Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 35
24 May 1999

C S A R D A S:
Wars and Rumours of Wars
Letter from Szeged

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Arriving at Budapest airport, I was struck by the throngs of drivers patiently holding up cards with an exotic array of foreign-sounding names. All of them shared the same destination: Novi Sad. Under different circumstances, you might be tempted to wonder whether this was the place to be. This confirmed my suspicions that the members of the world's press corps had abandoned Szeged, on the safe side of the Hungarian-Yugoslav border, for more perilous assignments further afield that would no doubt bring them more prestige.

It is business as usual even as close to the Yugoslav border as Szeged (nicknamed the City of Sunshine because the number of hours of sunshine it enjoys is higher on average than anywhere else in Hungary), though the Cserepes flea market, whose clientele was principally composed of Yugoslav nationals, has temporarily ceased to exist. The hotel managers of Szeged complain bitterly in the columns of the local newspaper that trade has plummeted to an all-time low for the season, with no prospects of immediate improvement. This pessimistic view was corroborated by a photograph of a rather glum-looking, uniformed receptionist with row upon row of empty pigeon holes behind her.

I also read about the steady stream of prominent figures in Hungarian political life, who had made the pilgrimage to Szeged and the surrounding towns, including, most recently, the Minister of the Environment who had come to learn whether any increase in air pollution levels has been ascertained as a result of NATO bombings in Yugoslavia's Northern province of Vojvodina. Presumably, they are putting in an appearance to keep up morale (not that there is any pressing need for them to do so, the population is content enough) and to boost their popularity by demonstrating that, although Budapest may seem remote and unconcerned with the problems of the provinces, they do not suffer from the same affliction. Their image is buffed up by taking on a veneer of caring.

I made it my mission to sound out my friends on the impact of the crisis, with more than a vague notion that the only airborne attacks I would be reading about during my stay would emanate from the notorious mosquito population, the only strategic plans those to eliminate the bothersome insects.

Firstly, I visited Claudia, a university lecturer. She informed me that she had heard the explosion at Horgos, only a few kilometres away, on Tuesday, 11 May, whilst she was rummaging around in the attic. She had been convinced it was a bomb, but it had not unduly ruffled her.

"I read all sorts of exaggerated reports in the German press. You have to take it with a pinch of salt. I read, for example, that people round here were sending their babies away to the north of Hungary to keep them safe," (Claudia's strapping baby boy gurgled contentedly at her feet) "Though I have listened to reports on Hungarian radio that Vojvodinian school children are going to be sent on holiday to Hungary, most of whom will be heading off for Lake Balaton and other parts of the country away from the immediate vicinity of the frontier".

Another friend, Mr Kovacs, smiled at the distorted image I had previously had of what life here would be like, apocalyptic visions of streets teeming with refugees and the like. "The war is certainly the talk of the town. In the bank the other day, I overheard a conversation concerning a transfer of money to the Vojvodina. The customer was complaining that 6 deutschmarks had been deducted from a modest sum intended to help some friends in financial difficulties. The clerk informed the angry client that, had he specified the money was a gift, the 6 deutschmarks would not have been deducted. I too have sent money to my friends in the Vojvodina, but via another friend who has been travelling back and forth. Medical supplies are running short, so a group of us clubbed together to help a diabetic boy from our circle of friends. It is risky sending the money like this, who knows whether it will ever make it past the customs officials on both sides? We first found out about the air strikes when the planes went roaring overhead - and they have continued every night since, which constitutes the clearest indication that a war is taking place - ironically a few moments before we heard Clinton announce this solemnly on the TV screen. I am a pacifist. There is no such thing as a just war. I did not vote in favour of Hungary joining NATO either".

Later, sitting beneath a huge parasol at the Virag Cafe on one of the city's main squares, watching the waitresses deliver ample portions of strawberries and cream to the occupants of the surrounding tables, it was difficult to imagine that there was a conflict going on just over the border. Watching the bubbles rise lazily in my glass of mineral water, I chatted to Petar Veliki, a 28-year-old student of English from the university about his perspective on the conflict.

Petar is from Szabadka, a Vojvodinian Hungarian with a Hungarian residence permit which he acquired long before the war for the purposes of pursuing his studies. Firstly, I asked him how he felt on hearing news of the war, what thoughts had gone through his mind. "I had strong feelings, of grief and regret. I had only just returned to Szeged a few days before the bombing started. Everyone in Yugoslavia was surprised by the bombing, because we had heard so many threats before. Always at the very last moment, the threats were lifted, so we grew accustomed to a series of eleventh-hour reprieves. This is why the attack, when it finally came, was unexpected. The international and domestic telephone lines were all engaged, with everyone calling their friends to find out whether they had been hit by bombs or not. It was no coincidence that I came back when I did, Holbrooke left Yugoslavia on the 22nd and Solana was talking about authorising air strikes, so it was only a matter of time really. I had to come back to university anyway, but some of my friends only arrived back at the very last minute. Some of my friends from Szabadka came to stay with me for a couple of days, but they didn't feel safe in Szeged. It was around 8 or 9 in the evening that we knew for definite that the conflict had broken out. At about 10 in the evening, we took a trip to the border to observe what was happening. All the cars, no matter what direction they were heading in, were in a big hurry. The cars with Yugoslav number plates were crossing back over from Hungary, making their way home as quickly as they could, worried about what might be going on there, whilst the drivers of the cars that were coming into Hungary showed tangible relief, they could scarcely believe they had made it, they had crossed the border and were safe".

GK: Do you feel safe? Do you reckon there is much chance that Szeged or Hungary will be attacked? Or even that Szeged might be hit by a stray bomb such as the one that struck Sophia, Bulgaria?

PV: To be honest, I haven't devoted much thought to whether we are well protected or not. The Yugoslav leaders are aware that an attack would be tantamount to declaring war openly, and that this would entail serious consequences. I haven't thought about stray bombs at all. There is always a slight risk. When my acquaintances in Szabadka hear the sirens, they dutifully file down to the air raid shelters, but they don't feel like squatting in a cellar all the time. You can't rest there and it isn't exactly comfortable. During the first few days, everyone ran to the shelters, but now many of them stay at home. They reason that the bombs won't fall near them, even if the sirens go off, the bombs won't hit them. They stay in their flats. If their number is up, then they'll be hit. If people were to think too hard about it all, it would be far more frightening".

GK: Can you sense any special atmosphere in Szeged? Can you feel the crisis hanging in the air?

PV: "Not particularly. A couple of my friends called some of us up because we are Yugoslav citizens. They wanted to ask us if we felt safe, to find out if it was likely that there would be a Yugoslav attack. I have been glued to the television set in the past three weeks and have scoured the Internet. I know that it is technically possible for Yugoslavia to mount an attack because they have missiles with a range of 250 kilometres, but they are able to figure out the consequences of this themselves".

GK: Do you have any plans to return to Vojvodina, to visit your relatives there, or are you afraid to go back because of what might happen to you then? Would you be called up?

PV: "If I were to go back to Yugoslavia, I wouldn't be allowed to return to Hungary. Men between the ages of 16 and 65 are not permitted to leave Yugoslavia without special authorisation. I could go, but not come back, as I say. It's risky. Would I be called up if I went back? Good question. It is the duty of each individual to sort out his own papers. Some have completed their military service, others have not. The reserves could be called up at any time. Having said that, some men between the ages of 16 and 65 do manage to get across. How do they do this? Well, they get a special certificate from the military authorities stating that they are students or they work abroad for foreign companies and they have proof that they are resident abroad. Some of my relatives and friends have been called up, some are in the reserves. If they have been sent to the front they don't talk about it. As far as I know, they have not been sent outside of the Vojvodina, but I really don't have any information about it. For the police, the situation is completely different. Last summer, in the course of normal duties, they were suddenly sent to Kosovo, for field work".

GK: What is the mood in the Vojvodina? Do people there resent the bombings?

PV: "I can quote a piece of graffiti from Novi Sad, which goes like this: "NATO is in the sky, Milosevic is on the earth, where are you, my God?" How do they feel? The official line is that the war is not against the ordinary people, but against Milosevic and his regime. If this is really true, then why are they being bombed? Even a tiny fraction of the amount of money that is being squandered on the war could have been spent on assassinating Milosevic. I read an article in Time magazine, or maybe it was Newsweek, in which they wrote that in 1993, contacts were established between the CIA and the Yugoslav Secret Service. The possibility of putting an end to Milosevic was raised in the course of their negotiations. The west keeps on about the "humanitarian catastrophe", but they are using it as a pretext to pursue their own aims, [he lapses into English] they don't give a shit. You know that in their briefings, NATO always stress that only a tiny fraction of the bombs miss their target, but where do they land? On private dwellings, hospitals. People end up mutilated, losing their arms or legs and all of this because of Western politicians. Even before the bombings started, the majority were opposed to Milosevic. Once the bombs started to rain down, it seemed as if they rallied around him, but it wasn't so much him they were supporting as their own country and their own way of life. I do not think that NATO had expected such a reaction when it figured out its strategy. It didn't count on a movement of this type emerging. They claim that it all figured in their plan in vain. If it had, the conflict would not be taking so long and the Yugoslavians wouldn't be so stubborn. Since 1991 one long war has been going on, punctuated by brief interludes of peace. Even though the war has not been fought directly with the Yugoslav people themselves, limited to the soldiers and the reservists, the defence budget has swallowed up so much by way of resources that it has destroyed the rest of the economy. The ordinary people have resigned themselves to the war because they have been feeling bad since 1991. Their sense of humour keeps them going. We have amusing rhymes about the foreign leaders that I have found on the Internet. For example, about Gerhard Schroeder: [He translates from Serbian into English] My German friend has been chasing after women since the Second World War, and now we are dropping bombs and quaffing beer. People in the Vojvodina are embittered. Their savings have run out, they have no money left. Many of them don't receive any pay because their workplaces have been destroyed, and those who do give away the bulk of their pay to help those who have none and who would otherwise starve. In the past, people were earning the equivalent of 30 to 40 deutschmarks a month, but now there are no guarantees that they will receive more than 10. In the days of the Bosnian war, the amount was as low as one and a half to two deutschmarks a month, so people had no choice but to spend their savings. There is a thriving black market economy there at the moment. People come to Hungary to buy up goods, taking them back to Szabadka to sell. It's mainly cosmetics and food. Even this is a risky venture due to the barriers: first they have to get past the Hungarian customs officials without the products being seized, then there are the Yugoslav customs officials who might take the goods away, then there is a chance that they might be stopped by the police on the road between the border and the city, and even when they reach the actual market, the police sometimes carry out raids. The chances of success are fairly slim, you can see that it depends on a number of arbitrary factors".

GK: Do you think that, if the situation were to deteriorate further there would be a mass exodus of refugees from Vojvodina?

PV: "I really don't know, and I don't want to speculate. I know of quite a few who have come to Hungary either legally, with a residence permit, like myself, or illegally via the green frontier".

GK: What do you think about the question of autonomy for Vojvodina?

PV: [His eyes light up] "It is my fondest wish that Vojvodina should regain its autonomy. It would be the best solution for the Hungarians of Vojvodina if they could have an independent state. That way, they would not be part of the Federation and could apply separately, competing on their own merits, for membership of the EU. Independence would restore normality, creating a healthier society and political life. That would be perfection. However, to strike a more sober note, I think it is a dream that will never be realised, which is all the more unfortunate as people would, under those circumstances, be able to decide on their own fates. It is not in the interests of the major powers to let frontier revisions take place. On the subject of the Fidesz congress, I think it is quite dangerous for the Vojvodinian Hungarians that public figures who feature prominently in political life, such as Istvan Csurka [who belongs to the Hungarian Justice and Life Party] to say the kind of things he does. Hungary does not stand to gain from a revision of the frontiers. Let's imagine that Vojvodina and Transylvania were to be returned to Hungary. If that were to happen, then the Hungarians would be in a minority in their own country, and it is not, let's face it, in the interests of the people of any country to be in a minority in their own home. If Vojvodina were to become an independent state, it would be like a United States in miniature, since there are over 30 nationalities represented, albeit in different proportions. The largest groups are the Serbs, the Croatians, the Hungarians, the Romanians and the Albanians. There is also a variegated religious landscape with Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Moslems. The prevailing attitude has been that you should cherish and respect your own people first, but that you should treat others with equal respect. I think we set a good example. Recently, tolerance in Vojvodina has been on the decline, with the arrival of 250-300,000 refugees from Bosnia. I recall what the journalist Goran Milic wrote back before 1990, that Yugoslavia as it was could be split up into an A and a B zone, the A zone being more advanced, the dividing line between the two coinciding with the natural border of the Balkan peninsula. The division along the religious fault line is more or less a fait accompli, but the Serbs do not have a monopoly on nationalism, it is even more pronounced in certain parts of Croatia than it is in Serbia. The people of Yugoslavia are trapped between two nationalist leaders, Milosevic and Tudjman, which is like being crushed between two millstones".

GK: How would you react if the Serbs attacked the Vojvodina? Would you go back to fight?

PV: "I do not think that the Serbs actually want to cause even greater problems than already exist. Of course, there are extreme nationalists in Serbia, there are also extreme nationalists in Hungary. I can give you an example of what has been going on: a Serb started firing gunshots at a Catholic church and was immediately dragged off by the Serb police and given a thorough beating. There is a certain amount of anarchy, but it has not reached such proportions that you could start talking of the country as a tinderbox. The people have the patience of Job. The real question is how much more can they stand before something gives? I cannot discount the possibility of a serious conflict erupting altogether".

GK: If the Serbs were to attack, though, would you stay here?

PV: "I might go to fight if there was a serious organisation that was pushing for full autonomy, but otherwise no. Translating a Serb proverb, I would not give up my life for a goat [he grins]. I am lucky to have survived unscathed this far. In any war, people lose their lives and are scarred both mentally and physically. I reckon the outcome of this war was decided before the air strikes began. Politicians are very adept at lining their own pockets. What you have to ask yourself is who is likely to profit from the war. I have heard through unofficial sources, but nevertheless first hand about what happened in Bosnia and Croatia, and it is very reasonable to suppose that the same is going on now in Kosovo. The West wants to sell off its stockpiles of obsolete weapons. Wherever there is war and destruction, someone has to rebuild. People disappear inconspicuously during wars, so you can assume that the illicit trade in human beings, particularly in women, is booming, particularly since it is possible to go to the West anonymously. You can cease to exist officially and still be alive. Some individuals are happy to assuage their sexual appetites with transactions that involve a great deal of money. I heard about the trade in blood and human organs as well [I look up from my notepad with a certain dismay, knowing this was going to ruin my appetite for chestnut puree cake]. They would bleed victims dry before removing their hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers and whatever else, stealing them for medical research or transplants. All this talk of humanitarian aid and strengthening democracy is all a smoke screen, a load of rubbish. I heard an alternative view of the West's motives for the war on Yugoslav TV before they bombed it [he laughs nervously, puffing at his cigarette]. It was a theory according to which plans exist to lay a pipeline for oil and natural gas that would come from Asia via Turkey through Greece to Western Europe. I also heard of another plan to link this pipeline with the one from Russia. If they were to be linked, it would mean that there would be plentiful supplies of both oil and gas for Western Europe from two sources, which would mean that the Europeans would be able to be in control of where their oil and gas come from. If memory serves me well, the venture would be worth something in the range of 200 million dollars a day, a fortune. NATO is expanding eastwards, ostensibly to make people feel safer, but compare NATO's plans to expand with the route of the pipeline and you will see that there could be something to the speculations. There are large numbers of American troops in Macedonia. The easiest and most logical route for the pipeline to follow would involve, looking at the map, crossing Kosovo. What would be the better and more profitable option? I digress. If the two pipelines were to be linked, it would mean that the Europeans could manipulate prices, deciding whether to buy from the Arab countries or not. Similarly, look at the impact and spread of capitalism in the former Communist countries, the countries that used to be members of the Warsaw Pact. They are not doing very well economically, and are forced to accept inflows of capital from the prosperous West. It's like in Hungary, with foreign companies buying up the utilities and local firms. Yugoslavia is a tougher nut to crack. Yugoslavia has not adhered rigidly to any camp: as far as the West is concerned, it is Eastern-oriented, and as far as the East is concerned, it is Western-oriented. At the beginning of the 90s, privatisation initiatives were launched, but tight controls were imposed on foreign investors. A 51% share of any firm had to remain in state hands, partly to protect them from going bust, partly to make sure the Western partner companies could not just do as they pleased. This meant that, unlike elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, some of the profit and benefit actually went to the country. The West had big plans for investing in Yugoslavia, so the chink in the country's armour had to be exploited, the volatile temperament and the ethnic and religious tensions. In the past, not only was Yugoslavia economically stable, but in the 70s the country also had the best equipped military machine and it was plain to see that Yugoslavia would not admit foreign soldiers, whether this refusal suited NATO or not. This clashed with the interests of the West, so how could the West resolve the dilemma? By creating a problem and then stepping in to solve it. I have heard this referred to as the "polarisation method". It has proven fairly effective".

GK: Do you really believe in what you are telling me?

PV: "I think there is some substance at least to all these speculations. Look at the reality around us: money is all-important in the West, and is concentrated in the hands of major capitalists. If you bark against power, as we say in Serbian, you dig your own grave. You either join the ranks of the exploiters or you are exploited. You either accept exploitation as a natural law, which cannot be helped or you try to forge ahead by kicking others down. Instead of protesting from the rooftops, you look after number one. The worst is not even to be aware of what's going on, accepting it meekly. You shouldn't hinder yourself, but be selfish enough to help yourself; it's the only sensible thing to do. There are certain events that I cannot figure out, for example, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy. I read that NATO and the Pentagon had relied on a map dating back to 1992. I also heard the CIA making excuses about their budget having been cut. I found such statements very peculiar indeed. It costs less than a dollar to buy a map of Belgrade, and anyone can lay hands on a telephone directory. They are stretching people's credulity. I reckon they thought this would be the simplest way to wash their hands of the whole episode, but if their secret service is that strong, working all over the world, how can they confuse an embassy with anything else? The most likely explanation that I can think of is that a mobile radar unit of the Yugoslav army was passing by the embassy, and that it was the real target. I have seen them in Szabadka. When bombs have hit civilian targets in Szabadka, it was usually the case that a mobile radar unit had passed by a few moments earlier. The dwellings in question had no strategic importance whatsoever".

GK: I expect that your opinion of NATO is not very favourable?

PV: I do not care if what NATO is doing is malicious or not, but you have to look for the underlying causes since NATO's repeated assertions that the allies have nothing against us personally have worn thin. In 5 or 10 years' time, the effects of this war will still be felt. The suffering has already gone on for decades, so why not wipe the people out physically as well? Please don't misunderstand me, I am as staunchly opposed to mass exodus and mass murder as the next man, but you have to try to look at both sides of the story, there are two sides to every coin, as the saying goes. It was not in the Albanians' interests to stay in Yugoslavia, even prior to the war. I remember the Milan Panic electoral campaign in 1992, before Milosevic took over. The Albanians could have taken action then, they could have voted. Just over a million of them were entitled to vote. If they had it could have changed the political landscape. Besides, if the West is so keen on helping the Albanians, why does it not do more to help? Why do Germany, the UK and the USA not offer to take in more refugees? Why are they being kept in Macedonia? The West was full of promises about sending help, but actually did nothing until there was a tangible threat of a massive influx of refugees. President Clinton, when he pointed to the map, talking about possible frontier changes, was simply trotting out the Albanian dream of a Greater Albania. What about the members of the Albanian underworld? They have a Mafia that has spread throughout Europe, they are the leading drug dealers and have even succeeded in displacing the Italian Mafia in Italy! Here too we encounter major financial interests. It is impossible to be just in such circumstances, but in the meantime, blood is being shed".

GK: What you classify as your mother tongue, Hungarian or Serbian?

PV: "It depends on what you mean by mother tongue. If you mean that it is the language inherited from your mother, then it is Hungarian. If you mean which language I use more confidently, then it is Serbian. I was brought up bilingually, speaking Hungarian with my mother and some of our friends and neighbours and Serbian with my father. That always seemed entirely normal to me. The Vojvodina is a multi-lingual environment. You know the Hungarian saying that the more languages you speak the more human you are. Teaching at school was in Serbian. I asked my parents why this was the case. In the 70s, no one would have imagined that Yugoslavia would fall apart, so Serbian seemed the logical choice, the more advantageous of the two. It was a way of fitting in. Under Tito, the Vojvodina was autonomous, and Hungarian was referred to officially as "the language of the social surroundings". There was a change in Szabadka in the early 90s. Up to then, if you wanted to apply for a job as, say, a shop assistant, you only stood a chance if you were bilingual. That is no longer true. It very much depends on where you live as to which language predominates and what the atmosphere is like. In bigger cities, people are anonymous and alienated, whereas everyone knows everyone else in the small village communities, so it doesn't matter which language is spoken. People usually end up speaking a peculiar mish-mash, with one sentence in Hungarian, another in Serbian, the with the two grammars interwoven, creating what is virtually a separate dialect, which neither Serbs nor Hungarians would understand. I am quite fond of it as it enhances my vocabulary, particularly with words of Latin origin. Forget all the spouting about nationalism, ethnicity, skin colour, there are only two types of people, the good and the bad. You need to sit down and talk to people to find out which category they belong to. There is nothing more stupid than condemning someone on the basis of their religion or language. One aspect of official policy that I find particularly offensive is how you are treated if you go to a Western embassy. If I go with my Hungarian residence permit the reaction is completely different to when I go with my Yugoslav passport alone. The holder of a British or American passport is shown greater respect. I find this discrimination very painful. In the 1980s, a Yugoslav passport was worth something. You could travel anywhere you wanted, and if it was stolen, the thief could expect to make up to 20,000 deutschmarks on the black market. Now no one would accept a Yugoslav passport from you even if you offered to pay him to take it away. Since Yugoslavia fell apart, I have felt like a Palestinian. I have tried to fit in and succeeded, but it took a lot of effort. There are certain difficulties that cannot be eliminated, though I would not like to fall into my own trap by lapsing into stereotypes. It is very rare in Hungary to sit at a cafe, strike up a conversation and have that lead to a friendship. It is difficult to make contacts with the Hungarians. I lived in Budapest for two years and, though I met and befriended many Germans, Poles and French, I never made a single friend from Budapest itself. There is a huge gulf between Budapest and the provinces. Budapest is not Hungary, which is a major problem for the country as a whole. About one third of all Hungarians are concentrated in the capital, yet they look down on the rest as if they were second class citizens. When I came to Szeged, it took me one and a half years or so to build up a circle of friends. I could see in people's eyes that their first thought was to wonder what I wanted from them. I miss the Mediterranean atmosphere of Szabadka in Szeged. For example, this is the only terrace and it closes at 10 pm. In Szabadka, and in the Vojvodina in general, there are beautifully paved pedestrian precincts and ten or so terraces. In the summer, we start coming to life at 10 pm. People here are cautious, reticent, and the current situation does not make it any easier. It makes no difference if I say I am half-Hungarian, I am branded by my accent. The arms trade-related killings in Szeged colour people's attitudes about the Serbs. For example, I was sitting at the cafe with some friends and a young boy came up to me to ask what language we were speaking, to which I replied Serbian. He told me I should stick to Hungarian because I was here after all. I asked him whether he had ever been abroad. He had been in Greece. I asked him whether he had spoken Greek whilst he was there, to which he said no, he hadn't. I told him to get knotted. In Szabadka, we used to speak Hungarian openly on the streets. Not any more. The incomers make no attempt to adapt to local circumstances, and make no attempt to conceal their nationalist sentiments. This is exactly how the problems started in Croatia. Once the first drop of blood had been spilled, they were plunged into a tragedy of revenge".

Appropriately enough, the skies had clouded over. Thunder pealed, and the ominous grey clouds discharged their rain, relieving the closeness. We quickly went our separate ways to avoid a drenching. Prophecies of the last days echoed through my mind.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, Szeged, 23 May 1999


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