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Hungary: The People Will Decide On NATO Membership

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 7 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarians are to vote a week from Sunday, on November 16, in a referendum on NATO membership.

The date and form of the referendum was set by the parliament earlier this week. The parliament also adopted a non-partisan motion, with only one dissenting vote, that said that Hungary's sovereignty and security can be most effectively guaranteed within NATO.

Of the three Central European states considered for NATO entry in 1999, only Hungary has decided to hold a referendum. But the Czech Republic's opposition Social Democrats, who may well come to power before Prague attains membership, are now also demanding a referendum.

In May Slovakia, currently not a serious candidate for NATO, held a referendum containing three questions related to entry into the Alliance. But low voter turnout resulting from confusion over the questions and government interference in the organization of the referendum led electoral authorities to declare the Slovak referendum invalid.

Of NATO's current 16 members, the only one ever to hold a referendum was Spain, and that came four years after Madrid joined the Alliance.

Some Western analysts have expressed concern that a failure by large numbers of Hungarians to cast their ballot in the referendum could send a negative signal to NATO member states, each of which must ratify expansion.

Hungarian diplomats say the country's involvement with NATO as a staging and logistics point for peacekeeping forces in Bosnia since late 1995 might have contributed to a decline in public support for joining NATO.

In a bid to shore up public support and raise consciousness about NATO membership, Hungary's Foreign Ministry early this year launched an information campaign in the media to explain the benefits of joining the Alliance. The campaign is run by a commission formed within the Foreign Ministry and including officials from the Defense Ministry.

Using state funds, the commission has sought to explain NATO's mission and Hungary's role in an expanded NATO to the public on the basis of a government-approved strategic communications plan. The commission sought advice from a variety of sources, including non-governmental organizations and the news media.

Its campaign has included organizing public discussions and interviews in the news media, as well as disseminating books, brochures and films.

Hungarian Ambassador Sandor Meszaros, a diplomatic advisor to armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant-General Ferenc Vegh, has been involved in the media campaign. He spoke to RFE/RL about the campaign:

"The information campaign helped a lot because it was formulated to bring the necessary information to all possible strata of society, to help them get better knowledge about this whole organization. So what we have been experiencing in Hungary, let us say, for more than a year now, is that the number of supporters for Hungary's NATO membership has been on a steady increase..."

Meszaros notes that four categories of the population tend to oppose NATO membership --those with a low level of education, the unemployed, rural residents and women. The campaign has targeted these people mostly through popular periodicals, but it also has gone so as to insert a pro-NATO figure in a television soap opera. The script calls for him to counter the standard arguments against joining the Alliance.

Both small Right- and Left-wing parties without parliamentary mandates that are opposed to joining NATO have branded the campaign as propaganda. They have appealed to TV and radio complaints' committees established by the 1996 media law. In several cases, these committees have ruled pro-NATO programming violated the law by only offering the government's view and ignoring the opposition's opinions.

Meszaros' wife Zsuzsa, who is the deputy director of Radio Budapest, says that as a result of these appeals, journalists have become more cautious. Now, she notes, whenever they write about NATO expansion, they include opposing views from marginal groups --the extreme Right, the extreme Left and the Greens.

Sandor Meszaros says the campaign has borne fruit --a steady rise in public backing for joining NATO. Only 47 percent of eligible voters favored joining NATO as recently as February 1996. But two public opinion polls published this week show support among Hungarians for membership in NATO is over 70 percent among those intending to cast ballots. But the polls also indicate voter turn-out could be barely over the necessary minimum of 50 percent of registered voters.

The referendum will be valid if at least 25 percent of Hungary's 7.5 million eligible voters vote either "yes" or "no." The outcome will be binding. The government has promised to honor a majority "no" vote.

In an address to a NATO forum in the eastern city of Debrecen this week, General Vegh said that, although Central Europe faces no direct threat of war, the region is plagued by uncertainty. He also said that NATO accession would provide a security umbrella against any attempts by Russia to extend its influence. In his words: "If Hungary stays out of NATO, Russian policy might try to recapture the region as a military buffer zone and later attempt to regain its political influence." That, he said, "we must not allow."