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Hungary Wants to Sell About 90 Former Soviet Bases

Budapest, May 28 (RFE/RL) -- Hungary says it wants to sell scores of former Soviet military bases, airports, apartment buildings and other facilities to save the State millions of dollars in maintenance costs.

The State Privatisation Agency, APV, says it has about 90 installations for sale, either at auction, or directly to potential buyers. It says its expectations are high because several other former Soviet military installations have been converted into profitable private enterprises.

An American businessman, George Loranger, has built a successful industrial park at a former base near the town of Szekesfehervar. At another former military base near Budapest, a Hungarian-Canadian group is building a huge shopping mall. When it opens later this year it will have 150 shops, six cinemas and other facilities. In anticipation of success, the developers are providing parking for 2,000 cars.

Western multi-national companies are also developing industrial parks, factories and shopping centres at other former Soviet bases. (And) The Suzuki car company of Japan took over a former Soviet base as long ago as 1991 to build a car factory.

The properties now being offered by APV include a shooting range in the Great Hungarian Plain in the center of the country, a big military base on the outskirts of Budapest, and a former airfield in the south of Hungary close to the borders of Romania and Serbia. When Soviet forces withdrew from Hungary in June, 1991, they left behind 5,750 installations, including apartment blocks, hospitals, shooting ranges, military buildings and airfields. Most of the apartment blocks and barracks, which had housed the officers and soldiers, were in appalling condition with poor sanitary and electrical facilities. Some were repaired and sold to Hungarians, but many others were considered uninhabitable and were knocked-down.

The Soviets left seven former air bases, including the one close to the borders of Romania and Serbia. Five are now offered for sale. A spokesman for the privatisation office said it hoped to find buyers interested in creating a regional air network in Hungary. Western business experts are sceptical about these plans. They point out that previous efforts to build regional air traffic in Hungary have failed because of insufficient consumer and business interest.

Business consultant George Lindner says military bases and other facilities close to cities or big towns, and with internal roads, have the best chance of being sold if the price is reasonable. In Lindner's view, sites in remote parts of the country, or without basic infrastructure would be harder to sell. Environmental contamination also remains a problem at some former military bases despite several efforts since 1991 to clean them up. Hungarian officials acknowledge that problems still exist at some airfields used by fighter aircraft, such as kerosene fuel that was allowed to spill into the soil. Similar problems exist at some bases used by tanks where old oil was often dumped into pits dug in the earth. "After 40 years of Soviet occupation, some of these sites are well and truly polluted," said Lindner.

The pollution was part of a long drawn-out argument between Budapest and Moscow as the Soviet troops were pulling out. Moscow demanded around 670-million dollars in compensation for the buildings it was leaving behind. The Hungarians considered the figure outrageous in view of the condition of many of the buildings, and responded with a demand for more than 750-million dollars in compensation for environmental damage. A compromise was eventually reached in which the rival demands were balanced-out.