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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 25:53–65.


Looking for a Place of Small States: Hungarian Security Policy 1989–2004


Security policy constitutes an internal stratum of the existence of states and of their political activity. It has two major areas. Concepts of internal security relate to the state based on the rule of law (constitution, institutions, legal order, public security) and to the society as a whole, whereas the categories of external security are elated to the broader and narrower international environment, to challenges and threats coming from outside the country, to the international system and to the strategic aspects of foreign policy. Security policy is directly related to the concept of state sovereignty, and all foreign-policy activity may be somehow associated with the categories of independence, the preservation of the territory of a country and with the assertion of national interests. Striving to achieve the possible broadest security is a permanent characteristic of every foreign policy, despite the fact that there are few such categories that have been repeatedly discussed so much like security policy. In critical times the impression may be created that foreign policy is nothing but security policy.

Another cornerstone of foreign and security policy is the assertion of national interests. To this, first of all national interests have to be defined in their extent as well as content. Next the process of interest maximisation may come along political rationality, utilising the means available to the state. During the course of its 20th-century history Hungary may be mostly characterised by the concepts of adjustment, following another along a forced track, and of external openness as an object of great power politics. As a small state it could hope for the assertion of its interests in co-operation with the bigger powers, or as an indirect result of the assertion of great-power interests. After World War II the country was shifted to the Soviet sphere of interest as a result of great-power decisions the institutions of which (CMEA, Warsaw Pact) overwhelmingly served the state interests of the Soviet Union. In the accession euphoria after the change of the system there was also the historically well-founded realisation besides the emotional elements (Hungary belonged to the West!) that one of the most efficient means for the preservation of independence of small states was to belong to an alliance system, whereas the most effective channel for the assertion of national interests was membership in institutions. In case of remaining aloof one may only adjust to decisions made, whereas as members their content may be influenced. After the change of the system Hungary’s embeddedness in institutions has radically grown and the process may be regarded as completed by accession to the European Union in May 2004.

The lack of identity between the state and national borders of Hungary since the Trianon Peace Treaty practically the country has had to follow a path it was forced to take in its neighbourhood as well as regional policies. Due to its geopolitical conditions (geographic location, size, limited resources, borders difficult to defend) Hungary had very rarely got into a position of a country launching significant initiatives in world politics: during the period after World War II the 1956 revolt against the Soviets and the opening up of the borders towards Austria in the autumn of 1989 may be regarded as such. While the experiment of ceding from the socialist world system was doomed to fail right from the outset in the process of the consolidating bipolar international system, by letting the East German refugees cross the Austrian border Budapest supported the mainstream of the transformation of that international system, and directly contributed to the geopolitical rearrangement leading to German unification.

All that took place in relation to the change of the system in 1989–1990 can be interpreted along the specification and assertion of national interests. The Hungarian political elite had to rapidly elaborate answers to the basic issues related to the position of the country, such as:

– How the independence of the country can be regained?

– What country strategies should be developed for issues directly deriving from the geopolitical and historical conditions of the country after independence regained? The most difficult of these issues was the lack of identity of the borders of the nation and state since World War I, and hence the definition of minority and neighbourhood policies.

– In what direction should the country seek the safeguards of its security after the disintegration of the socialist bloc?

– What challenges has the country to face after an East-West confrontation, and what answers does it wish to give to them?

Hungary, similarly to its neighbours without exception, when freed from the embrace of the Soviet empire, turned towards the successful institutions of the West (Council of Europe, European Union, NATO) (parliamentary democracy, market economy, the rule of law). Hungary was among the first to begin this process during the course of which one may equally find successful and less successful elements, but the aggregate result of which has been a strategy of adjustment to the Western world in respect of a new value and interest orientation. The basic directions of security policy may be found in three parliamentary documents laying down the principles of security and defence policy (1993 and 1998).


Concepts of security policy

After the four decades spent in the Soviet imperial system (Warsaw Pact, Council for Mutual Economic Aid) theoretically almost half a dozen possibilities opened up for the Hungarian foreign and security policies with the change of the system. In practice the possibilities of those options were widely different; nevertheless, surveying them is not without lessons:

1. The maintenance of an alliance with the Soviet Union, albeit in a modified form and content could be regarded as an option. Though when the government, changing the system and headed by József Antall entered into office (June 1990), the Warsaw Pact as well as the CMEA did exist, yet it was only a theoretical possibility, for it was getting freed from the Soviet sphere of interest that was in the focus of the process of system change. By the summer of 1991 both socialist organisations disintegrated, more over, the Soviet Union itself fell into pieces by the end of the year and it was revealed that the national interests of the Soviet successor states were essentially different from those of Moscow, therefore an option in the nature of restoration could be regarded as excluded from the internal as well as external sides.

2. Autonomy and reliance on the country’s own resources was a forced and transitory alternative. It was the elaboration of national strategy that proved to be one of the first tasks after independence was regained, and decisions had to be made after a survey of the geopolitical conditions of the country (size, resources, means, etc.) and of its capabilities. During the course of the elaboration of an independent Hungarian foreign policy this alternative was not even seriously discussed though the expression of “all-round defence”, hallmarked by the name of the then minister of defence (Lajos Fűr) became the synonym for a serious misunderstanding of the issue. Looking back, however, it should be mentioned that a precise fixing of national strategy was an elemental requirement after the country was freed from the bonds of the Socialist camp, and that there was very little exact information on the future international embeddedness of the nation in 1991.

3. The alternative of building a Central European regional security structure was accorded greater attention. The three Visegrád countries (Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary) successfully coordinated their steps during 1990 and 1991; they took up a joint position in the interest of dismantling the Warsaw Pact and the CMEA. Experiences gained at that time, common interest in the withdrawal of Soviet troops and in avoiding a security-policy vacuum projected this regional solution as a temporarily viable alternative with a large amount of Western encouragement. As a result Hungary was a founder member of the Pentagonal (Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Italy), and subsequently of the Hexagonal (the former ones + Poland), the Central European Initiative, and finally also of the Central European Free Trade Association, though it was revealed very soon that regional co-operation could in no way substitute for, and at the most it could supplement integration into the Western institutions.

4. The option of neutrality obtained an even greater attention. One of its reasons was part of the circumstances of the system change. The new parties changing the system naturally went back to the heritage of the 1956 revolution, including Imre Nagy’s demand for neutrality. It was, however, soon revealed that this thesis had little practical sense under the new conditions: partly the Eastern and the Western camps did not exist any more after the disappearance of bipolarity between which the country could be neutral, on the other hand no great powers came forward that were to be needed to guaranteeing the status of neutrality. In addition, the vast majority of the political elite, now in a decision-making position, wished to see the country as part of the Western bloc, therefore this trend had been soon removed from the agenda.

5. Pressing for a pan-European (collective) security system fed on the ‘happy excitement’ following the change of the system on the one hand, and on the exceptional historical possibility offered by overcoming European bipolar confrontation on the other. This idea was primarily inspired by the disintegrating main power of the Socialist bloc (the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia after 1991) which wished to see the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as the European (and broader: an Eurasian) organisational framework in the field of international security. It was reflected by the document of the Paris meeting of the organisation held in November 1990 (Charter of Paris for a New Europe), in which the end of Europe’s division was solemnly declared. More over, a breakthrough could be achieved at the talks on conventional arms prior to that conference. As a result of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, planning the reduction of armed forces and weapons and with the approved Confidence and Security-Building Measures the quantity of barracks and arsenals of the European continent was significantly reduced. Consequently it could be justly assumed that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe would be the comprehensive framework institution of politics and security, capable of offering adequate safeguards to the new democracies as well. It was not to be. The CSCE failed as early as in 1991–1992, tested by the Yugoslav crisis, and as a result of subsequent transformations it became a framework for preventive diplomacy.

6. Ideas of Euro-Atlantic integration. Catching up economically and socially to the developed countries was one of the central aims of the system change in Hungary too; therefore issues of content and institution were accorded outstanding attention. As a result the strategic choice of the Antall government, taking up office in the summer of 1990, fell on Euro-Atlantic integration and it could rely on the agreement of all the parliamentary parties in this decision. The new strategy was not only about security. Partly Hungary, similarly to the other Visegrád countries, regarded itself as a country that had always belonged to European civilisation, and partly the targeted West European space represented an economically far more developed level. Consequently the slogan of “Return to Europe” promised economic development by leaps to Hungary too. Hence it is understandable that all participants of the evolving multi-party system somehow linked the idea of integration with the promise of democracy and a welfare society. Third, ever since World War II the Western world has been built into one unit by a network of operational institutions, occupying the victor’s position after Cold War including the United States of America, currently the strongest power of the world. Each of these factors was present in shaping Western orientation. Thus the basic motivation of moving towards NATO was not meant to avert some kind of imminent threat. During the course of the 90s Hungary never felt itself threatened by any of its neighbours, excepting the short period when the South-Slav war was raging immediately next to the country’s borders. NATO proved to be one of the important though not the sole institution of Euro-Atlantic integration for Hungarian foreign policy, as it was always accompanied by the desire for membership of the European Union and other organisations. Hungarian politics regarded the admission of the country to the Council of Europe (1990), to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (1996), and finally to NATO (1999) as steps of one and the same strategy of integration. In this sense accession to the European Union in the spring of 2004 is the completion of the process.

It was the background described above in front of which the three main strategic directions of the Hungarian foreign and security policy were shaped and reflected practically the agreement of all the parliamentary parties, such as:

– Accession to the Euro-Atlantic institutions and integration into the institutions representing them;

– Good neighbourly and close regional relations;

– Supporting the Hungarian minorities living across the borders.

Though the alternating governments changed emphasis, the Antall and Orbán governments laid stress rather on issues related to the minorities, whereas the Horn government unambiguously focused on integration, yet the main directions of foreign policy priorities remained unchanged. A meaningful demand for change emerged first as a result of accession to the NATO in 1999 and subsequently to the Union in 2004, in view of the fact that with these steps of integration Hungary has become the eastern border of NATO and of the EU. The changed geopolitical position induces radical rearrangements along all the three strategic axes.


A rapid transformation of the nature of challenges

The set of external conditions of Hungarian foreign and security policy and its immediate environment have also undergone radical transformation. The arrival of the post-bipolar era was accompanied by the disintegration of the Eastern alliance system (1991), the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the realisation of German unification (1990), and by the transformations of the entire international system painful for all the European states. The multiethnic state formations hewn out after World War I disintegrated in our narrower region. In the wake of the Soviet disintegration the newly emerging Ukraine (1991) of those states has become the biggest new neighbour of Hungary, and the partition of Czechoslovakia (1993) was also accomplished peacefully. Whereas the disintegration of Yugoslavia ended up in bloody internal conflicts and became the major armed conflict of Europe since World War II. It was a particular challenge for Hungary that it was the neighbour of all the three disintegrated states and as a result of change the number of Hungary’s neighbours grew from five to seven. Some of those nations did not have statehood traditions at all, and it continues to make their fitting into the international and European structures difficult to this day. Hungary concluded bilateral agreements with its new neighbours one after the other, and open disputes ensued only with Slovakia (on the minority issue and the dam of Bős) and with Romania (in principle no agreement was needed for there was no change in Romania’s position). Ultimately the bilateral agreements with these two states could be concluded in 1995 and 1996 respectively.

During the Yugoslav wars Hungary conducted a cautious and responsible policy and generally adjusted to the policy of the Western states. It strove to keep away from the conflict and to support the international efforts trying to hinder the escalation of the conflict as far as its possibilities went.

The implementation of the Paris Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) of 19 November 1990 was highly significant in the regional power relations. The aim of the Treaty was to reduce the extent of military confrontation in the field of conventional arms. The agreement between military blocs established a balance between NATO and the entire Warsaw Pact, but since the latter one disintegrated the quotas based on the balance of the two military blocs had to be distributed among the member states and in order to avoid the emergence of major disproportions rather complicated constructs were born in respect of the various territorial zones as well as control and implementation. In Hungary and in its environment significant reductions had to be executed in the five most important categories of conventional arms according to the Treaty. (See Table 1.)


Data of Hungary and its neighbours prior to the beginning of reduction ruled by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (1 January 1993–upper row) and after (16 November 1995–lower row)



Armoured military vehicles

Artillery means

Fighter planes









82 728







66 051







53 051







45 832







509 531







367 879







244 807







214 468


It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the CFE for the countries changing their system that had been maintaining oversized armies in keeping with the strategies of the Warsaw Pact and packed full with weapons. As far as Hungary is concerned, three (one general and two national) components are worth mentioning. The first, general element is that it was for the first time in the history of the country that favourable conditions emerged in the field of military power relations. According to the teachings of military science attackers have to have at least three times superior strength to the success of a non-surprise attack. Hence a balancing of power relations and the lowering of the levels of armament would reduce the very probability of aggression. At the moment of signing the Treaty (November 1990) one of the five neighbours of Hungary (the Soviet Union) possessed the theoretically necessary superior strength in all the five categories, and three (Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia) had it in some categories. After the implementation of the stipulations of the CFE only Ukraine falls in this category, in other words, the security position of Hungary has radically improved.

The CFE does not extend over the South-Slav states, neither over Austria. The latter one, however, declared that it would voluntarily comply with the stipulations of the Treaty. The bloody internal war of Bosnia, reaching the borders of Hungary as well, was ended by the Dayton Peace Agreement (21 November 1995), and as a result those involved in it (Smaller Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia) had to start negotiations on arms reduction following the logic of the CFE. The talks resulted in an accord on sub-regional arms control signed on 14 June 1996, in Florence that established dismantling and control mechanisms similar to those of the CFE along our southern borders as well.

Hungary has become party to most of the international agreements dealing with weapons of mass destruction, their carriers and international trade. Without claiming for totality mention should be made of the Comprehensive Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1996), Chemical Weapons Treaty (1997), Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty (1975), Missile Technology Control Regime (1993), or the Wassenaar Arrangement (1995) that regulates trade in conventional weapons and dual-use goods replacing the infamous COCOM regime.


Road to NATO

When the Antall government entered into office, Hungary was officially still a member of the Warsaw Pact, thus a practical transformation of the new strategy had to be solved accordingly. As a first step the Warsaw Pact had to be dismantled. The Hungarian side took the initiative in this process. In June 1990 parliament asked the government to open talks on quitting the Warsaw Pact and the parliamentary decision also stated that Hungary should suspend its activities in the military operation of the organisation. Prague and Warsaw joined the Hungarian effort only from early 1991 onwards, when the Soviet home affairs units hit the forces demanding independence for Lithuania. From then on the three countries acted in co-ordination and jointly urged an early call for the meeting of the Political Consulting Body of the Warsaw Pact (25 February 1991). An agreement on the dissolution of the military organisation was reached at that meeting (1 July 1991).

What was still ahead was the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The main difficulty was caused by the fact that the agreement on withdrawal did not settle the issue of finances between the parties; more over they had diametrically opposed stands in this respect. The Soviet party wanted to settle accounts by objects, and presented a claim of about a total of HUF 50 thousand million for its investments in the various military facilities. The Hungarian side on the other hand put the direct and indirect damages caused by the Soviet troops in the foreground and specified a claim of similar scale. Finally, the withdrawal of troops was completed on 19 June 1991, without settling the financial issues. The country, however, became again independent after 47 years, and no foreign troops were stationed on its territory.

Meanwhile Western relations had been developing rapidly: in October 1991 Prime Minister József Antall visited Brussels as the leader of an independent state and gave a talk at the North-Atlantic Council. He expounded in his speech that the Hungarian government was aware of the fact that it was not yet realistic to talk about Hungarian NATO membership, but as a small country that had chosen the path of democracy it expected NATO to take action against aggression, or in case the sovereignty, independence and the borders of any country were violated. He was of the view that the Visegrád three deserved special treatment.

The failed attempt of a coup in Moscow in August 1991 may be regarded as a landmark in the relationship between NATO and Hungary in several respects. The possibility of a reverse caused serious concern all over Europe including the Hungarian leadership that was assured of the support of that Alliance personally by M. Wörner, Secretary-General of NATO. At that time, however, the dominant concept was that the democratisation of the Central European region and of the Soviet Union would be a general medication for the problems of that area. Soon it was revealed that it was an illusion to expect a general and rapid democratisation of the countries relieved of communist rule, of the successor states of the disintegrated Soviet Union and of Russia among them, and the speech of the Russian Foreign Minister Kozhiryev made in Stockholm in December 1992, recalling the tone of the Cold War, significantly motivated the Hungarian leadership to seek security safeguards. The developments of the South-Slav crisis similarly inspired Hungarian politics to declare the country’s claim for NATO-membership, together with the experiences gained in the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, operational from December 1991 onwards. Finally, efforts towards NATO were also promoted by the fact that after December 1991, when the Association Agreement between the European Community and Hungary was signed, it was being recognised in Hungary too that the accession of the Central European countries to European Union would be far more lengthy and complicated than it was thought after the change of the system.

NATO however, did not respond to repeated claims with an offer of enlargement but at first with the elaboration of the programme called “Partnership for Peace”. At that time Budapest assessed the offer as less than a rapidly gained membership it had hoped for yet as something that may well serve preparations for membership. Therefore it was among the first (8 February 1994) to join the programme (later on the number of participants grew to 27); it presented its Document of Offer in June and approved the first individual partnership programme in November.

In the early autumn of 1995 NATO published the conditions of accession long awaited by the applicant states (NATO Enlargement Study). Accordingly the applicants had to meet political (democratic political setup, parliamentary system, market economy, guaranteeing civilian control over the armed forces) as well as military conditions (a minimum of compatibility). The most significant condition was that they had to demonstrate their readiness and capability to contributing to the realisation of the aims of the Alliance. As NATO did not wish to import the unsettled problems of the newly acceding countries, one of the preconditions for Hungary was the settlement of neighbourhood relations. Thus the prospects of accession had indirectly contributed also to the conclusions of a Hungarian-Slovakian basic treaty (spring, 1995), and of a Hungarian-Romanian one (September 1996), and further on to the decision that Hungary was to take part in the activities of IFOR in Bosnia (December 1995).

Participation in the settlement of the Bosnian situation was extremely important to Hungary. The country proved that it was capable of contributing to the management of a European crisis. It also showed that Hungary had political responsibility for the peace of the continent and was ready to co-operate with other states for its sake. Technically and from a military point of view the Hungarian Armed Forces could be part of a ground operation led by NATO that was implemented in reality. The soldiers as well as the politicians acquired lot of experiences during the course of practical co-operation. Parallel to those events, the internal institutional framework of approaching to NATO and preparing for membership were also built (Atlantic Liaison Office, Integration Strategy Working Group).

The decision was made at the Madrid conference of the NATO heads of state and government, held on 8–9 July 1997 that the three states, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary would be admitted as a first step of enlargement. The Hungarian parliament greeted the decision in a declaration (15 July). In keeping with the government’s programme a referendum was held on NATO membership on 16 November 1997. Before the referendum a heated debate flared up again, not so much about accession to NATO but rather about issues of procedure and domestic politics. Finally, every parliamentary party called upon the population to support accession and to participate in the referendum.

The referendum was successful. Participation was 49.2 per cent, of whom 85.3 per cent voted for, and 14.6 per cent voted against membership. The large-scale support surprised the participants of political life, though every forecast and survey had indicated a majority of supporters, but no one expected that proportion. The referendum unambiguously legitimated Hungary’s intention to accede to NATO, and justified the efforts of the freely elected governments.


What does NATO membership mean for Hungary?

A fundamental change has taken place in Hungary’s geo-strategic position with NATO membership: the country joined also institutionally the community of the democratic, developed and stable countries of the Euro-Atlantic region. It be came part of the military and political Alliance that has proved to be the most successful one in the preservation of peace and in guaranteeing the security of its member states during the past half century. The period of the Cold War was formally closed with the first extension of the Alliance towards the East and the stability of the Central European region has significantly grown.

NATO membership means external security first and foremost to Hungary, safeguarded by the strongest military alliance of the world. It also means an organisational framework through which our national interests of security policy can be realised. It may be a good cause for satisfaction that the anxieties forecasting the deterioration of bilateral relations between Hungary and some of its neighbours were not justified. The sole critical set of relations was that with Yugoslavia, but the internal political change after the Kosovo war created conditions for the normalisation of relations. Hungary’s international space of mobility and interest-asserting ability has grown. In its decisions NATO utilised those pieces of information and experiences that had been accumulated by Hungarian politics in relation to the problems of our narrower and broader region, thus Hungarian interests were involved in the decision-making mechanism of the Organisation in a pre-decision phase. Hungarian support aiming at promoting the stability of Southeast European countries was appreciated. NATO membership means such norms, procedures and way of thinking on the direct military-professional side the learning of which is necessary to the Hungarian armed forces and may represent further justification to the radical transformations that are still ahead of it.

During the course of accession talks Hungary offered practically its entire armed force to the Alliance and promised to increase the defence budget up to 1.8 per cent of the GDP. The not too fortunate offer originated from the unsatisfactory assessment of burdens deriving from it and partly from the ‘enthusiasm’ of the new members. It was immediately revealed when the Defence Planning Questionnaire was filled in – an annually repeated NATO procedure – that the implementation of the Hungarian undertakings met significant difficulties. Though the Hungarian experts participated in the conciliations of the annual cycles of defence planning as full members, no meaningful corrections were made. The disadvantages of the Hungarian Armed Forces, possessing armament inherited from the Warsaw Pact, kept on growing in the field of the development of military capabilities. The problems continuously indicated by experts were not taken seriously by the political leadership, therefore they got under cross-firing of political discussions only after the elections held in the spring of 2002. The Defence Supervision ordered at that time stated among its supporting arguments that Hungary had realised practically very little of its undertakings made earlier, partly as a result of insufficient attention on the side of politics, and partly of low budgetary support as well as of the postponed reform of the armed forces. The latter one repeatedly ended up in the reduction of the personnel of the Hungarian Armed Forces and as a result and paradoxically it remained a “mini mass army” in its proportions and structure though of truly small numbers (about 40 thousand people) by as late as 2002. Promises made to NATO on specialisation and the evolution of special capabilities were not put into practice.


EU membership and the new challenges

The security-policy consequences of EU membership differ from those of the NATO. It is problems of crisis management that are in the foreground of attention first and foremost of the security and defence policy of the European Union unfolding with growing speed since 1998 and being developed as a common foreign and security policy to become its second pillar. Currently the EU is building its organisational and capability systems in this direction. Hungary stated right at the beginning of the accession talks that it was able and ready to realise tasks deriving from it. On the other hand, it has been continuously saying that the emerging European security and defence policy can only be an effective one if a close co-operation between the EU and NATO is retained, and this acquired special significance after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

In late 2002 and early 2003, however, the Hungarian security policy (together with the Czech Republic and Poland) had to face an extremely uncomfortable choice. The states of the EU regarded as decisive ones (France, Germany) did not agree with American foreign policy overthrowing Saddam Husein’s regime by military intervention and as a result the deepest crisis of the Atlantic Alliance ensued. The Central European states, forced to make their choice, stood on the side of the US in the dispute, thus provoking in turn the disapproval of Berlin and Paris. And all that took place a couple of months before our accession to the Union. For the Hungarian foreign policy it is not only uncomfortable that it is forced to make its choice in the Trans-Atlantic dispute (it would like to avoid) but also that the dispute raging between the EU and the US moves the entire international system towards a structure in which the role of the armed forces would grow, and the international institutions would lose some of their significance because of the unilateralism of the decisive actors. Both factors are counter-effective for the interest-asserting possibilities of the medium and small states. Therefore it is in the double interest of Hungarian foreign policy that development should not move in this direction.




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