the moment.
Such issues never reached the general public. Many still don’t realize that after overcoming the humiliation of Soviet troops on their soil, US soldiers have taken their place and established a base. They’re also unaware that not everyone in the West supports NATO. Hungary’s closest western neighbor, Austria, isn’t a member, although its neutrality may be shakier now that its eastern neighbors are becoming members.Others within Western Europe aren’t in favor of NATO, or at least the US’ dominating role. Last summer, France pulled back from being a full member, a fact not reported in Hungarian media. In Germany, a Green Party congress adopted a more moderate approach than its traditional call to abolish NATO. Apparently, the Greens are now willing to accept its replacement with something else, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Given the potential to resist US power in Europe, Hungary could have adopted an exemplary approach which would have put it on more equal footing when dealing with other European Union members in upcoming talks on accession and other issues. However, taking the easy way out, the country preferred to be soothed by promises of security, and the hope that membership in one Western club will enable its admittance into the rest.
Bedtime for Democracy
The referendum was dubbed Hungary’s Fateful Decision. But for the government, the public’s blessing wasn’t that important. In fact, at one point the Prime Minister suggested going ahead without a referendum. Subsequently, Horn equated the referendum with a commitment to democracy, and campaign posters appealed for as many voters as possible.
To this extent, the referendum was a failure for the government. The VP of the ruling socialists, Magdolna Kovacs Kosne, defended the low turnout by claiming it was comparable to levels across Europe, and that over 50 percent is unreasonable to expect. But the turnout is a signal that Hungarian democracy is in trouble. The first post’communist elections saw a turnout of over three-quarters; four years later, it dropped to about three-fifths; now it’s less than half. The rapidly declining interest is leading Hungary back to dictatorship. Only now it’s dictatorship by default.
Even more worrisome is politicians’ attitude toward democratic procedures. Although victory was virtually assured, the process was not smooth. The trouble began when the government attempted to offer three referendum questions simultaneously: one on NATO, and two on land ownership by foreigners. A leading opposition party, the Young Democratic Alliance ‘ Citizens Party (FIDESZ), gathered signatures for its own versions. After FIDESZ collected 327,000 signatures, the ruling socialists dismissed their petitions, accusing FIDESZ of intransigence and jealousy. When FIDESZ warned of extraordinary measures if the government didn’t recognize its petitions, the media jumped in, interpreting this as a threat of civil unrest. Before the process of signature validation was complete, President Arpad Goncz signed the bill for the referendum.
A constitutional crisis ensued. Losing patience, Horn reminded everyone that the government didn’t have to let the public vote, pointing to the Czech Republic and Poland, neither of which plans to hold a NATO membership referendum. Once it was obvious that the government and president had over-stepped their authority, a compromise was reached: The land questions were postponed, but the NATO vote proceeded as planned.
The government and president’s behavior indicated that old habits die hard. Ignoring the Constitution and bypassing the parliament majority, the socialists demonstrated contempt for democratic process. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the same attitude permeates public administration, including institutions such as schools. Those in power assume that respect for authority must be enforced, not earned. Horn’s attitude also reveals that those on top basically view democracy as a formality.
The actions of Goncz betrayed incompetence at the highest level. By signing the referendum bill prior to the resolution of the dispute, he ignored one of the most basic constitutional tenets. In a true democracy, he would’ve been forced to justify his actions, and might even have been impeached. In Hungary, however, the matter was quietly swept under the rug.In short, the referendum did more than indicate where the country’s foreign policy is heading. It also proved that Hungary still has a long way to go before it can truly call itself a democracy.
John Horvath reports regularly from Eastern Europe.