Prague, 17 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Hungarian voters yesterday overwhelmingly approved their country's plans to enter NATO.
Nearly half of eligible voters (49.25 percent) cast ballots in a special referendum. More than four-fifths of them (85.33 percent) said yes to a single question on Hungary's NATO membership. The government, which had campaigned for the positive vote, declared itself to be fully satisfied.
The referendum was staged in response to domestic political considerations. Only a few months ago it appeared that a substantial part of Hungary's population had an ambivalent view about entering the western military alliance. Most seemed to opt for neutrality, while a vocal minority was opposed to NATO membership. The referendum was meant to bring the debate to the end. And it did.
But the ballot's significance extended beyond the country's boundaries, sending a clear message to all NATO member states and to the world.
Hungary, along with the Czech Republic and Poland, was invited by a NATO summit last July to open membership negotiations. These negotiations have recently concluded and NATO foreign ministers are expected to issue a formal protocol of accession, that is an invitation to enter, at their annual meeting in mid-December.
This protocol is to be ratified by all NATO member states and if, as expected, the process is completed without problems, the three countries would likely join the Alliance in April 1999, coinciding with NATO's 50th anniversary.
The public approval of Hungary's plans to enter the Alliance is certain to provide a strong argument in favor of ratification by the NATO member states. It provides a telling testimony of a palpable popular support to the government's efforts to join NATO. Indeed, it provides the government with an explicit mandate to continue these efforts. In democracies, such mandates are respected.
Conversely, the outcome of the ballot sends also a potent message to all those who have argued against NATO's eastward enlargement, seeing in the move an encroachment on the long-established territorial and political balances of power in Europe.
Hungary, alone of the three Central European states invited to open membership negotiations, held a popular vote on its entry. Poland, which has consistently showed through repeated public opinion surveys that large majorities (between 80 and 90 percent) of its population support entry into NATO, has considered any balloting on the issue unnecessary. The Czech Republic's public is more ambivalent but recent surveys have found that majorities approve NATO membership as well.
But the Hungarian referendum is likely to boost the chances of other Central and East European countries which wish to join NATO, but which have not yet been invited to become members. It brings the issue of NATO enlargement once again into the fore, this time endowed with an aura of democratic approval. It strengthens the hand of Western supporters of further enlargement by providing them with additional arguments of clearly expressed public will. And it makes more difficult for the opponents of the enlargement to muster contrary arguments.
And the prospects for ratification of the enlargement looks good. Only days before the referendum in Hungary, NATO has announced that new studies of the prospective move show that the cost of the operation are likely to be substantially lower than originally estimated. This will further undermine the opposition to the enlargement.
In the East, only Russia and Belarus remain opposed to the enlargement. They do so ostensibly for security reasons, but their views tend to reflect political rather than military considerations. The outcome of the Hungarian referendum is likely to make that position more difficult to accept.