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Andras Simonyi: Hungarian herald

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Andras Simonyi: Hungarian herald

As Hungary's ambassador to NATO from 1995 and his country's first permanent representative to the Alliance from 1999, Andras Simonyi played a key role first in steering Hungary to NATO membership and then in overseeing the transition. Ambassador Simonyi, now 49, left Brussels in January after nine years to start a new career as a consultant, working to attract international investment to central and eastern Europe.

NATO review: What impact has Hungarian membership of NATO had on Hungary and how has the Hungarian public responded?

Andras Simonyi: The idea of Euro-Atlantic inte-gration has had a huge impact on my country. Hungary inherited structures from communist times and a sick economy that had to be reformed. Ultimately, the best way to reform is to aim at integration into the two main institutions that stand for modernisation, namely NATO and the European Union. Preparing for NATO membership has therefore been of enormous help for us, since it has maintained maximum pressure on Hungarian institutions, on Hungarian society and on Hungarian politicians to ensure that they execute the neces-sary reforms so that Hungary can catch up and join the most modern, democratic nations of the world, many of which are NATO members. Membership has not come without a price tag. It has demanded many sacrifices both in human and in monetary terms. But in the end, Hungary has gained stability and Hungary has gained a great deal of influence in forming Euro-Atlantic policies. Hungary now has a place at the North Atlantic Council where the most important decisions on European security are made.

NR: How did Hungary and the Hungarian public respond to the Kosovo air campaign?

AS: After just over a week of joyful celebrations marking Hungarian membership of the Alliance on 12 March 1999, the NATO air campaign came as a huge shock. But what is important is that Hungary stood the test. Indeed, the way in which Hungary, and for that matter the other new members, performed during the air campaign demonstrated the wisdom of NATO expansion because our presence did not make the decision- making process more difficult. Here, it's important to pay tribute to the Hungarian public because Hungary was actually the only member state whose population could see the impact of the air campaign directly. Indeed, those living on the Hungarian-Yugoslav border could see and hear the bombings and often had relatives on the other side of the border. Despite this, support for the campaign never fell below 50 per cent. The Hungarian public had a good understanding of what NATO stands for and why we launched the campaign.

NR: At the time Hungary joined the Alliance, analysts opposed to NATO enlargement expressed various fears, including the impact it might have on relations with Russia, whether the North Atlantic Council would still be able to operate effectively, and whether Hungary and other new members were militarily ready to join the Alliance. How have these fears panned out in practice?

Interview

As Hungary's ambassador to NATO from 1995 and his country's first permanent representative to the Alliance from 1999, Andras Simonyi played a key role first in steering Hungary to NATO membership and then in overseeing the transition. Ambassador Simonyi, now 49, left Brussels in January after nine years to start a new career as a consultant, working to attract international investment to central and eastern Europe.

NATO review: What impact has Hungarian membership of NATO had on Hungary and how has the Hungarian public responded?

Andras Simonyi: The idea of Euro-Atlantic inte-gration has had a huge impact on my country. Hungary inherited structures from communist times and a sick economy that had to be reformed. Ultimately, the best way to reform is to aim at integration into the two main institutions that stand for modernisation, namely NATO and the European Union. Preparing for NATO membership has therefore been of enormous help for us, since it has maintained maximum pressure on Hungarian institutions, on Hungarian society and on Hungarian politicians to ensure that they execute the neces-sary reforms so that Hungary can catch up and join the most modern, democratic nations of the world, many of which are NATO members. Membership has not come without a price tag. It has demanded many sacrifices both in human and in monetary terms. But in the end, Hungary has gained stability and Hungary has gained a great deal of influence in forming Euro-Atlantic policies. Hungary now has a place at the North Atlantic Council where the most important decisions on European security are made.

NR: How did Hungary and the Hungarian public respond to the Kosovo air campaign?

AS: After just over a week of joyful celebrations marking Hungarian membership of the Alliance on 12 March 1999, the NATO air campaign came as a huge shock. But what is important is that Hungary stood the test. Indeed, the way in which Hungary, and for that matter the other new members, performed during the air campaign demonstrated the wisdom of NATO expansion because our presence did not make the decision- making process more difficult. Here, it's important to pay tribute to the Hungarian public because Hungary was actually the only member state whose population could see the impact of the air campaign directly. Indeed, those living on the Hungarian-Yugoslav border could see and hear the bombings and often had relatives on the other side of the border. Despite this, support for the campaign never fell below 50 per cent. The Hungarian public had a good understanding of what NATO stands for and why we launched the campaign.

NR: At the time Hungary joined the Alliance, analysts opposed to NATO enlargement expressed various fears, including the impact it might have on relations with Russia, whether the North Atlantic Council would still be able to operate effectively, and whether Hungary and other new members were militarily ready to join the Alliance. How have these fears panned out in practice?

AS: Some fears were totally unfounded and some stemmed from worries about whether an enlarged Alliance of 19 would be able to be as strong and effective as it was at 16. The Kosovo campaign demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to take extremely difficult decisions at 19 because, despite Czech, Hungarian and Polish membership, the solidarity, efficiency and cohesion of the Alliance was not diminished, but enhanced. My message is that the ability to take decisions does not depend on the number of countries sitting around the Council table, but on their attitude and whether they understand that, in the end, they have to pull in the same direction. As a result, I'm not worried about future Alliance enlargement and would want to see as many new members come in as possible, with the proviso that they understand the importance of maintaining the efficiency, cohesion and solidarity of the Alliance. Concerning Russia, the Hungarian position has always been that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with fear of Russia. Rather, NATO is enlarging because we want to extend the zone of stability and security towards the East. Indeed, we think it is in the interests of Russia that it sees more stable countries emerging on its western borders. The past couple of years have proved that the zone of stability has in effect grown and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are much more stable, their economies are growing much faster, and even those countries that are not yet members of the Alliance but are bordering the new members have benefited from a sense of security and stability.

NR: Have any problems proved more difficult to overcome than anticipated?

AS: As NATO enlarges, it must stay strong with proper capabilities. I have never been satisfied with the pace of military reform. This is an ongoing process, which will probably never be completed, but is critical to meeting the security challenges of the modern world. I regret that we did not have the tools at our disposal during the preparatory process, which are now available for aspiring Alliance members and the deep engagement, which Partners now have with NATO. I also wish that we had benefited from the deep sharing of information, which is now routinely available to candidate countries, because that might have eased the preparatory process. But the bottom line is that we will have to continue to reform because Hungary needs smaller, more effective, more mobile and more communicative armed forces, which are better able to serve both Hungarian and NATO interests.

NR: Are there any lessons to be learned from the timing and way in which Hungary joined the Alliance?

AS: The most important lesson we learned is that military reform should be fast and effective. Doing it slowly will not ease the pain, but will exacerbate it and make it last longer. It is important to concentrate efforts on priorities, which have to be identified at an early stage and restricted to a handful, which are then executed. The most important part of military reform is downsizing, and then restructuring, and here it's critical to concentrate on the human element. Human resource management is the key to successful military reform. All the money in the world can be poured into an outdated system and the effect will be totally invisible. The way to reform militaries is to restructure, reorganise and prepare your manpower to be receptive to the process, before putting money in. We have had to learn the hard way that military reform should not be carried out because NATO demands it, but because it's part and parcel of the democratic reform process, in which the public scrutinises government expenditure and makes the country more efficient.

NR: How is Hungary ensuring that its armed forces are equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

AS: We're downsizing. We're reorganising. We're putting the pyramid back on its feet, meaning that we want to have an army of fighting men, which is not overburdened by an excessive number of officers and generals. Our military will also need better equipment, which, whether we like it or not, we will have to procure. But reform is not only about money. Ultimately, it's about political leadership. It takes political will, devotion, and clarity of leadership from the government to achieve successful military reform. You can put huge sums of money into military reform, but, in the absence of a good concept, political will and political leadership, the process is always going to fail.

NR: Based on Hungary's experience, what lessons for future NATO enlargement can be drawn both for the Alliance and for other aspiring members? What preconditions should NATO set and what steps should aspirants already be taking?

AS: The criteria for the three first new members were very clear. They were first, political democracy and stability; second, economic reform and the establishment of a full-fledged market economy; third, full respect for human rights and good neighbourly relations; and fourth, military reform and civilian control over the armed forces. These are the four crucial criteria that we have to stick to, whatever the country, because it's important that, as NATO enlarges, the Alliance develops into a community of like-minded nations. When it comes to ranking these criteria, the most important criterion should always be that in which a country is weakest. My message to nations which wish to become members of the Alliance, therefore, is that they have to understand that entry criteria will be very tough, but that they are not on their own when it comes to meeting them. Partnership for Peace, the Membership Action Plan and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council offer so much more than was available to us during our preparatory process five years ago. In addition, Hungary is ready to share its experiences, both positive and negative, with any nation in order to help it meet the criteria.

NR: After the best part of a decade at NATO HQ, what lasting impressions do you take with you?

AS: NATO is about many things, but, above all, it's about maintaining the transatlantic relationship. The Alliance is the key tool keeping the two sides of the Atlantic together, but promoting this link is not only a task for governments, but also for individuals. As a private citizen, I intend to make the greatest possible use of the experience I have gained at NATO, to promote the concept of North Atlantic cooperation and educate the public on the importance of the transatlantic relationship. When I left this Alliance a couple of months ago, I said in my farewell speech to the North Atlantic Council that this is a great Alliance, which must be kept strong.

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