Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 28
06 April 1999

C S A R D A S:
Chronicle of a Conflict Foretold
Hungary, NATO and the Kosovo Crisis [Part I]

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Hungary enjoys the unenviable distinction of being the only NATO member that borders Serbia. It is a border which stretches over 170 kilometres. Over the last few weeks, Hungary has shown moderation, trying to an extent at least to show both sides of the story in chronicling the development of the crisis, refusing to flex her muscles and go on the offensive. Such prudence has good reasons: taking her new duties seriously, Hungary's forbearance acts as a stabilising factor in the region as a whole.

In order to retain her credibility as an aspirant member of the EU, she cannot afford to antagonise her neighbours in any way, and this includes intervening too vociferously on behalf of the minority Hungarians that form substantial swathes of their populations. Historical suspicions and old jealousies must not be rekindled; above all, even the appearance of revisionist ambition must be avoided.

Hungary's understandable caution is clearly reflected in press reports of the unfolding crisis, which we shall examine in detail below. Whereas Hungary's commitment to her role in NATO cannot be doubted for a moment, she is acutely aware of the human cost of airstrikes, which raise uncomfortable spectres of past conflicts. This goes some way towards explaining the sombre mood that has surrounded the actions.

February 20th. In the "Portrait of the Week" section, Magyar Nemzet analysed the chequered career of Milosevic, dubbing him the "cynical tactician": "Slobodan Milosevic, in whose hands lies the keys to the solution and who with cynical calm has always waited until the last moment before surprising the mediators with something or other, keeps the world's attention firmly riveted on him. The Yugoslav leader, for the time being at least, is not yielding to increasingly open threats. He would rather run the risk of air strikes than allow NATO units to set foot on his country's soil. This is, however, scarcely going to be his last word. In keeping with his usual habit, he rejects everything in advance so that he subsequently does not have to make concessions on any points that are important to him. [...] Milosevic himself does not stand to lose much if bombings were actually to take place, and he hasn't shown many signs of caring about the sufferings of his people up to now."

Rather than continuing to blacken his character wholesale, the columnist attempts to inject a greater degree of nuance into the overall picture by insisting that, as regards his role in the previous war, by pointing out that other actors were necessary for the fighting to have become so protracted: "there had to be three protagonists, three strong individuals who worshipped power above all else and who crossed paths in the same region at the same time: Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic".

His past political record is examined to determine the root cause of his success: "Milosevic who entered the political scene at a young age in 1986 was an authoritarian figure, but proved at an early stage to be, in the Machiavellian sense of the word, a shrewd tactician, and a good politician. He had an instinctive feel for the concerns of the Serbs and, turning them to his advantage, began by gaining the upper hand over his rivals [...] in reality he has shown little by way of emotional ties to Serb nationalism, which he has used right up to the present moment as a tool for manipulation".

Clearly the Hungarian press was not labouring under any delusions about who NATO was dealing with, but preferred to examine the facts with relative detachment rather than lapsing into full scale, emotionally charged propaganda.

February 22nd. "Embarrassing silence at Rambouillet". In commenting on the difficulties in reconciling the diametrically opposed wishes of the Kosovo Albanian leaders and the Serb representatives, the question of bombings was raised. The pitfalls inherent in such a move were clearly recognised: "Who will bomb whom? Answering this question is made difficult by the fact that in this case there are no good guys and bad guys facing each other off [...] the major powers, primarily the US, are accustomed to seeing the world without shades of grey and find this decision difficult, if not taboo [...] In Serbia in the meantime, the state media is veritably inflaming the population, claiming that the western powers are intent on destroying the country's independence and freedom and that they are intent on stealing ancient Serbian soil".

Again, the Hungarians refuse to labour under any delusions about an absence of moral ambiguity justifying hard-line action.

February 22nd. In an editorial, the deteriorating situation was dissected in greater detail. American diplomacy has been forced to abandon its preference for speed chess and adapt to the Central European variant, which allows for adjournments. "There is no such thing as public enemy number one, no matter how simple it would have been to make Milosevic appear as such, and "bomb just a little "so that he could the more easily be consigned to the patch marked out for him in advance".

Once again, there is a clear understanding of the multi-faceted nature of the problem and the complications that might follow in the wake of direct action are not played down either.

News of the extension of the deadline is greeted with mixed feelings: "This is something, of course, that the American and European mediators are vying with each other to present as a success and as an indication that the deadlock has been broken, which, in truth, is a more fortunate denouement than a bombardment. But it is impossible to know as of yet what the long-term price of ineffectual threats will be. [...] The conflict cannot be contained within frontiers and represents a threat to important allies of America, primarily Greece and Turkey".

An apt comparison is drawn with the dispute between Israel and Palestine, the difference being that there, the agreement has been guaranteed by the contracting parties themselves, and the conclusion that is drawn echoes the words of Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist, noting that it is perhaps time for America to face up to the reality that it is no longer in the position of absolute superiority it enjoyed at the end of the Cold War. Some allies do not like American demands, whilst others look upon them as directly hostile: "America has to relearn the game of international politics as a great power instead of as a superpower". We can detect a certain antipathy towards overweening American arrogance here.

February 27th. The ethnic Hungarians of the Voivodina are mentioned. Their fear of enforced mobilisation is reported along with a remark that they were harder hit by the previous conflicts than the Serbs.

Gabor Stier writes an article on the situation in Kosovo, which includes an interview with Jozsef Juhasz, an eminent expert on the region. According to Mr. Juhasz, the most that could have been expected of the Rambouillet negotiations beyond an acceptance in principle of the agreement was one signature, which, sadly, was not forthcoming. The best real hope for a solution is to be found in the consolidation of ordinary daily life in Kosovo and the avoidance of war. The history of the two peoples' cohabitation, however, does not bode well: "The ethnic and political borders markedly differ and neither the Serbs nor the Albanians can or indeed want to reconcile themselves to that. [...] The basic fact is that Albanian nationalism at the end of the last century was born in opposition to the Serbs and not to the Turks. They became conscious of their situation when, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Albanian ethnic territories were divided up between Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. In the course of the setting up of the nation states of the Balkans, the Albanians really did come off worst, and from then on they looked upon Yugoslavia as the state of Serb nationalism".

By couching his arguments in these terms, Mr. Juhasz alludes to a long-standing Hungarian obsession (though it is not shared uniformly by all segments of the population), which can be described as post-Trianon traumatic stress syndrome. This renders his train of thought accessible to the Hungarian audience, charting problems with which they are familiar and with which they can sympathise, giving his subject matter an emotional appeal.

In Mr. Juhasz's opinion, the Serb-Albanian enmity is not the whole story. Identity is perceived to be of primordial importance in maintaining social cohesion and solidarity: the real cause of the break-up of Yugoslavia, therefore, is not to be sought in the release of the Tito's iron grip of discipline, but in the death of the South Slav identity that bound the various ethnic groups together, bringing their political community of interest to an end, even without the help of a Milosevic.

The focus then turns towards the paradoxical role of the international community that is all to anxious to absolve itself of any responsibility by remarking blithely that no-one has managed to set the Balkans straight in the last hundred years. The international community's views have always been coloured by its own interests: immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was anxious that events in Yugoslavia would create a precedent for other former soviet Republics, and the whole sorry business was further complicated by the rivalry between Europe and America, with the latter secretly keeping its fingers crossed that Europe's efforts would founder, thereby proving once again that the Old Continent depends on the intervention of the New as well as showing Moscow that her days of greatness are over. In short, the west is incapable of grasping the Balkans way of settling old scores and hence fails completely in drawing the distinction between opponents and enemies. This inability has played into the hands of Milosevic, allowing him to manoeuvre glibly between the mediators.

In spite of such obvious pessimism, Mr. Juhasz does feel that some lessons have been learned from the errors of past hostilities: "Every major power is now aware that, unlike the two previous wars, the Kosovan conflict may spill over the frontiers and so preventive measures are called for".

In an interview with the Foreign Minister, Mr. Janos Martonyi, Lajos Pietsch puts searching questions about Hungary's (then) forthcoming membership of NATO as well as the Kosovo crisis.

Mr. Pietsch voices a widely held perception when he points out that joining NATO will mean that Hungary becomes a member of the world's most powerful military alliance and this will act as a guarantee for peace and prosperity. In response to the question on the historical significance of March 12th [the day earmarked for Hungarian accession], the Foreign Minister gives an accurate reflection of not only the official Hungarian policy line, but also of the views of many ordinary citizens: "The main point of the message is that a new era of Hungarian history is commencing. Membership of NATO means first and foremost a change in values and with this change in values we become part of the western world. Seen from a historical perspective, as far as Hungary is concerned, the 21st century starts at the same moment. For us, this century could hold great opportunities in store. It has been said that the 20th century did not actually begin in 1900, but either in 1914 or 1919, the start is at any rate always linked to the First World War. In this brief century, Hungary has lost two World Wars, lost - at least temporarily - a Revolution and a struggle for freedom; she has lost over two thirds of her territory, over half of her population, including several million Hungarians; we went through the hell of World War Two only to be wrenched out of Europe by 40 years of Communism. In the 20th century, therefore, we have always been on the losing side. Now, in the final year of that century, a new situation has arisen, one in which Hungary, complete with her firmly-rooted democratic institutions, will become a member of the world's strongest political and military alliance, which consists of the most highly developed democratic countries of the globe. We were always the losers in the last century, now we are on the side of the winners in a military alliance which has proven its right to exist throughout the fifty years it has been in operation".

The sentiments are clear: suffused with a new optimism, Hungary can at last look forward to a brighter future. The tide has turned and the ignominy and humiliations of the past can finally be laid to rest. It is time to move on, Hungary has returned to the fold of western European nations.

Quizzed about the benefits and duties of membership, the Minister demonstrates an admirable grasp of the constraints of realpolitik in an increasingly dangerous modern world as well as a healthy dose of Hungarian self-interest: "Primarily we receive security and that is the most important point. We will be members of an alliance that can defend itself with complete certainty against any kind of external attack. This is our guarantee of being able to develop in peace and well being. All the obligations emanate from this. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty sets out the principle of collective defence - which means that we must rush to each other's aid regardless of which one of us is attacked. This reciprocity is the lifeblood of common defence and security".

The implications of membership for the Hungarian stance on Kosovo are examined: "Let's start with the worst case scenario. If it comes down to military conflict, Hungary will not be taking part in actions. Of course we shall put our airspace at NATO's disposal in accordance with the Parliament's resolution to that effect [dating back to last year], but that does not involve participation in military action. If, however, an agreement is reached, and I myself am moderately optimistic that such an agreement will finally come into being after March 1st, then a Hungarian recommendation already exists. According to that recommendation, we could help the peacekeeping forces by sending medical, auxiliary or engineering units. These units, however, would not enter Yugoslav territory, but would be stationed in Macedonia and around Skopje. [...] Our NATO allies agree entirely with the Hungarian stance, regardless of which of the two scenarios we are talking about. It is not just in the interest of Yugoslavia, but in the interest of NATO as a whole that we should not take any kind of step that might increase the tension in other parts of Yugoslavia, for example in the Voivodina".

With great tact and diplomacy, the official spokesman of Hungary distances himself and his country from active involvement in any fighting, a policy, which has been unwaveringly pursued ever since. This caution may be attributed in part to Hungary's geographical vulnerability, not wishing to issue a direct challenge to a neighbour within spitting distance and in part to concern for the welfare of the Hungarian ethnic minority. For reasons stated at the outset, antagonising her neighbours in the region as a whole would do more harm than good and this has been clearly recognised. Whereas there is an undeniable element of cold calculation in Hungary's prudent reluctance to favour force as a solution, it would be wrong to accuse her of complete indifference, particularly in the light of the family ties that bind her with the Hungarian minority.

March 5th. Mr. Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament announces his intention to depart on a goodwill mission to Belgrade and Kosovo with the aim of persuading Serbian and Kosovo Albanian representatives to accept the Rambouillet peace plan.

March 8th. "South Slav Firms Go West", shatters myths concerning the type of refugee that has been entering Hungary since the 1992 conflict. About 10,000 have fled from the Voivodina since the year in question, most making their way to southern Hungary. Very few actually applied for refugee status, the majority preferring to set up shop, with over 2,000 firms launched in Szeged alone owned by at least one Yugoslav citizen. Most of the incomers are ethnic Hungarians, which means that no language problems are encountered in conjunction with settling down and fitting in. The amount of legally imported capital is estimated to be in excess of 1 billion forints, and the entrepreneurs commute regularly to the subsidiary branches they have set up in Transdanubia. Typically, they export fresh fruit and vegetables from Szeged to Bosnia and Croatian coastal resorts, forming a valuable bridgehead between South Slav and Hungarian businessmen. Amongst the intellectuals who have made the move to Hungary, only the humanities are well represented, but they too have settled down without further difficulties.

To counterbalance the negative image of hordes of starving, destitute refugees, then, we are presented with a picture of a thriving community that has not boosted the crime statistics and has made a useful contribution to the local scene.

March 10th. Fuelled by the news of the deterioration of the situation across the border, Andras Kelemen, a member of the Hungarian Parliament (MDF) publishes a soul-searching article on the consequences and significance of Hungary's imminent incorporation into NATO.

He begins by casting his readers' minds back to 1956, desperate days when a terrible toll in blood was taken in an attempt to free the country from the Soviet yoke. The miracle of freedom did not happen then.

Given the difficulties most Hungarians face in making ends meet, what possible relevance could membership of NATO have to them? A vortex would drag the Hungarian ferry towards Eastern shores or, worse still, into murky depths, where workers stuck in dead end job wait in vain for their pay packets to materialise month in, month out, where there is a chronic shortage of goods, where the powers-that-be cannot protect their citizens from either natural or industrial disasters, or from the bloody reign of the Mafia, or even from civil war. NATO represents a safeguard against all such ills, and affords a secondary kind of security as well by promoting investor confidence and encouraging economic co-operation amongst its members (Article 2), all of which is good for Hungary.

After extolling the virtues of Article 5, the author goes on to address the valid concern that, although it may look good on paper, there may be no genuine commitment to the principles expressed. Far from railing against such fears, Mr. Kelemen puts them in the perspective of Hungarian experience under Communist rule, where concepts such as security, welfare, peace and democracy were bandied about constantly, without there ever being any real substance to them. NATO's use of these terms is qualitatively on a different plane altogether: the bipolar world has had its day, it is no longer true that a world empire flailing helplessly about in the trammels of its own consuming poverty can be allowed to occupy Hungary as part of its uninhibited programme of expansion without the annexation improving its economic lot. It is no longer true that a war budget sets aside the lion's share of resources on defending the so-called world revolution, feeding the appetites of nuclear arms producers and jungle partisans alike.

Looking ahead to the future, Hungary has been an integral part of Europe for 1,000 years, and the embracing of western values never has and never will be tantamount to slavish acceptance of foreign concepts, as Count Szechenyi [the "greatest Hungarian"] was swift to emphasise when he stated that Hungarians have to undergo a process of transformation not for the sake of the countries that surrounded them, but for their own sake.

Throughout the humiliations brought by the 20th century, a constant unbroken spirit has shone through: the will to live, the will to defend the nation, the ability to undertake action. Hungary is at present at the top of the transition league table and has broken out of decades of imposed quarantine to arrive in the developed world.

His closing remark brings the review of history full circle by alluding to 1956, ending on a high note: "All we have to do is lift our heads high, all we have to do is to discover within ourselves a fraction of the resoluteness with which we tried our hand at something which was then impossible, but which has today become a reality".

March 12th. The day that Hungary formally joined NATO.

The celebratory mood continued in an article by Lajos Pietsch, which regards NATO-membership both as a reward for years of hard graft and as the crowning glory of the new Hungarian democratic model: "It is difficult to express without pathos all that today signifies in the history of Hungary. After so much by way of hardship and suffering, the Hungarian people from today onwards belongs once again to the part of the world whose values it has always cherished as its own. The storms of history and the internal and external dictatorships, however, succeeded in keeping us out of the family of advanced Western nations until now. The collapse of Communism nine years ago was necessary before the 12th of March 1999 could become a reality. [...] Hungary will be joining an alliance, the existence of which has guaranteed world peace for the last 50 years, and which is the only organisation capable of doing the same in the next century.

Hungary's accession to NATO at the same time means recognition. The West appreciates the efforts undertaken by elected governments since the change of system to work towards the development of democracy, economic stability and modernising the army. There is a real need for this; it strengthens our self-esteem, which is essential for the healthy development of the nation".

Mr. Martonyi's speech in Independence contains similar expressions of gratitude and optimism, paying tribute to the heroes of the 1956 revolution, whose heroic struggle paved the way for the reacceptance of the country into the community of democratic nations: "In the past, the Hungarian people often bemoaned that it had been abandoned in isolation, that it had been left in the lurch. From today onwards this has changed forever. Hungary has come home and has once again become a member of a community. Together with you, we shall begin writing a new page of history. [...] This wish [joining the West] also led those who in 1956 drove the first nail into the coffin of Communism. By paying a tribute of honour to the memory of the embittered heroes of the struggle, I will be discharging my duty towards them".

And, in a further statement: "The Hungarian people are aware that NATO is founded on a balance between the advantages accruing from membership and the duties that accompany them. [...] By joining NATO, Hungary has now irreversibly become a member of the developed world that we always wished to belong to, to which centuries of Hungarian tradition stretch back and to which our culture is also linked. We share common values with our allies, we share common interests and, on that basis, our aims are also identical. The external security of the country has risen to unprecedented heights. Our membership of NATO, however, does not just improve our homeland's security in military terms, but also helps us to act effectively in the face of cross-frontier threats, such as organised crime, drugs-trafficking and illegal migration".

The Hungarian Prime Minister's response was equally enthusiastic: NATO accession had finally put an end to the Jalta world order. Membership of the alliance will allow the Hungarian nation to create an atmosphere of security for the current generation as well as for future generations. Hungary can now look forward to the future with peace of mind.

Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon all the while, ready to dampen spirits. The jubilation was tempered by sobering thoughts of events in nearby Kosovo, to which we shall return in detail in the next instalment.

Click here for Part II.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 6 April 1999


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