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Hungary: NATO Wants More Than Words During Yugoslav Campaign

By Michael J. Jordan

Budapest, 8 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ask the average Hungarian about history, and he will likely recount the centuries of suffering at the hands of foreign invaders. Thus, when Hungary joined NATO in March, it seemed motivated less by the desire to join the "winning" side of the Cold War than by the wish for a future of guaranteed security.

Therefore, it was a cruel irony when, just 12 days after Hungary's induction, NATO launched its first air strikes against Yugoslavia. Hungary was de facto at war with its southern neighbor.

While the public generally supports the NATO air campaign and the free use of Hungarian air space, recent opinion polls show a solid two-thirds of the public opposes any attack from Hungarian soil. An even larger number resist the possible use of Hungarian troops in either a ground offensive or peacekeeping mission.

But with NATO prodding Hungary to meet its alliance obligations, while dangling the carrot of a significant role in post-war reconstruction of the Balkans, the Hungarian leadership consented to the first launch of NATO aircraft from Hungarian air bases. Last month, 20 of 24 U.S. Marine F/A-18 Hornets arrived in southern Hungary. Equipped with laser-guided bombs, the Hornets began flying combat missions late last month.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, commenting during an inspection of the U.S. F-18s, said that "This is exactly the kind of NATO we wanted to join 10 years ago, one that stands for a certain set of values".

Many Hungarians in Taszar, the small village adjacent to the air base where the NATO aircraft are stationed, are less enthusiastic. Retired truck driver Laszlo Kalmar, speaking as an F-18 roared overhead, said: "We never wanted them here, but nobody asks what the simple people want." Kalmar added that "More and more people around here are talking about World War Three."

While Mr. Kalmar and others in Taszar fear they may now be targets for Yugoslav missiles, there is no denying the strategic value of Hungary in NATO's military operations. Hungary is the only NATO member that borders Yugoslavia. Its proximity to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and other key cities makes NATO aircraft in Hungary more "deployable" if quick action is needed.

NATO officials say the launch of combat missions from Hungary serves two purposes: it relieves the workload at NATO's base in Aviano, Italy, and opens up new fronts against Milosevic.

Elsewhere, NATO aspirants Romania and Bulgaria, both next door to Yugoslavia, are allowing free use of their air space. But Greece, which sympathizes with its Orthodox Christian brethren, the Serbs, has been the only NATO member to refuse use of its air space.

While Hungary has signed on, there are deep reservations in the country about how the move will affect the 350,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Vojvodina, the northern province of Yugoslavia that was Hungarian territory until a post-World War One treaty.

Vojvodina may indeed become a more central issue as the search for a settlement to the Kosovo conflict continues. Both Vojvodina and Kosovo had autonomy within the old Yugoslavia until Milosevic abolished it in 1989. Hungarians on either side of the border fear that if a peace resolution for Kosovo fails to address Vojvodina's status, as the Dayton peace deal in 1995 failed to address Kosovo's, the seeds may be sown for a future Balkan conflict.

If anything, recent comments by right-wing Hungarian politicians have only inflamed the situation. One ultra-nationalist lawmaker, Istvan Csurka, has pushed for Hungary to protect the Hungarian minority with a border "revision" that would annex parts of Vojvodina. And Zsolt Lanyi, the chairman of parliament's Defense Committee, has suggested "statehood" for both Vojvodina and Kosovo.

Many observers denounced the statements. One, Gernot Erler, deputy parliamentary leader of Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party, said the calls would only serve to reinforce the Serbian nationalist belief that the world is cooperating in an effort to dissolve Yugoslavia.

(Jordan is a Budapest-based freelance journalist who contributed this report for RFE/RL's Newsline.)