Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 29
12 April 1999

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

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Far from being a triumphalist exercise in gloating at her good fortune, Hungary's accession to NATO was the occasion of a collective sigh of relief as the situation in her immediate vicinity continued to deteriorate, sliding inexorably towards an armed resolution to the crisis in Kosovo. Hungarian opinion becomes increasingly apologetic, torn between sympathy for and condemnation of the Serbians, recognising the moral dilemmas inherent in both the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Milosevic and NATO's chosen form of intervention to put an end to an untenable violation of human rights. A subtle shift from preoccupation with the safety of her citizens shifts subtly to a critique of the human cost of the response to the crisis.

[See part I HERE]

Our chronicle continues on March 12th, with news that the offer of a four country Parliamentary delegation, comprising representatives of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), to visit Belgrade and Pristina in an effort to mediate between the Albanians and the Serbs, encouraging them to sign up to the Rambouillet agreement, had been turned down. The official reason given was that there was too little time available prior to the expiry of the deadline for signing for the delegation to be able to achieve anything, but this was accompanied by a more sinister statement to the effect that if the visit were to take place nevertheless, this would be taken as a sign of hostility and no guarantees could be given for the safety of any of the delegation's members.

Mr Istvan Szent-Ivanyi (Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Hungarian Parliament) and Mr Istvan Simicsko (Fidesz) who would have represented Hungary dubbed Belgrade's decision as unfriendly and inexplicable, though they had not abandoned hope that something could be salvaged from the plan by proposing a trip to Skopje to meet Kosovo Albanian leaders. This too, proved to be a non-starter, as the Albanian leaders had more urgent matters to attend to in Paris.

March 16th. In an editorial entitled "Kosovan Peace Bombs", Gabor Stier attempted to put himself in Milosevic's shoes, analysing his responses to increasing pressure from the international community: "What else do I have to do to make you lose your temper?" Milosevic might have pondered after rejecting and cynically humiliating the German and then the Norwegian Foreign Minister in Belgrade who had come to try to soften him up. His disappointment only increased when his old acquaintance Holbrooke brought a stick with him instead of a carrot, promising an alleviation of sanctions in return for Milosevic coming to his senses. He might have thought indignantly to himself that he can't even trust Richard - but Richard had figured out the thundering in the Balkans - and I cannot budge an inch until they've done a little bombing, like they did before Dayton. Milosevic, however, can stare at the skies in vain, the deuced F-15s are not coming".

He contrasts the position of the US with that of the EU, summarising that whilst the Americans would be willing to give Belgrade a rap over the knuckles in the shape of a missile bombardment, the EU has accustomed itself to looking at the Balkans through the filter of its own interests, and centuries of tradition and ties of civilisation make it almost inconceivable that its member states could take to arms against a Christian country to defend a group of Moslems. The EU is also aware that Serb historical awareness is founded on a 500 year struggle against the Turks and would perceive in military action a renewed betrayal by the West. Such action would, therefore, only serve to rally the Serbs even more closely around Milosevic, who certainly possesses an intuitive understanding of this sort of feeling amongst his people.

Furthermore, airstrikes would not only put peacekeeping ground forces in a virtually impossible position, but they would also undermine the last remnants of Moscow's prestige as a great power. In other words, what we can distil from these comments is that Hungary was always acutely aware of the pitfalls of possible NATO intervention, which could turn out to be counter-productive, though there was widespread recognition of a lack of viable alternatives. In the light of the gradual collapse of the negotiating process, Stier point out that it is just as well that Hungary can review the events as a member of NATO: "[Hungary] reviews them because she cannot influence them and, in the case of peacekeeping and peacemaking, Brussels will certainly respect the arguments Budapest has put forward in support of Hungary keeping her distance. Of course we too can feel the effects of the crisis directly. It is enough simply to think of the refugees, or of the financial background to the Albanian military preparations, which were funded by drug-trafficking, a problem that increasingly affects our country too. And how far will this all go? We have no grounds for excessive optimism. No matter how paradoxical it may sound, a little bombing can go a long way when it comes to bettering the chances of peace".

March 20th. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry advises Hungarian citizens against travelling to Yugoslavia.

March 23rd. The Hungarian frontier police are put on alert as airstrikes loom ever larger. Their spokesman, Mr Attila Krisan, informed journalists that, should the need arise, the frontier could be strengthened by almost a thousand uniformed guards who could be stationed along the entire length of the border, with their work being further supplemented by roving patrols. Membership of NATO had not led to any change in or redefinition of the frontier police's tasks. If an emergency were to ensue, frontier guards would have to be in a position to cope with a sudden influx of refugees as well as step up protection of the green frontier. If an attack were to be launched on Hungary in retaliation for NATO strikes, the frontier guards would, in accordance with the provisions of the constitution, take part in defence operations, although the primary responsibility for staving it off would be incumbent upon the armed forces.

March 24th. In an interview with Mr Solana, journalists asked searching questions about NATO's views on the threat to Hungary and to the Hungarian minority of the Vojvodina. By way of reply, NATO's Secretary General gave reassurances that Hungary was on an equal footing with all other members of the organisation as far as the application of the principle of collective defence was concerned. Hungary had to be willing to show solidarity, and NATO would weigh up its policy on the minority carefully. Hungary was, said Mr Solana, a "net contributor" to NATO's security and co-operation with the country was up and running in every sphere.

Critical mass reached in Hungarian refugee shelters: "The Kosovo Albanians fleeing from their homeland already filled up the Hungarian refugee shelters weeks ago. Istvan Dobo, the director of the Refugee and Migration Office declared: the material resources of the Office are exhausted - in the case of a possible crisis situation only temporary solutions can be provided. The accommodation is packed to the seams, offering spare beds and mattresses and does not comply with the hygiene standards approved by the Hungarian Health and Safety Authority".

If the number of refugees were to continue to rise, the Migration Office could put them up in military barracks, but this would require a few weeks of advance work. The head of the refugee camp at Debrecen, the biggest in the country stated that 1,250 refugees could be looked after in a comfortable and dignified manner. There were already 1,004 refugees in residence. A similar shortage of extra places and extra funds for feeding their charges exists elsewhere as well.

March 25th. The mood on commencement of NATO airstrikes was sombre, with concerns voiced about the possible wider ramifications of an open conflict. In his article entitled "An Historical Trial of Strength", Mr Gabor Stier neatly summarised such doubts: there is no way back once military action is taken, though such action in no way guarantees peace and stability. Self-aware Serbs are capable of a great deal when it comes to defending their rights over a territory that is perceived by them to be the cradle of the state, whilst the Albanians refuse to yield the province.

NATO's decision is unprecedented in terms of international law, as UN authorisation to go ahead with the bombardment of a sovereign state had not been given. Moreover, the situation is rendered all the more delicate by the phenomenon of Pan Slav solidarity, uniting a broad front from Moscow to Kiev. In spite of her loss of prestige, Russia cannot be written off altogether.

His conclusion: "Unfortunately the first serious test of our membership of NATO has arrived too soon. The Brussels protective shield, however, is not simply a pleasant-sounding promise, but a fact put into operation by the strengthening of our air defence".

Although Hungary could not be labelled as ardent advocates of the strikes, at an extraordinary debate of the Parliament, 252 votes were cast in favour (with 12 against and 8 abstentions) of NATO allies making full use of Hungarian airports. After the vote, the Foreign Minister, Mr Martonyi, made the following statement: "The Hungarian Republic received a request to allow aircraft participating in possible military operations to fly through Hungarian airspace, to take off and land on Hungarian territory and to carry out the ground handling work necessitated by this". He went on to stress that the Hungarian government expects that its Yugoslav counterpart will keep the conflict well away from Hungary's borders as well as from the Hungarians living in the Vojvodina and to avoid taking any further steps that would exacerbate the conflict.

Members of the Munkaspart (Workers' Party) declared their solidarity with the people of Yugoslavia, denouncing NATO action in the strongest possible terms, particularly deploring its decision to resort to Imperialist methods of warfare and demanding an immediate end to aggression against the country.

The Association of Vojvodinian Hungarians urged the people of the region to refrain from fleeing abroad, attempting to calm them by reiterating that Hungarian diplomacy was leaving no stone unturned in helping their interests.

The Hungarian embassy in Belgrade ceased its activities from the 24th onwards, leaving the premises in the hands of a skeleton staff in the meantime.

The Tisza Volan bus company suspended its services to Zenta and Szabadka, an example immediately followed by Koros Volan and Volanbusz of Budapest.

Reports from the frontier crossing points indicated that no significant changes had taken place, and that the number of refugees arriving in Hungary had actually dropped slightly.

That the Hungarians had not lapsed into total complacency at the news of the airstrikes is demonstrated by Laszlo Meszleny in his article "What Now?"

"No-one's face lights up on hearing about the NATO airstrikes. That's only natural. It is scarcely contestable from a moral standpoint that resorting to violence is, from a certain point of view, something that betokens defeat on the part of humanity and humaneness, and it is more natural to feel fear at the sight of weapons than to feel triumphant.

Up to now, waking up in the early morning to the racket of planes In Hungary was unknown to most of us. Yesterday, those of us who were sleeping more wakefully than usual could experience this in full. Women in particular were open about expressing their worry. What will happen now? Just don't let them come here! The Russians left us in peace, didn't they? The questions piled up. It is also true that some people instantly felt sympathy with their Serb mothers for what was going on, as such testifying to a sensitive conscience that should be treated with due respect. But let us not forget: the Milosevic regime was the least fussy of all in its choice of instruments. Extinguished lives, families driven apart, violated women, fates made unbearable to the point of death cannot be denied by anyone. If we had lived a little longer down the way, our loved ones would be being sent to the slaughterhouse by the dictatorship in Belgrade, whether indiscriminately or on the basis of a very cynical selection process.

There is no panic here at home in Hungary. There is no cause for it, but nor is there any cause for generating mass hysteria for the sake of the pursuit of sensationalism. Instead, what we can see is curiosity tinged with tension and sober concern. [...]

Good for you lot, you're safe inside of NATO, my acquaintance from Yugoslavia says with a sigh. It's a paradoxical situation in many ways, but looking at it from over there, it becomes unequivocal: we are actually far safer than we feel ourselves to be here at home. Cautious anxiety cannot be dispelled by a word of command. You're allowed to be afraid, but you don't have to be".

March 26th. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament, Mr Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, emphasised that there were no indications that atrocities, incidents or anti-Hungarian feelings had been stirred up in the Vojvodina. By contrast, Mr Csaba Tabajdi (MSZP) stated his personal opinion that Hungarian consent to the airstrikes had made cordial Hungarian-Serb relations impossible on a long term basis and that the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina may be regarded as hostages to all practical intents and purposes. Given that this is the case, the media and MPs should stop giving Milosevic ideas by continually harping on about them.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, remarked that NATO had taken action to help a minority, but that although the firing of weapons had precluded a solution to the crisis on the basis of negotiations, the main aim of the international community was still to resolve conflicts by political means. Hungary is particularly interested in peace returning to this corner of Europe, especially in the light of the fact that large numbers of Hungarians live in the Vojvodina. The two issues should not become blurred, however.

Along the green border, peace reigned. Traffic volumes have dropped below normal level, and of the Yugoslav citizens, who actually enter Hungary, hardly any are men. Business is booming for taxi drivers near the frontier at Kiskunhalas, who have pocketed a tidy profit from conveying passengers from the bus stop there to the border for 60 DM a fare.

March 27th. Former Prime Minister, Gyula Horn, adopted a stance on the crisis, contending that it is not in Serbia's interests to fan the flames of conflict further. He emphasised that there is a legal basis for intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state when ethnic cleansing is taking place and that NATO only resorted to military action reluctantly. According to Mr Horn, the government should take greater account of the opposition in formulating a viewpoint on NATO, but has failed to do so, thereby entailing a risk that extremist, anti-NATO circles might gain the upper hand in shaping opinion. The only real danger posed to Hungary is that of a flood of refugees, and this was a risk that Hungary would have to face alone.

This latter sentiment was echoed in Gabor Stier's comments (In "Protective Umbrella in the Icy Winds") when he maintained that "The umbrella, however, to stick to the analogy, cannot protect us from icy winds. The same applies to this NATO umbrella too. It gives us guarantees of safety, but it cannot protect us from the wave of refugees, and the proximity of war to everyday life can be felt in other ways, such as in its economic effects. We have to come up with a solution to migration and indeed to any other effects such as those we felt already in the days of the Serb-Croatian and Bosnian wars - there are too many weapons in the region and it's easier to get hold of them. We also have to prepare ourselves for another phenomenon, as Attila Csika the Minister of Economic Affairs also mentioned: "money flows out of places where shots are fired". We also have to face up to the fact that the EU's process of internal reform, which is already progressing with some difficulty, could be affected: the brakes could be put on enlargement if the crisis in Europe's backyard becomes protracted, as it almost certainly will be. NATO's action also signifies the dawning of a new world order, and, in relation to this, Russian objections might touch all the countries of the region at very close quarters.

As new members, the three Visegrad countries were given very practical lessons. This includes the realisation that there are duties as well as rights and guarantees. In the present instance, although we can dispense with direct participation in NATO actions given the touch-and-go situation created by Hungary being an immediate neighbour of Yugoslavia, we, due to Hungary's geopolitical situation, do not actually know whether NATO might require to use our airports as well as our airspace. [...]

The situation is indeed a genuine challenge to Hungarian foreign policy. For the first time in the history of the sovereign state, Hungary as a member of NATO and as a neighbour of the country affected (a country in which, moreover, a Hungarian minority also lives) must do everything possible to preserve the normal development of relations for the future. This requires particularly sober, reticent political activity, an unenviable task. This remains true, even though Hungary does not have a problem with Serbia or the Serbs, but with a political system. Moreover, the Hungarians have lived through their own Trianon and are truly aware of how it feels. But they also know what it is and hence can truly understand the fate of the Albanians. However, it is apparent that, apart from the concern felt by Budapest for the safety of the Hungarian minority living in Yugoslavia, the Vojvodina and the Kosovo problems cannot be looked upon as parallels, and, as Viktor Orbán emphasised, the two have to be dealt with separately.

An opinion poll published in Magyar Nemzet takes the pulse of the Hungarian populace, measuring its response to the air strikes. Of the 500 subjects interviewed, 72% of the men and 62% of the women were following events closely. Intensity of interest varied throughout all social groups with age: almost 50% of the under-30s and 25% of the over-50s paid little or no attention to the crisis. 70% of the inhabitants of the capital supported the Albanians' efforts to secure political autonomy and 60% agreed with the NATO bombardment, whilst 31% opposed it. The majority of the over-50s belonged to the latter group.

March 30th.The MSZP group, headed by Laszlo Kovacs, took the initiative in calling for consultations involving six political parties. Mr Kovacs deemed the consultations necessary in order to examine the effects of the Kosovo crisis on Hungary's security, its stability, its economic and social relations and the situation of the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina. He went on to mention growing anxiety on the part of Hungarians living near the frontier with Yugoslavia and the risk of a massive influx of refugees. Mr Kovacs' comments received a prompt rebuttal from Istvan Simicsko (Fidesz), who denied the need for them, given the broad consensus amongst members of the Hungarian Parliament in favour of military action. Mr Simicsko, who headed the Hungarian delegation at the NATO permanent committee's meeting in Dresden, affirmed that Hungary's role would continue to be one of passive support of intervention. Hungary's official view of the latest developments was, according to him, that NATO had actually contributed to preventing the spread of the war further afield because of the huge build-up of armaments in the region.

March 31st. Mr Orban reiterated that widespread agreement exists in political circles concerning the military actions against Serbia. The Premier took part in the six party consultations instigated by the Socialists and in the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament. The fact that Mr Istvan Csurka, leader of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (extreme right wingers) had declared that although his party remained resolutely opposed to NATO, it did not wish to capitalise on the current crisis to whip up a storm of anti-NATO fervour was hailed by Mr Orbán as a major achievement. According to the Premier, the political parties reckon that NATO intervention is justified by the programme of ethnic cleansing that has been going on since last autumn. Only armed force could have prevented the tragedy from unfolding further: "We are not reckoning on rapid success, but we hope that within the foreseeable future ethnic cleansing will cease".

On the ethnic Hungarians in the Vojvodina, the Prime Minister stated that Hungary had made it clear to the Yugoslavian government that the resumption of co-operation between the two countries after the war would depend largely on the extent to which the Hungarians of the Voivodina had been affected by the events taking place. The Hungarian expectation of the government was that no ethnic Hungarian should be called up to fight in the Yugoslav army.

As to his opinion on the offer of mediation made by the Russian Prime Minister, Mr Orban replied that he would give his backing to any initiative that might stand even a very slight chance of bringing about a political agreement.

Laszlo Kovacs' response to the six party talks was to emphasise their relevance, given that the crisis showed every sign of becoming increasingly drawn out.

Mr Laszlo Matyas, director of the Institute for Economic Analysis, rejected the notion of short-term adverse effects on the Hungarian economy being triggered by the crisis, but warned that this might change if the conflict were to continue for any length of time. As a country in the front line, Hungary could become the victim of a dip in investor confidence. This was more likely to manifest itself in the form of postponement of planned investments rather than as a flight of capital. 140 million dollars' worth of exports to Yugoslavia would dry up because of the military operations.

Mr Jozsef Kasza, Mayor of Szabadka and President of the Association of Vojvodinian Hungarians denied that panic had broken out there, although there was a great deal of tension and even fear. In some cities, military targets had been hit, though no one had been injured. In certain sections of the media, anti-Hungarian views had been disseminated in conjunction with Hungarian approval of the air strikes. Any such propaganda acts as a potential source of danger for the 350,000 Vojvodinian Hungarians. In spite of the adversities encountered, there has been no mass movement of refugees, and he hoped that this would not change. There was no policy of calling up greater numbers of Hungarians than Serbs to serve in the army.

Szeged, the third largest city in Hungary, has been inundated with bookings for hotel rooms, as journalists and cameramen scramble to find a safe base from which to venture into Yugoslavia. Reservations are up by 50 to 70%. At the same time, equal numbers of Serbs and Hungarians have been arriving from Yugoslavia, though they have not been characterised as refugees, staying in Szeged for only a few days. The main thrust of the invasion is from the West, with guest workers meeting compatriots on the banks of the river Tisza to offer them financial help.

Meanwhile, the media have occupied the city en masse, using it as an HQ for excursions to the theatre of war. In spite of this brisk and unexpected trade, hotel managers are worried that with the onset of the tourist season their livelihoods will be jeopardised by holiday-makers turning their backs on Southern Hungary.

In the next instalment of the chronicle, we shall concentrate on the increasing doubts concerning the prudence of NATO's course of action and dissent from the line adopted by the Hungarian government.

Clickhere for Part III.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 12 April 1999


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