Report on Three NATO Conferences

November 6 – Budapest  –  November 8 – Debrecen
November 10 – Miskolc (Lillafüred)


Committed to the idea that the peace, stability and economic development of Central and Eastern Europe are in the national security interest of the United States, the Hungarian American Coalition (“Coalition”) has been a strong advocate of extending the zone of security and democracy to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic through NATO expansion.  Since 1994, the Coalition has actively participated in efforts to promote this policy both in the United States and in Hungary.

During the past year, the Coalition has followed with attention the evolving public debate in Hungary on NATO membership.  Although the Hungarian government and all six parliamentary parties endorsed NATO membership, Hungarian voters expressed the need for well-balanced, objective information about NATO in order to make an educated choice in the November 16 referendum.

With the goal of providing this information, the Coalition designed an innovative NATO Education Project, “Hungary in an Expanded NATO: Benefits and Responsibilities.”  In addition to encouraging open discussions with the Hungarian people, the project sought the involvement of leading Hungarian NGO’s in this important debate.

Although the Coalition’s Education Project received early and enthusiastic endorsements from the US and Hungarian governments as well as NATO officials, it took seven months to secure sufficient support for the project. Potential US government funding was withdrawn in the last minute due to concern over the perception of  US involvement in promoting Hungary’s NATO membership. Thus, the project proposal which was redesigned repeatedly, had to be submitted to more than 40 agencies and foundations before necessary funding was secured.  The NATO conference series, which was cosponsored by the Hungarian Atlantic Council, was made possible by the sponsorship of the German Marshall Fund,  Malév Hungarian Airlines, the US Embassy in Budapest, the Honorable Ronald S. Lauder, and the Boeing Company.

When the NATO conferences finally took place – on November 6 at the Hungarian Parliament, on November 8 at the historic Reformed College of Debrecen, and on November 10 at the Palota Hotel in Lillafüred – speakers and participants alike declared them highly successful. High-ranking experts from NATO, Western Europe, US, and Hungary discussed the security, economic and political benefits and responsibilities of Hungary’s NATO membership with maximum attendance and good media coverage at each venue.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The referendum held on November 16, 1997, provided a resounding YES, with 85% of Hungarian voters in favor of NATO membership.  The Hungarian American Coalition is honored to have played a role in this historic debate which serves the long range strategic interests of both the US and Hungary.

November 6, 1997 – Hungarian Parliament – Budapest

The first NATO conference took place in the Hall of Delegates of the Hungarian Parliament with 190 people present.   Coalition President, Edith Lauer described the goals of the conference.  In his formal opening address Hungarian President, Árpád Göncz, reminded Hungarian citizens of the fragility of peace and urged them to vote for NATO membership to assure the security of Hungary in the region.

Two plenary speakers followed. Chris Donnelly, Special Advisor to the Secretary General of NATO for Central and Eastern Affairs, in his speech stressed the character of  NATO as an alliance of equals whose role is more significant as a political instrument than as a military force. He expressed his belief that Hungarian society at large will benefit as the military changes its mindset, and improves its communications practices, technology and language skills.  Hungarian Foreign Affairs State Secretary, Ferenc Somogyi,  mentioned that NATO’s military power offers an effective deterrent against potential military conflicts.  It also serves the direct interest of Hungarians living outside the borders of Hungary.

Pál Tar, President of the Batthyány Foundation, served as chairman of a panel of representatives of parliamentary political parties. Mr. Tar called attention to the historic fact that all parties fully support Hungary’s NATO membership.

Speakers who stated their party’s view on this topic included Zsolt Lányi of the FKGP, (Independent Smallholders’ Party);  Viktor Orbán of FIDESZ, (Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party); Rudolf Joó, of MDF, (Hungarian Democratic Forum); Etelka Pataki Barsi of MDNP, (Hungarian Democratic People’s Party), and István Szent-Iványi of SZDSZ, (Alliance of Free Democrats).

Next, US views on NATO expansion were presented by Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Director, Office of European Security and Political Affairs of the US State Department.  She commended the Hungarian military for its effective cooperation in IFOR and SFOR operations, and stated  that the cost Hungary will pay for NATO membership will be manageable for the country.   Remarks by Lt. General Ferenc Végh, Chief of Defense of the Hungarian Home Defense Forces, provided an overview of the challenges faced by the Hungarian military as it modernizes both its personnel  and equipment.

Hungarian NGO’s which served as conference co-sponsors were represented by Péter Kende, President of the 1956 Institute, and István Csicsery-Rónay, President of the 1945 Foundation.  Each provided a historical perspective of Hungary’s longstanding commitment and previously unsuccessful attempts to enter Western institutions.  Miklós Dérer, Secretary General of the Hungarian Atlantic Council, served as program moderator.

The half-day conference concluded with a seated luncheon in the Hunters Room of the Parliament during which Christopher W. Long, Ambassador of Great Britain, spoke on “An Expanded NATO: Views from the West.” Ambassaor Long, who spoke in fluent Hungarian, emphasized the importance of NATO in promoting the benefits of the improved political and economic vitality  of the Transatlantic relationship.

Following the Budapest conference, a dinner reception was given at her residence by US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, Lynne Lambert in honor of the conference organizers and speakers.

November 8, 1997 – Reformed College – Debrecen

Upon arrival in Debrecen on November 7, Deputy Mayor, Dr. Zentay István, greeted conference speakers and organizers with a guided tour and reception of City Hall.

On November 8, participants to the second NATO conference were welcomed by Dr. Gusztáv Bölcskei. Bölcskei is the Presiding Bishop of the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary to the historic Reformed College of Debrecen, whose Ceremonial Hall had twice served as the seat of Hungarian Parliament, in 1849 and in 1944-45.  Next, Debrecen Mayor, József Hevessy, formally opened the conference. Géza Jeszenszky, President of the Hungarian Atlantic Council, the major  co-sponsor of the conferences, introduced Edith Lauer, who outlined the goals and agenda of the conference.  In his role as moderator, Mr. Jeszenszky provided valuable insights into Hungarian history and foreign policy, including an overview of the Antall government’s role in starting the process of Hungary’s integration to the West.

In both Debrecen and Miskolc the day-long conference was divided into plenary sessions to address the political, economic and security aspects of Hungary’s NATO membership. Speakers opposing NATO membership were also invited to express their views.  In support of each topic, selections from DUNA TV’s film, NATO Mozaik, were shown after each panel presentation.

In Debrecen Donald Blinken, US Ambassador, reviewed steps Hungary had already taken to begin to fulfill NATO membership requirements.  Next, a panel on “Hungary in NATO: Western Priorities,” included remarks by Lt. Gen. Nicholas B. Kehoe, who stressed three parallel intentions of NATO: enlargement of the alliance, enhancement of Partnership for Peace, and establishment of a constructive relationship with Russia and the Ukraine. Gina Marie L. Hatheway, Legislative Assistant of Ohio Senator, Mike DeWine, expressed confidence that Hungary would become a valued member of NATO.  She mentioned the similarities between Hungary and Ohio as well as Hungarian contributions in the fields of culture and science.

“Hungarian Realities” panelists explored both the historic background and the present-day ramifications of Hungary’s joining a Western institution in remarks by István Csicsery-Rónay of the 1945 Foundation, historian László Borhi of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Gusztáv Molnár of the László Teleki Foundation, and István Hegedûs, lecturer at Budapest University of Economic Sciences.

“Military and International Security Aspects of NATO Membership” were discussed by a panel of high-ranking military professionals, chaired by Lt. Gen Ferenc Végh, Chief of Hungarian Home Defense Forces.  Major Gen. István Szalay, Director for Operations, Hungarian Home Defense Forces, Col. Árpád Szürgyi, and Béla Gyuricza, Deputy Chairman of the Parliament’s Defense Committee, all commented on the importance of military modernization and the daunting tasks faced by the Hungarian military, with or without NATO membership.

Conference participants adjourned for lunch to the nearby Arany Bika Hotel, where Lt. Gen. Nicholas B. Kehoe spoke on “NATO Membership: Security, Stability and Investment.”  He said that NATO states are connected by  shared objectives, values and an interest in developing market economies which cannot exist without peace and stability in Europe.

Upon returning to the Reformed College, a panel on the “Economic Benefits versus Costs of NATO Membership” was chaired by Dr. György Bánlaki, Hungarian Ambassador to the US, and featured remarks on membership costs by Prof. Tibor Palánkai, Rector of the Budapest University of Economic Sciences.  This panel included Attila Vajnai, Vice President of the Hungarian Labor Party, who argued in favor of neutrality and against the costs of joining the Alliance.

After the presentations of various panels were completed, Hungarian newsman, Elemér Csák, invited workshop participants to engage in a lively debate regarding Hungary’s NATO membership.  For over an hour members of the audience posed questions and made statements in support of NATO, citing the negative experiences they had when Hungary was a Warsaw Pact member.  In response to questions on the military implications for Hungary of NATO enclargement, Lt. Gen Kehoe clarified the NATO declarations on the deployment of nuclear weapons and on stationing of forces in new member countries.

This exchange, and the straw vote which followed, were filmed by local television and  broadcast in a 20 minute prime time news program later in the evening.  In addition, there was extensive newspaper coverage of the conference, including interviews with the lead speakers.

November 10, 1997 – Palota Hotel, Lillafüred (Miskolc)

Before leaving Debrecen for Miskolc, conference organizers arranged a quick sightseeing tour of the Great Reformed Church and the Déry Museum in Debrecen for the invited speakers.  The Déry Museum houses the famous trilogy of Hungarian master, Mihály Munkácsi, has special significance for Hungarian Americans, as the paintings once belonged to the Wanamaker family of Philadelphia.

On the eve of the last conference, Miskolc Mayor Tamás Kobold, and his Deputy, Zoltán Pintér, officially greeted organizers and guests with a reception at City Hall.  The conference program in Lillafüred on November 10 closely followed the Debrecen format.  In his official welcome Miskolc Mayor Tamás Kobold recognizing the difficulties of Hungary’s political transition since 1990, expressed confidence that membership in NATO would soon lead to membership in the European Union, assuring the country’s integration into the West.  The more than 120 conference participants were also greeted by Dr. László Varga, Dean of the Hungarian Parliament.

In addition to Lt. Gen. Nicholas B. Kehoe and Gina Marie Hatheway, and Miklós Dérer of the Hungarian Atlantic Council. the panel on “Hungary in NATO: Western Priorities” featured comments by Ambassador György Bánlaki, whose statement on the necessity of Hungary’s accession to NATO emphasized that both historically and economically, there is no other alternative — the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

The topic of “Hungarian Realities” was chaired by Béla Gyuricza and included Dr. László Varga, Miklós Dérer as well as István Csicsery Ronay and Attila Vajnai.  On the issue of economic benefits, local businessman, Dr. László F. Kovács, Chairman and CEO of BorsodChem Rt.,  provided convincing evidence of the wide-ranging benefits of investment in the region.  Béla Kalmár, President of the Pál Forgács Foundation, another conference co-sponsor, focused on the social consequences of belonging to a Western institution, while László Pernetzky of the ALBA Kör, sporting a “No NATO” T-shirt, expressed strong opposition on environmental grounds to NATO membership.  The ALBA Kör is a non-governmental organization and of the leading opponents of Hungary’s membership in NATO.

The luncheon speaker in Lillafured was Susan M.W. Cartwright, Canadian ambassador to Hungary, who reaffirmed the value in political and economic stability of NATO membership to current and future members.  In the afternoon the panel on military and security aspects of NATO membership was chaired by Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, István Gyarmati, who reviewed the benefits to Hungary of NATO membership.  Following the overview of Western goals and requirements for new NATO members provided by Lt. Gen Nicholas B. Kehoe and Major Gen. István Szalay, US Air Force Defense Attaché, Col. John Martinson delivered his speech in flawless Hungarian to the surprise and obvious delight of the audience.

As in Debrecen, an open discussion also concluded the Lillafüred conference with the help of moderator Elemér Csák.  An  interesting exchange developed when a group of Hungarian Labor Party members in the audience challenged the pro-NATO views of both speakers and participants. At the same time, NATO opponents expressed their appreciation to conference organizers for assuring them the opportunity to express views opposed to NATO membership.

Conference Co-sponsoring Organizations and NATO Project Education Committee

An important aspect of the Nato Education Project was to involve the active participation local NGOs and their membership.  We are very grateful for the invaluable participation of the following organizations:  the Batthány Foundation; the Democracy after Communism Foundation; the Forgács Pál Foundation; and the 1945 Foundation and the 1956 Institute.  The NATO Project Education Committee was composed of Anne Bader, Robert Gabor, Edith Lauer, Zsolt Szekeres, and Frank Koszorus Jr. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary  provided excellent cooperation and assistance in all aspects of the organization and implementation of the conferences.

Media Coverage

The local television stations in Debrecen and Miskolc filmed the debate at the end of the conference and broadcast their coverage in prime time on  November 8 and 11 respectively, just a few days before the referendum.  There was extensive media coverage of the conference in all three cities.  A listing of the coverage is attached as Annex A.



Listing of the Print and Electronic Media Coverage of the Conference Series

(List incomplete)

November 4

Voice of America – Radio interview, dr. József Simányi with Edit Lauer, on upcoming NATO conferences

November 6

Radio Kossuth.   Program:  Krónika – 4.02 pm.  Report on the Budapest conference
Radio Kossuth.   Program:  Krónika – 6.10 pm.  Further details on the Budapest conference.
Radio Kossuth.   Program:  Krónika – 10.16 pm.  Report on the Budapest conference.
Duna TV. (satellite public broadcasting service).  Program: News – 6.09 pm.  Report on the opening of the conference.
TV1. Hungarian Television. 7:30 pm. Evening News, report on Budapest conference
TV3. (commercial cable television station).  Program:  News – 7.30 pm.  Report on the opening of the conference.

November 7

Népszava.  Large Hungarian daily.   “Conference on Nato expansion.”
Világgazdaság.  Influential business daily.   “Nato integration:  HUF 930 bn extra spending.  Growth can finance integration”.
Népszabadság.  Largest Hungarian daily.  “New NATO – new mindset”. “Conference series before next Sunday’s referendum”.
Magyar Nemzet.  Largest national conservative daily.  “Conference and GKI research institute analysis on NATO membership”.  “Growth would alleviate economic burden”.
Kurír.  Daily.  “Secure yes”.

November 8

Népszava.  Large Hungarian daily.  “NATO: from forum to forum”.
Észak-Magyarország.  Independent daily.  “Hungary in NATO”.
Déli Hírlap.  Daily appearing in the countryside.  “International conference in Palotaszálló”.  “NATO benefits”.
Local TV News, Debrecen.  15 minutes of news coverage.

November 9

Mai Nap.  Popular afternoon tabloid.   “Nationwide campaign to join NATO”.  “NATO weekend”.
November 10

Magyar Nemzet.  Largest national conservative daily.  “Parliamentary parties propose to register a yes”.  “Drumfire of NATO arguments”.
Népszabadság.  Largest Hungarian daily.  “NATO referendum:  campaigns in the run up”.  “Unity in Parliament – “No” by Worker’s Party and MIÉP”.
Magyar Hírlap.  Second largest national daily.  “Hungarian émigrés for NATO membership”.  “Lobbying in America”.
Népszava.  Large Hungarian daily.  “A strong “yes” would help ratification.”
Hajdú-Bihari Napló.  Independent daily.  “NATO membership or political isolationism”.  “Interview with Donald Blinken, US ambassador to Budapest”.

November 11

Észak-Magyarország.  Independent daily.  “Democracy, prosperity, NATO”.  “Lillafüred test-voting:  55 to 4 for NATO”.
Déli Hírlap.  Daily appearing in the countryside.  “International conference on the advantage of NATO.”  “Doorway to the European Union”.
Hajdú-Bihari Napló.  Independent daily.  “Conference on NATO expansion”.
Local TV News, Miskolc.  18 minutes of news coverage.

November 12

Észak-Magyarország.  Independent daily.  “On the side of the next generation”.  “Edit Lauer about NATO successes and guarantees”.

November 13

DUNA TV – Esti Kérdés.  Evening Questions, with Edith Lauer.

November 17

Voice of America.  Follow-up interview with Edith Lauer regarding reaction to public referendum.

Copies of articles can be provided by the Hungarian American Coalition office by request.

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