Taszar, Hungary, 2 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Unique among the former Soviet Bloc countries that were seeking admission to NATO earlier this year, Hungary had the advantage of a proven track record of day-to-day work with the Trans-Atlantic alliance.
Since December, 1995, Hungary had lent the United States army a former Warsaw Pact military base in Taszar as a staging post for putting U.S. troops into Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the NATO-led peace forces (IFOR, SFOR) in the war-battered republic.
Hungary's geographical position put it in the ideal place to help the U.S. military, which freely admits that the Taszar base was crucial to its activities in Bosnia. Some even say the U.S. participation in Bosnia might not have been possible without the Taszar staging post.
Taszar, in the south of Hungary some 35 km away from the border with Croatia, is roughly half way between U.S. bases in Germany and Bosnia. It is home at any one time to between 1,200 and 4,000 U.S. soldiers on their way into or out of Bosnia.
Few argue that this co-operation with NATO was the decisive factor in convincing NATO to invite Hungary to begin accession talks, along with Poland and the Czech Republic. But most observers say it did provide a valuable head-start in bringing the Hungarian military into line with NATO standards.
Ever since Hungary joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program in February, 1994, "every action and every step taken in the Hungarian military was aiming to strengthen and to support the Hungarian Republic's accession to NATO," says Lt. Gen. Nandor Hollosi, deputy chief of defense staff in Hungary.
To these ends, Hungary cut the size of its armed forces and streamlined the command structure along NATO requirements. It is also embarking on an ambitious purchasing program to upgrade from antique Soviet-era Warsaw Pact machinery -- especially fighter planes -- to equipment compatible with NATO.
Although the Hungarian military took as its "Bible" NATO's "White Book" detailing what needed to be done to become compatible with NATO, nothing brought the lessons home as sharply as the co-operation at the military base in Taszar.
As Matyas Eorsi, State Secretary in the Hungarian foreign ministry puts it: "When you prepare . . . based on books, based on diplomatic discussions, it is not as vivid as if you have your personal experiences. And I believe it was very, very helpful for the Hungarian military people to have personal relationships with IFOR troops, mainly American troops."
But at the beginning, there was culture shock on both sides. Hungarian and American military men use almost identical language when they describe how they had been indoctrinated against each other as former enemies.
Lt. Col. Laszlo Sajti, who began his career at the Soviet military academy in Moscow in the 1970s, freely admits that he never dreamed he would now be acting as liaison between the Hungarian military and the U.S. Army. For him, NATO was always the paramount enemy and American soldiers were something evil-looking seeking to kill him, or as he put it, "something out of Star Wars."
On the other side, says Major Tony Libri, spokesman for the U.S. troops in Taszar, most American soldiers were raised to think that Soviet Bloc Communists were "some type of devils."
To their great relief, American and Hungarian soldiers found out that each was human, with day-to-day concerns over families, children's schooling and careers, and the co-operation has been smooth ever since, allowing for the considerable language barrier.
Asked whether the experience at Taszar would help Hungary integrate into NATO as a full member, one young American sergeant at the army base replied: "We are integrating as we speak."
There were other surprises as well. The Americans were astonished to see that Taszar -- an airfield and railhead -- was a museum of antiquated Warsaw Pact military equipment. For their part, the Hungarians were overwhelmed by the futuristic technical hardware that the American soldiers take for granted.
As Lt. Col. Bela Puskas, one of the top liaison officers with the U.S. military, put it: "The human abilities and preparation of the American soldiers is not higher than that of the Hungarians, but they get from the United States such technical equipment and technical background that enables them to carry out their tasks brilliantly."
For the Hungarian army, it was a first introduction to the types of weapons systems they will have to adopt as NATO members.
The Hungarians -- whose army is largely made up of conscripts serving out their nine months of compulsory military service -- also learned the value of an all-volunteer army, which the U.S. has.
Corporal Laszlo Szendrey, a 21-year-old Hungarian who intends to make the army his career, was impressed that the American soldiers -- even at the lowest level -- take their jobs much more seriously than do Hungarian soldiers.
And both sides agree that U.S. soldiers are more highly motivated and take more initiative at all levels than the Hungarians, who suffer the legacy of a Soviet command structure that relied heavily on orders being obeyed unthinkingly. That will need to change once Hungary joins NATO.
In sharp contrast with the Soviet troops who kept strictly on their bases while stationed in Hungary, the Americans have gone out of their way to establish good relations with the people of Taszar and nearby Kaposvar. On the day a RFE/RL correspondent visited Taszar, a large group of soldiers were hosting teenagers from a local orphanage with whom they have weekly activities.
Hungarian officers admit they have a lot to learn from NATO and the Americans about community relations. The American effort clearly paid dividends: in the recent referendum (Nov. 16) on NATO membership, the "yes" vote reached 90 percent in the Taszar and Kaposvar regions, even higher than the nationwide average of 85 percent.
Summing up the co-operation with NATO, Lt. Gen. Hollosi of the defense staff says proudly that at Taszar: "We proved our compatibility with NATO."
Lt. Col. Sajti elaborates: "Those officers who work already in the field, they not only acquire the language, but they also learn the various mechanisms of decision making and practical working together with NATO." And he adds, they learn through practice what changes need to be made in the future.
And Eorsi at the Hungarian foreign ministry says that Hungary's striving to fulfill the NATO criteria is not to please NATO, but because it is in Hungary's best interests.
As he puts it: "The reason for meeting the criteria not only for NATO, but also for the European Union, was not that there was a kind of requirement, but we also knew it's good for our country to implement these criteria. I believe that we should have done the same job even if NATO would not exist . . . because that is the transition and we have to go through a difficult process, but we have to do it for the sake of our own people."