Two days after moving from the opposition benches of parliament last May to become Hungary's defense minister, Ferenc Juhasz made a routine courtesy call at NATO headquarters in Brussels. When he met with Secretary General George Robertson, Juhasz recalled, "it was a shock."
Banging a table with his finger for emphasis, Juhasz said, Robertson delivered a lecture: Fulfill your pledges to modernize and better equip your forces. "You do not have any time," Juhasz recalled the NATO chief saying. "If you don't do this, you are in trouble."
"It was two days after I took office," Juhasz said. "Usually, the new government gets a hundred-day honeymoon."
There has been no honeymoon for Hungary's new coalition government as it confronts a dilapidated military structure that is in many ways the weak link of the NATO alliance. "Hungary is not a military nation," said a Western diplomat from an allied country. "They haven't won a battle since around 1456. And there's very little support for military spending."
The diplomat praised the government for promising more military spending, but noted it was merely a promise. "The new government came in with a huge set of promises that are very expensive," the diplomat said.
When Hungary joined the alliance in 1999, many NATO countries considered it a good ally. At the start of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, it immediately opened its airspace to allow jets to carry out bombing raids. But since then, Juhasz said, "we are treated like an unreliable partner."
Juhasz blames Hungary's previous government for neglecting pledges to restructure the military. For four years, he said, there have been no significant purchases of new equipment, meaning that "technological backwardness is huge." Reductions in manpower have left some units nonoperational. The army has no protective gear to defend against chemical or biological attacks. Communications systems are old and Hungarian soldiers have difficulty talking to their NATO counterparts.
This is not to say that Hungary hasn't spent money on defense in recent years -- about $1.08 billion yearly, or 1.75 percent of its gross domestic product, a respectable rate by European standards. But much of it was misspent, officials said. For instance, the previous government put large sums of money into studying how to create a maritime transport capability for a landlocked country.
When the United States was looking for allies to help with the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, Juhasz said, "I was shocked to see two [NATO] countries which did not take part." One was Iceland, which doesn't have an army, and the other was Hungary.
Now, the new government has announced a 16 percent increase in its defense budget, pushing it to about $1.2 billion. Much of the new money will go for technical improvements and restructuring. Already, Hungary has put out tenders for new vehicles and equipment.
Juhasz has also embarked on a long-term defense review, with American and British assistance, to determine precisely what capabilities Hungary now has -- no one is quite sure -- and what it might contribute in the future. But that review will not be completed until March, too late for the upcoming NATO summit in Prague.