Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999

C S A R D A S:
Another Kind of Frontier Dispute
The Croatian farmers' blockade and Hungary

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

That relations with Croatia are important to the Hungarians is amply illustrated by the visit of Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi to Zagreb on Friday, 2 July. On the agenda: the Croatian minority in Hungary and the Hungarian minority in Croatia, the stability of the region and the Kosovo settlement.

At official level, Hungary regards Croatia as an important strategic partner, whereas at a more mundane and less formal level, ordinary Hungarians regard Croatia as a prime holiday destination, basking in the summer sunshine along the Adriatic coast. When the suburbs of Budapest are abandoned en masse by citizens fleeing the heat and choking dust, the stay-at-homes (tourists who either prefer not to venture abroad or whose budget does not stretch to foreign jaunts) make their way to Lake Balaton, whilst the slightly more affluent are lured by the sparkling waters of Hungary's neighbour.

Unfortunately for many hapless Hungarians, the tourist season this year coincided with an organised protest by Croatian farmers that led to the country's borders being closed down. The timing was in all probability not a matter of mere chance but cynically calculated to cause maximum disruption and thereby have the maximum impact in publicity terms and in terms of persuading someone to come up with a swift remedy.

Within the EU, French farmers are notorious for their militant and anti-social behaviour whenever they feel the merest threat to their livelihood. Images of tonnes of rotting tomatoes, of apples, of abuse being hurled at representatives of the authorities, of effigies of politicians being ceremonially burned in startling displays of vehemence, of dung dumped over miles of motorway are not unfamiliar to TV viewers and dismayed drivers who cannot figure out what the best alternative route to their destination might be. Now the Hungarians have come face to face with similar ire as Croatian agricultural producers have taken a stand and blocked off frontier crossing points.

Tractors and other agricultural vehicles brought traffic to a standstill for several days as part of a protest against imports of certain agricultural products. The farmers feel that they should be allowed to meet national needs for those products where they are capable of covering demand themselves. They also want to see an increase in the purchase price for wheat. Over 20,000 farmers have taken part in the blockade, for which the Croatian Farmers' Alliance was responsible.

The response of the Tudjman government was fairly predictable: the demands of the farmers were dubbed unrealistic and unnecessary, the blockade action was described as unlawful and the Croatian Farmers' Alliance was accused of exploiting the farmers' interests for political ends.

The Alliance retorted that it was all the fault of the government's misconceived policy; the agricultural minister's arguments that Croatian farmers already enjoy better rates for wheat than their Austrian counterparts fell on deaf ears.

According to the farmers' spokesmen, ambulances, the Red Cross, police and SFOR troops would be allowed to pass unhindered. They claim, furthermore, that the economic impact of the protest will be negligible as the tourist season is not yet in full swing, promising that if foreign tourists (including Hungarians) arrive at the scene of the blockade, they would be given help in making their way past.

This was contradicted by first-hand reports from the frontier crossing point at Berzence, where only pedestrians and cyclists were permitted to pass the barricade situated only 150 metres from the border. Those foolhardy enough to brave the 50 kilometre roundabout route were warned by the authorities that it was all too easy to get lost or stuck in the middle of the beet and maize fields.

In the meantime, Slovenia was commended to the attention of prospective holiday-makers as an alternative approach route to the Adriatic coast, as travelling via Slovenia only increases journey time by about two hours.

At Nagykanizsa frantic negotiations took place between the frontier guard officers on both sides to ensure that livestock, perishable goods and hazardous substances could be transported without further delay. The icing on the cake would be to allow Hungarian families returning from Croatia to get back home as well.

Such are the perils of trade disputes: confusion, bewilderment and helplessness on the part of those not directly involved. For those in Central Europe who like to think of accession to the EU as the panacea against all ills, be warned.

Humour in the face of adversity

In an article for Magyar Nemzet, Laszlo Meszleny captured the flavour of the ensuing chaos with admirable humour:

"These Croatians are a hard-working people. They build their motorways with great industry. We ascertained this after Zagreb, speeding home after our holiday by the Adriatic along a stretch of almost continuous motorway. In the back, the three offspring were keeping each other amused, doing a good job of putting up with the 500 kilometres we had covered since we had taken a break for an excursion at Plitvic. At the last stretch of the motor way you have to pay a toll. The necessary few hundred forints' worth had been set aside in kunas. The motorway was deserted and new. By nine, we would be at the border at Letenye, and we would be in Budapest by midnight. After Varasd, the motorway was closed. Maybe the road-marks were being painted? The tollbooth was empty. Interesting. It doesn't matter, we'd save the toll money...

Offspring: 'Why is it so smelly?'

Parent: 'The fields have been fertilised.'

Offspring: 'What is fertiliser?'

Parent: 'Horse jobbies and cow jobbies.'

Offspring: 'Why do they put it on the ground?'

Parent: 'So that the crops that have been sown can grow better.'

Offspring: 'Do they put human jobbies on the fields as well?'

Parent: 'No, they don't.'

The border was already in sight, all we had to do was to find our way back to the motorway slip-road, and we'd be there already.

Offspring: 'My leg's gone to sleep.'

Parent: 'Move it about.'

Offspring: 'My tummy hurts.'

Second offspring: 'When can I get some chocolate milk?'

Third offspring: 'Get ow, get ow.'

Parent: 'We'll be across in a minute, you can get everything on the other side.'

Offspring: 'I need a pee-pee.'

Parent: 'We'll be across in a minute, hold it in until then.'

8:45. A Croatian police car at the ramp. A Land Rover. A helpful policeman speaking Croatian.

Granyica zatvoreno, blokad.

Another car brakes. They have come from Rome and have been on the road since dawn. What did he say? We translate.

The policeman understands a little German and lists the frontier crossing points. They are all closed. Another car arrives, they take out a map. Kakovec, dear compatriots, they keep on saying Kakovec. The Croatian policeman does not understand...

'Strigova' says the policeman.

A winding road back to Kakovec. Potatoes are being sold everywhere in the villages, the odour of fertiliser wafts from the fields. The fuel tank gauge points to empty. With the money we had set aside to pay the motor way toll, we buy five litres. You can't get any fuel for forints.

Strigova. No road signs. An old gentleman explains. Straight ahead, to the right, to the right again, left. The first village is Senkovec.

Let's get out the map again, here it is. Roller-coaster. Tiny villages, pitch-black forests. Wine-presses, forest. The fuel gauge droops to minus.

Offspring: 'When am I going to get my chocolate milk?'

Second offspring: 'My tummy hurts from sitting down.'

Third offspring: 'Get ow, get ow.'

Another village, followed by yet another.


We're going to spend the night here.

The road narrows, then a car with Polish number plates appears. Resourceful peoples of Central Europe, unite!

Where is the border then? A caravan-like building with a barrier. Here it is, ugh! A friendly Croatian frontier guard. He takes away the passports. He makes a phone call. We chat in English. This is only for the local frontier, only for Slovenian and Croatian citizens. My other half comes forward with a sleeping child in her arms. The Croatian frontier guard feels sorry for her.

We can cross, if the Slovenian will let us in. Call him up and ask him, we advise. We should ask him, the Croatians advise. He will keep hold of our passports. We go across to the Slovenian side by car. Poor inhabitants of Kakovec, we sigh sympathetically, but we will get by at least.

The Slovenain frontier guard is friendly. He is astonished. He explains the situation in German.

We give him a grilling. He is astonished once again. He makes a phone call. The sleeping infant is in the arms of my other half.

These Slovenians are a European people, they'll definitely help us. The frontier guard would let us across. A middle-aged woman in uniform with the word 'policija' on it arrives. There's going to be trouble.

'Nye druzsba,' she hauls the frontier guard over the coals. He throws up his hands in a gesture of apology, smiles and turns us back.

The Croatian frontier guard receives us with curiosity. We get the passports back.

Offspring: 'When am I going to get my chocolate milk?'

Second offspring: 'My leg's gone to sleep.'

Third offspring: asleep.

The Croatian frontier guard mentions a crossing point that does not feature even on the detailed map, which is five kilometres away.

After-ski petrolovic stationic left. Hvala, dovigena.

We take our leave.

Forest. Black as coal. Village. Junction. Farm road to the left. No road signs. We set off. Petrol gauge at minus one.

Offspring: 'Where are we?'

A miracle: a frontier crossing point.

The Croatian frontier guard lets us cross. An ancient Lada with Slovak number plates and a strapped-on mock-leather suitcase. An Austrian BMW with a surfboard on the roof.

The Slovenian side.

A vision: exactly the same frontier guard. This is not happening. Must have overtaken us. Of course not, he was the only one on the Slovenian side all along. He comes over. He laughs. He doesn't even ask for the passports. An amusing people.

Offspring: 'Why are we going this way?'

Second offspring: 'I'm thirsty.'

Third offspring: asleep.

Small villages not shown on the map. A bigger village. Aha, there it is. The lights of Lendva.

The Hungarian border is that way. We'll be there in a minute.

A sign announcing a detour: the road to the Hungarian border is closed.

We go in the opposite direction. The oil refinery at Lendvai. Well, if we conk out there's at least enough fuel to be had. It is almost 11:30. We have been winding our way about the roads for two and a half hours and have almost certainly done about 80 kilometres.

Frontier crossing point richtung Croatia...

Road sign: Lendava Centar. We go on.

Can you see that beautiful fortified castle that's all lit up? Magnificent! They must do that to attract the tourists.

Petrol gauge at minus two. Redics is thataway.

We cannot lose our way because of the queue of lorries stretching several kilometres. There's no two ways about it, we have to get a move on.

Offspring: 'When am I going to get my chocolate milk?'

Second offspring: 'I feel sick.'

Third offspring: 'I want a dwink.'

In front of us a Slovak Skoda, behind us a Hungarian convoy. The lorries are in a double row. One of them starts to reverse out. Are they going to block the way here as well? A determined competitor comes in from the front. There are still several hundred lorries all the way to the border. The Slovak Skoda retreats. Don't try it, mate, cos we'll never make it across. Switch on the headlights. If there's going to be a fight, then let there be a real fight.

We balance on the embankment. We just fit. It'll be midnight in a moment. Dolga Vas. The frontier guard just waves us on.

Things hot up at the Hungarian border. Change of guards at the border. Stationary queue.

Pleasant female Hungarian border guard: the offspring are SOO sweet!

We nod in agreement several times.

A Hungarian car coming in the other direction: What is it like over there? One half of the family had set off for the Adriatic, but they had lost sight of them. Was it the same as when we had the taxi blockade?

A Hungarian car behind us. Tornyiszentmiklos has already been closed down, they inform us. Redics, the lights of the MOL petrol station. Please just let us trundle on as far as that!

I ask for a copy of Magyar Nemzet. The petrol pump attendant looks at me in bewilderment.

On the front page of the Zalai News, the blockade is announced. It's midnight. I skim through the article. It is already out of date.

We can receive Kossuth radio. News. A blockade of farmers in Croatia, tourists head for Slovenia. Three in the morning, the lights of Budaors... We've almost made it home when a vehicle with flashing lights, but siren switched off, tears over the crossroads. It was green for us, the vehicle was doing at least 120. After 850 kilometres it would have been just great to end up in a collision.

Offspring: 'I want chocolate milk.'

Second offspring: 'Let's go back to Croatia.'

Third offspring: 'Get ow, get ow.'

It is quarter past three."

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 11 July 1999



Women in Politics

Latvia's Vaira

The Curse of
Elena Ceausescu


Ewald Murrer


CATHERINE LOVATT: Fascism on the
Rebound in

Czech Class and Society

Czechs and Roma

Croatian Farmers'
Blockade and

The MinMaj Rule in the Balkans

Czech Press
under Threat

The Privileges of
Power in the
Czech Republic

Latvia's New President


One Year away
from Prague


Baltic States
Czech Republic

Readers' Choice:
The most popular article last week

Corruption at a
Czech Law School


Book Shop


Music Shop


The First Futurist Opera Revisited

Central European
Culture in the UK


Post-Yugoslav Film


Transitions Online
Watch for their
relaunch on
19 July.


Information Technology
in Central Europe

with your comments
and suggestions.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved