Vol 0, No 31
26 April 1999
C S A R D A S:|
Chronicle of a Conflict Foretold
Hungary, NATO and the Kosovo crisis [Part IV]
News of a diplomatic crisis between Hungary and Russia, centring on the fate of an aid convoy, dominated the media last week, pushing fears for the safety of the Vojvodinian Hungarians into the background. The Russians have been making a mountain out of a molehill, attempting to flex their muscles and ending up impotently venting their annoyance to little effect. Hungary, for her part, has adopted a conciliatory tone, sticking rigidly to an examination of the facts of what happened, rather than getting up on her moral soapbox, though she would be perfectly entitled to righteous indignation.
EDITORS NOTE: Over the past four weeks, CER's analyst Gusztav Kosztolanyi has written over 22,000 words examining the situation of Hungary in the current phase of the Balkan crisis. To see his earlier contributions, have a look atPART I, PART II and PART III.
Russia's belligerence is probably motivated by pique that minuscule Hungary had the temerity to prevent Russia getting her own way and by a wish to distract from the reality that Russia herself was at fault, breaking the terms of the UN embargo. The events act as yet another uncomfortable reminder to Russia of just how much the world around her has changed: she can no longer command the unconditional obedience of states she once held in her iron grip, her imperial days have been irrevocably relegated to the annals of history. Perhaps there is also a trace of resentment against Hungary in all this which goes beyond the churlishness of the dethroned rulers towards ex-subjects: Hungary is not populated by a Slav people and so has no presumed mystic ties to Mother Russia. Moreover, the bone of contention was precisely that Hungary was felt by Russia to be obstructing a shipment of aid to the beleaguered Serbs, Russia's little brothers.
April 12th. Controversy erupts around the Russian aid convoy. The convoy, transporting a humanitarian aid consignment from Russia and Belorus and heading for Yugoslavia via Hungary, is held up at Zahony on the Hungarian border, because it contains material and equipment that falls under the provisions of the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. According to Lieutenant Colonel Jozsef Schieber, spokesman for the National Civil Defence Headquarters, it emerged that, during the course of a statutory customs inspection of the 73-strong fleet upon its arrival at the Hungarian frontier early on Saturday evening, five of the lorries were, in fact, military transport vehicles, armoured and fitted with firing slits. Their cargo was subsequently loaded onto the other lorries and they were sent back to the Ukraine empty. Further problems were caused by the arrival of ten fuel transports, seven in excess of the number the Hungarian authorities had been notified of in advance. The rest of the convoy was made up of mobile hospital units, medical equipment, medicines, food, soap, disinfectant and blankets for the wounded and other victims of the crisis.
Mr Jeno Sipos, representative of the Customs and Excise Authority, made it clear that the Hungarian customs officials were doing everything in their power to ensure that the convoy could proceed to Yugoslavia through Zahony. The drivers and escorts were provided with food and drink as well as ample opportunity to rest at Zahony before continuing their journey under customs supervision and with police accompaniment. Before leaving Hungary, the 68 lorries would be given the opportunity to refuel.
The incident is debated in the course of the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament [the following excerpts have been translated by the author from the verbatim record of proceedings of the Parliament], opened by the Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban, in a speech tailor-made to put minds at rest, cataloguing every conceivable concern of the citizens of his country:
"Why is it important for me to inform you briefly about the military operations in Yugoslavia? The reason why it is necessary to address this issue between the walls of this House once again is that the citizens of Hungary, though this does not apply to the citizens of Hungary alone, but also to the citizens of Poland and the Czech Republic as well, feel that they have ended up in a very difficult military situation, even though they have been members of NATO for barely a few weeks. Particularly here at home many feel like a child who has been plunged into cold water. This is why I believe that in circumstances such as these, it is the duty of the House to debate certain aspects of this truly delicate and many-sided international situation.
First of all, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Speaker, I think it is important that we all grasp that NATO still does not expect armed participation of us. In all probability, this is because it is not in NATO's interests that the stability of Hungary's inhabitants and territory be exposed to any kind of military conflict. At the same time, of course, Hungary agrees with the aims of her allies and, in so doing, agrees with those of Europe as well. For us Hungarians, moreover, the restoration of peace is perhaps even more important than for others, since we have brothers living in Yugoslavia. Precisely because of this, I feel in retrospect that it was right and proper of the Parliament to decide that we would make our airspace and airports available (to NATO) in the interests of the successful completion of military operations.
I would like to inform you that a team of Hungarian doctors is setting off to help the refugees. Within six days of the orders being issued, the team of doctors will be ready for deployment and detailed either to the refugee camps that have been set up in Macedonia or to those in Albania. Should the military action come to an end, and should all interested parties reach agreement, we might also envisage sending a sub-unit of the Engineering Corps to Macedonia.
This, ladies and gentlemen, brings me on to my third point, which is that, today, no military attack directed against Hungary would stand any chance of success. I would like to repeat that it is a fortunate circumstance indeed that we are members of NATO, a fortunate circumstance indeed that in autumn we succeeded in our Central European initiative, according to which we were included amongst the ranks of NATO members not at the end of April, but earlier, in the course of March, as you are aware, and that this has meant that we are living through the current crisis as NATO allies and as NATO members and under NATO's protection.
Hungary is indeed safe to the extent that it is at all possible for any country to consider itself safe under such circumstances. I would like, once again, to remind you and the general public that if a military attack is launched against a member of NATO, this is looked upon by all the remaining members of the alliance as an attack launched against their own territory, which means that they must immediately rush to the aid of that country, using every means at their disposal. At the same time, neither the government nor the allies fear that the conflict will spread any further to the North. The possibility that this might happen, however, should never be precluded and this is why we have reorganised the Hungarian army, and have mobilised the troops in such a way that - as I was able to convince myself in the course of inspections - should a military threat arise, we would be in a position to respond immediately. I feel obliged to point out that the Southern part of our country is prepared, our soldiers are also in good condition, they are in a satisfactory state of readiness for action, and they could successfully take up the fight against the danger that threatens us and which might, in principle, ensue.
Ladies and gentlemen! Many people are asking questions about why Hungary does not declare how many refugees she would be willing to give shelter to. This is why I would like to inform you that Hungary is willing to give shelter to any refugee from the war on a temporary basis. Our country is an honourable and honest country, which feels that it has a duty to give shelter to people from its immediate vicinity who have got into difficulties, if they are fleeing from danger and if they are running for their lives. Of course, we must then make sure that we do everything in our power to sort out the situation faced by the refugees as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. At the present moment - and I am telling you this for your information - refugees are arriving in Hungary in increasing numbers day by day.
As far as our economy is concerned, ladies and gentlemen, I must tell you that the outside world has not changed its economic assessment of Hungary as a result of the Kosovo crisis. Indeed, I would like to inform you that in the last few days, the Hungarian government has successfully issued bonds worth 500 million dollars which were also subscribed. I would bring to your attention that Hungary has never issued bonds in dollars at such a reasonable price and on such favourable interest terms. That is all I wanted to say about the economic state of the country.
The government is confident that in future - because of our membership of NATO - our accession to NATO will bring direct economic benefits to our country. I am convinced that, had Hungary been a member of NATO in the days of the Bosnian crisis, we would not have been compelled to suffer as great an economic loss as we actually had.
At the same time, ladies and gentlemen, that damage has been done primarily to transport and to trade. Given, however, the extent of the problems and dangers that prevail in the Southern region of the Balkans, it would seem that Hungary will be able to survive the conflict in a reasonable state economically.
The brunt of the negative impact on the economy and trade caused by the crisis will have to be borne primarily by Yugoslavia's neighbours and it is mainly Hungary, as one such country, that will have to face up to them. As a result of the destruction of the bridges over the Danube in the Vojvodina, an action which was a military necessity and, as such, unavoidable, the single most important Central European waterway has been rendered unnavigable. This means that trade via the river will continue to be suspended for many a long week and month to come, which will be a source of major losses to Hungarian businesses. It would seem that we are living through the kind of years at the moment that we had been spared previously.
Ladies and gentlemen! You have doubtlessly heard about the matter relating to the convoy transporting a consignment of humanitarian aid from Russia and Belorus which has been held up at Zahony. At the beginning of our session, at around one o'clock, an agreement was reached between Russia and Hungary, about which I would now like to inform you. The backdrop to the incident was that we stopped a convoy at Zahony. In our opinion, the Hungarian authorities were justified in their actions, since equipment subject to the UN Security Council embargo as well as approximately 600 thousand litres of fuel oil were to be found in the consignment. Point Eight of the decision taken by the Security Council prior to the arrival of the consignment pertains to the fact that weapons and military vehicles may not be brought into Yugoslav territory. The quantity of fuel oil contained in the eight tankers cannot be qualified as aid, and five of the lorries were armoured and fitted with firing slits. They obviously could not be allowed to be sent to Yugoslavia in the thick of a conflict.
The salient points of the agreement are as follows: the armoured vehicles fitted with firing slits could naturally not be permitted to enter Hungarian territory and so the equipment and aid cargo contained in them was loaded on to other vehicles. Hungary will allow the rest of the vehicles to enter her territory and to leave it again, whilst only four of the original eight tankers will be permitted to accompany the aid convoy until it reaches its final destination. It is more than likely that two Hungarian observers will travel alongside this convoy. The bulk of the agreement is in place, which means that the conflict may be deemed settled on the basis of an accord.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I would also like to inform you that in the last two days NATO forces working together with Hungary have sent aid to Albania and Macedonia in 253 aircraft, comprising several thousand tonnes of food, medicinal equipment and supplies that will afford the refugees some relaxation. It was the government of the Republic of Hungary that took the initiative in setting up an air bridge between Budapest and Tirana, and we are making efforts to transport the donations made by governmental and charitable organisations on a daily basis using the aircraft of the Hungarian Army.
I believe, honourable Mr Speaker and honourable members, that the question that is uppermost in our minds is that of the fate of the Hungarian minority living in Yugoslav territory. In the circumstances, it is obvious that the current foreign policy situation makes the Hungarians' position extremely difficult and complex as NATO actions have - as you too may have heard from the news broadcasts - also affected the areas in which they live.
At the same time, I would like to remind you that NATO intervened in this conflict precisely in order to save the lives of a group of people living in a minority, the Yugoslav Albanians, and this fact should serve as a message to all of us. It means that the world's strongest military organisation does not look upon the fate of those living in minorities with indifference.
What lies behind NATO's decision is the desire to bring to a halt those forces that would prevent certain of the nations and peoples of Europe from living together in a community. This decision is particularly important for us, the Hungarians, as we have a direct interest as a nation in this conflict being resolved as quickly as possible. Hungary would welcome it if the Hungarians of the Vojvodina were no longer at the mercy of the war raging in Yugoslavia. This is why it is in our interests, particularly in our interests as Hungarians, that NATO's resolute intervention should restore peace and calm in this corner of Europe once and for all.
Over 300,000 Hungarians live in the Vojvodina, and they are compelled to live today in what may be described as appalling mental and physical conditions. This increases the Hungarian government's responsibility. I would, however, like to raise the question once again: when would the Hungarians of the Vojvodina be in greater safety? Would it be if Hungary were outside NATO and could not take part in the present actions and, in case of trouble, could only rely on the might of her own soldiers? Or would the Hungarians of the Vojvodina feel safer if Hungary were a NATO ally, part of an alliance system that has chosen to make sacrifices, to shoulder burdens because it believes that it is not possible to deport and destroy any group of people on the basis of ethnicity?
I therefore believe that we may state with impunity that it is in the latter case, with Hungary as a member of NATO, working in close co-operation with the alliance, that the Hungarians of the Vojvodina may consider themselves to be living in greater safety".
Resounding support was given both to NATO's policy and to the Hungarian government by Mr Istvan Simicko, speaking on behalf of the Fidesz Parliamentary group: "Military intervention represents the sole means by which the Yugoslav government can be persuaded to submit to the demands of the international community and to put a stop to the slaughter in Kosovo. The member states of NATO have learned the lessons of history, have extended the concept of security and have fully understood that action is required to preserve it. Because of this, the Alliance could not sit back and do nothing in the face of the deportation and butchering of Kosovo Albanians.
In our opinion, NATO intervention has a solid moral foundation, and its unequivocal aim is that of preventing the genocide in Kosovo as well as the spread of the crisis throughout the entire Balkan region. By means of its intervention, NATO is truly serving the interests of the stability and security of the entire European continent. Whilst we hope that an intensification of the air strikes will bring peace and a peaceful settlement for Kosovo closer, we cannot at the present juncture preclude the need to deploy ground forces as a real possibility...
The Fidesz Parliamentary group feels that the Hungarian government has regularly made its voice heard in defending the interests of the Hungarians of the Vojvodina at numerous international fora and organisations as well as within NATO itself, and it keeps in touch with the leaders of organisations representing the Hungarians of the Vojvodina on a day to day basis. The government continuously intervenes to make sure that soldiers drafted from the Vojvodinian Hungarian minority are not sent to Kosovo. The government provides Parliamentary committees, such as the Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Committees, with extensive and regular information updates concerning the steps that have been taken to maintain the country's security".
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Istvan Szent-Ivanyi (Alliance of Free Democrats), after roundly criticising the reaction to the crisis displayed by extremists, returns to the issue of the convoy: "We were glad to hear the information given by the Prime Minister concerning the convoy. We agree that Hungary must stick rigidly to the terms of the international treaty, to the rules set out in the UN embargo. Therefore we agree that it was correct to deny access to equipment which are subject to the embargo, but we are also pleased that the conflict has been resolved and that the part of the convoy, which respects the principle of the provision of humanitarian aid, may continue on its way.
Allow me to say a few words about the Hungarians of the Vojvodina. We agree in essence that the parties of this Parliament must demonstrate their solidarity with the Hungarians of the Vojvodina, they must demonstrate their support and that they are paying closer attention to their situation and to their fate. We expect a little more understanding from the country's leaders when it comes to the declarations made by the political leaders of the Vojvodinian Hungarians. These declarations are not in line with what the vast majority of members of this Parliament represent. Let us nevertheless understand the reasons that lie behind them! It would be incorrect to present them as the deeds of people who had no other choice open to them, or maybe as the work of hostile emissaries. There are extremely real and comprehensible reasons for them to express their fears and concerns, since they may easily become targets for extremists, but they too should think about what will happen after the war, about how to safeguard their existential interests, about whether they will actually have any rights, about the kind of economic opportunities that will be open to them, since the war gives rise to these questions as well.
In the light of all this, I agree that Hungarian foreign policy must not be allowed to become subordinated to one single set of issues, but I do feel that it is important that we should look upon the declarations made by the leaders of the Hungarians of the Vojvodina with a certain degree of empathy and understanding.
As far as Hungarian-Serb relations are concerned, honourable colleagues, a great deal has been said in the last few weeks. In my opinion, we must pursue our policies and make declarations in such a way that we do not undermine the psychological preconditions of Hungarian-Serb cohabitation in the long term. Thus far, I do not feel that serious mistakes have been made. I feel that we should stick to our present course in the future as well, since Serb minorities live in Hungary and a Hungarian minority lives in Serbia, and since the two nations will continue to live side by side for centuries long after Milosevic has gone. Current events should not be permitted to obstruct this cohabitation.
As regards a settlement after the crisis, I agree that Hungary has an interest in achieving a settlement and must play an active part. We must draw the attention of our allies to the fact that the only satisfactory solution is one which encompasses aid to bolster democracy. The countries affected by the Balkan crisis must be given the opportunity to become fully democratic and to recover economically, and this applies not only to Yugoslavia, but also to the other countries that have been affected as well. The attention of Hungarian political leaders and Hungarian politicians must be drawn to the fact that NATO can and will be the victors in this conflict, but that the political battle might still be lost. We can only emerge victorious politically if we are able to give help to get the region back on its feet economically and to encourage the region to embrace democracy wholeheartedly".
On behalf of the Socialist Party, Mr Laszlo Kovacs emphasised that NATO success is indispensable in order to maintain its credibility and to deter others from following in Milosevic's footsteps. He echoed the words of previous speakers in agreeing that Hungary must fulfil her obligations in full as an ally, but that this does not imply that Hungary must take more risks than are absolutely essential in the course of doing her duty. This includes making sure that the Hungarians of the Vojvodina are not exposed to even greater threats than is the case already. Relations with the Serbs should not be poisoned, as this would be pernicious in the long term. The Socialist group does not envisage a role for Hungary as mediator, but instead a more active role within NATO.
Mr Istvan Csurka, no stranger to controversy as leader of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (extreme right wing), caused a stir by his contribution to the debate: "Mr. President! Honourable Members! Prime Minister! In the present situation, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party deems it necessary to clarify a number of basic issues. The promise that we made remains unchanged, and we are also keeping it, that in these difficult circumstances, when the country and its people are in danger, we will not cause the government difficulties due to our differences of opinion, although our stance on NATO, of course, has not altered in the least. We are not organising demonstrations either in front of NATO or in front of the American Embassy, it is the Munkaspart [Communists] and the Hungarian Serbs who are organising demonstrations.
It would seem that the Hungarian Serbs are somewhat schizophrenic. This has to be said, given that they so neatly separate the Serb people from Milosevic, even though even the Hungarian Serbs cannot be set apart from Milosevic, as they are demonstrating against NATO instead of demonstrating against their own aggressors, who are raping Albanian women, driving them from their homes, murdering them in droves and firing on them at random into mass graves. What kind of behaviour is this? Of course I cannot disapprove of the fact that Hungarian society has attained such a level of democracy that it can afford to allow demonstrations against NATO to take place, but perhaps we ought to open our eyes to what is happening here and now, and to what is happening in Europe under the pretext of this war: the furtive return of the Soviet system, of Communism! Now Russia, thoroughly weakened as she is militarily, is dealing back the moral slap in the face that she received from the West when the Soviet Union - with the deplorable approval of the West - crushed the Hungarian revolution.
Now, all of Europe is trumpeting about bombing Serbia and very little indeed is being said about what is going on in Albania. Of course, NATO has a finger in this pie too: this conflict should never have been launched in this way, as its current form is that of barbarity. They are not giving the Albanians any help whatsoever: they should at least take material, medicines and food to Albania, spending on all this the equivalent of the price of a single stealth bomber, and this would be much better for the unfortunate Albanians! But, what can we do...?
We, too, have a duty and we focus all our attention on a single issue: what will happen to the Hungarians? In this respect, although we give our approval to the declarations made by the government, we unfortunately find the steps it has taken wanting. It is not possible that Hungarians are being compelled to hide! Hungarians who, along with many Serbs, do not wish to fight and die in Kosovo! And that is why they must hide in Szabadka, in Novi Sad and throughout the Vojvodina! They are living like the hero in that famous prize-winning film who hides from his pursuers in the duck-pond - that's how they are living at the moment! And we are expected to take notice of this. What we have done up to now is precious little indeed!
NATO should open up a corridor in order to liberate the Hungarians who do not want to serve as soldiers there! It shouldn't look at where the frontiers lie, since everyone here is talking about readjustments anyway! All of Europe must be reorganised by means of this conflict! Let's be aware of what's going on! We are politicians after all, are we not? These are the death throes of the Versailles system, which has now reached an end - not just the death throes of the Versailles system, but of the Jalta system to boot! And are we supposed to stand idle, our mouths gaping, because we are such internationalists? So that we cannot even defend our own nationality?
We have to do more, not just with words, but with real deeds! If this great force, NATO's force, is on our side, then its protective shield must be extended to cover the Vojvodinian Hungarians as well! They are Hungarians too, and it cannot be their fate - although they could easily, in a matter of seconds, end up suffering the same fate that befell the Albanians, even though the bridges that lead to where they live or that lead towards Hungary have been bombed to the ground. We cannot allow this to happen! This is why - having raised these slight reservations - we are glad that this point has was put on the agenda once again, brought before the House and the government, and we will give our help to any sound measure that is in the interest of the Hungarians".
Mr Demeter Lastity, one of the members of the Serb minority who believed that the demonstration held on Szabadsag Ter in Budapest on Saturday would have been an occasion on which to denounce the "aggression" shown against Yugoslavia and to call for peace, stated that "Only humanism brought me here, I cannot sit by and watch innocent people being killed!" Over a hundred gathered in front of the American embassy to call for peace, but the mood quickly turned markedly anti-American. The crowd was addressed by Milanovic Svetovar, who warned the Americans that if NATO soldiers were to set foot in Yugoslavia, the Kosovo crisis could become a second Vietnam.
Mr Gyula Thurmer, President of the Munkaspart (Communists) also spoke, mentioning his meeting with Milosevic: "Yugoslavia does not wish to go to war against Hungary, but if ground forces are deployed against Belgrade, it would completely transform the current situation".
April 13th. During the continuation of the Plenary Session of the Hungarian Parliament, Dr Andras Kelemen (MDF) gives the following address: Thank you for giving me the floor, President. On the 11th of January 1997, the President of the Hungarian Democratic Forum personally headed a delegation to Belgrade to meet the leaders of the nascent Serbian opposition and to provide proof of his support for the series of demonstrations that had been being held during a period in excess of two months because Slobodan Milosevic had destroyed the election results. The demonstrations were given particularly strong impact by the participation of the students of Belgrade. Sandor Lezsak announced in front of tens of thousands of Belgrade students that the reason why he had come was to strengthen the friendship between the Hungarians and the Serbs.
Recalling this in these days, when in the course of the battle between democracy and oppression anti-democratic forces are willing to cause mischief amongst peoples, has never been more timely. Perhaps if, in those days, more had followed the example set by our initiative and support for sister parties and European organisations had been strengthened it would not have been quite so easy to divide and drive back the believers in democracy of Serbia. That did not turn out to be the case. The unfortunate Albanians made an attempt at peaceful resistance after their autonomy had been abolished, but it became clear that moral constraint was not enough, that power doesn't give a damn about it and that the democracies of the West only sit up and take notice when the thundering of weapons rings in their ears, they hummed and hawed throughout the autumn, but, in the end, they were forced into war, and luckily for us this happened when we were already members of NATO.
It has been maintained that the air strikes will not resolve the issue, which is a possibility. Let us not forget, however, that one threat was certainly discontinued, namely the threat posed by the strongest military force of the region being held in the hands of an inhumane politician. This therefore diminishes the threat to Hungary. But what lies beyond this? Because what happens today in the remnant of Yugoslavia is not a Serbo-Albanian or a Serbo-Hungarian issue. It is the policy of obliterated peoples following obliterated autonomy. Our minister may comfort us with the fact that the Vojvodina is not Kosovo. The peoples of the two territories are, however, linked together by the way in which they are looked upon by power.
This is why we expect of the government that it will undertake every possible effort to settle the matter of the former autonomy of these two territories after the bloody strife has been concluded rather than it having to wait for the familiar scenario of attacks against the minority to ensue. Those who demonstrate in Budapest against NATO and against the policy pursued by the Hungarian government should think of this. It is not, pray, the American air crews that are violating the Moslem women, nor are they responsible for riddling children and the elderly with bullets, they are not the ones who are annihilating the entire population of the province before our very eyes. If Gyula Thurmer is demonstrating, he is at most doing so as an extension of previous Communist policy. Included amongst the demonstrators, on the other hand, there are those who simply want peace as well as those who, like the Serbs living in Hungary, are demonstrating because they are worried about their loved ones alongside those who has fled from Milosevic's regime and who are flying a black flag, let us realise that they are renewing the courage of those who, in proclaiming Greater Serbia, are destroying Yugoslavia with the arrogance their power brings and who are sowing the seeds of discord by destroying the autonomy initiatives in Kosovo and the Vojvodina and who are threatening the communities who live there and who want peace, whether they be Hungarians or not.
[...] History has placed us, Hungarians and Serbs, side by side. Because we are involved in all this, we must fulfil our own role as a NATO ally and as a co-operative neighbour as well. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the powers that be in Yugoslavia not to issue or allow threats to be issued against its Hungarian subjects.
I am confident that there will be a Serbian democracy. I am confident that the Serbs here in Hungary will choose to be loyal to democracy in their own interests, whilst I find it only natural that they are as worried about their loved ones as we Hungarians are. And if there is to be Serb democracy, brave and dedicated Serbs, such as those whom I met in the streets of Belgrade and together with whom I demonstrated against Milosevic's regime, will have to fight to attain it".
The Zastava factory and the oil refinery in Pancova, both in the Vojvodina, are attacked during NATO air strikes.
NATO ministers report back about their meeting on Monday in Brussels, when they began discussing the involvement of both the UN and Russia in order to find a solution to the conflict. The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Mr Janos Martonyi, draws attention to the situation of the Vojvodinian Hungarians and informs his allies that it is in NATO's own interests that peace should reign in the province. Whilst reiterating Hungary's support of NATO actions thus far, he stressed that a settlement to the Kosovo crisis would have to preclude the possibility of ethnicity-based violence breaking out in Yugoslavia in the future, a factor of some importance vis a vis the Hungarians of the Vojvodina. A stable system for the Balkans is indispensable, as is the setting up of a reconstruction fund that will enhance co-operation and mutual confidence.
The Russo-Belorussian aid convoy entered Hungarian territory on Monday to continue its journey to Yugoslavia via Nyiregyhaza, Debrecen, Bekescsaba and Szeged, crossing the frontier at Roszke, as agreed by the Russian minister Sergei Sojgu and the Hungarian Home Affairs Minister, Mr Sandor Pinter. Mr Mihaly Arnold, chief of the National Customs and Excise Authority announced that 4 tankers and 5 armoured vehicles had begun heading back for the Ukraine. The remaining 4 tankers would wait in Roszke for the return of the convoy from Yugoslavia, as fuel may not be taken into Yugoslavia according to the terms of the UN embargo. Their cargo will be used to refuel the convoy during its drive home. According to Mr. Arnold, the dual use vehicles were only admitted into Hungary on the basis of an undertaking from the Russians to guarantee their return, in other words, to guarantee that they would not remain in Yugoslavia to be employed for military purposes. In order to monitor compliance with the agreement, Hungarian police and customs officials will accompany the consignment to the Yugoslav border and beyond, should the need arise.
The Russians had requested a ministerial level meeting to sort out the difference of opinion that had occurred. At the end of deliberations, Mr Sojgu did not reveal any of the details of the agreement that had been reached, informing journalists that Hungary would send a list of conditions that similar aid shipments would have to comply with to avoid future incidents of this type. Mr Pinter declared that the Foreign Ministry would draft the list.
On Monday afternoon, after the agreement had been reached, activists from Mr Zirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party held a demonstration outside the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow. About a dozen demonstrators loitered there for half an hour on the opposite side of the road to the building (prevented from crossing by Russian police who had been requested by the Embassy to bring in reinforcements to protect the premises), waving party flags and carrying banners with derogatory slogans criticising Hungary's membership of NATO.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Ivanov, denounced the Hungarian authorities' treatment of the matter as atrocious and a breach of every international standard. He added later that the incident was scandalous and that the Hungarian authorities had shown unfriendliness towards Russia, which, if the question remained unresolved, would give rise to the most serious consequences in terms of Russo-Hungarian relations. Russia's protest was made official by summoning the Hungarian ambassador, Mr Erno Keskeny, to the Foreign Ministry.
April 14th. The Hungarian Parliament gives its consent to a group comprising a maximum of 40 public health and epidemiological analysts linked to the Hungarian Army to travel to Albania to participate in humanitarian aid operations there. In addition, 5 regular members of the Hungarian Army were authorised to take part in humanitarian aid operations as part of the work of the NATO Allied Ground Forces Command in the same country.
The Russian aid convoy reaches the Hungarian-Yugoslav frontier on Tuesday morning, pausing briefly in Szabadka for the air attack alert, before moving on for Belgrade. The Yugoslav authorities did not permit the two Hungarian customs officials who would otherwise have accompanied the convoy to its final destination to enter their territory, branding them as undesirables.
Meanwhile in Moscow, the Hungarian Embassy releases a press communique setting out in objective terms the reasons for the convoy being detained at Zahony, reminding the Russians that they too are bound by the terms of the UN resolution. The document also makes it clear that Budapest is willing to allow humanitarian aid consignments to cross Hungarian territory in the future as well, provided that their contents are not in breach of either Hungarian or international regulations. The Hungarians also expressed their hopes that their commitment to enforce respect of the UN resolution on their soil would not have an adverse impact on relations between the two countries, emphasising their incomprehension at Russian statements to the contrary and reiterating their wish to broaden existing relations with Russia.
Explosions are heard in Novi Sad.
April 15th. In an interview published in Magyar Nemzet, the Hungarian ambassador to Russia, Mr Erno Keskeny, examines the effect of the wrangle over the aid convoy on Russo-Hungarian relations, stressing that it is of the utmost importance for Hungary to continue its normal co-operation with Russia. The ambassador pointed out that the Russian political elite, the mass media and the government combined to aggravate an issue that the Hungarians clearly wish to keep separate from the question of their relations with Russia. He feels that Hungary will not be disappointed in her hopes of continuing expert-level negotiations with the Russians, which at the present juncture are centred on discussing consular matters. Preparations for the Hungarian Foreign Minister's visit to Moscow in May are still underway. No resolution condemning Hungary features on the agenda of the Duma, and the ambassador can find no explanation for Minister Sojgu's comments to the effect that Russia has launched a review of certain provisions of the bilateral agreement on co-operation in extraordinary circumstances (for which Mr Sojgu is the minister responsible). In the ambassador's opinion, this agreement is not even remotely linked to the question of humanitarian aid, and no official indication of a review has been given by the Russians.
Mr Keskeny feels that the affair that has erupted around the aid convoy has to be looked at in the broader context of the international situation, the NATO strikes and Hungary's membership of the alliance, although he was quick to emphasise that Russia too is bound by the stipulations of the UN resolution, and that the aid consignment did in fact contain material banned by it. Hungary's press release was given the cold shoulder by all leading Russian newspapers, which did not so much as mention it.
Mr Gabor Horvath, spokesman of the Hungarian Foreign Office, said in Budapest on Wednesday that the action of the Hungarian authorities was based entirely on the provisions of international regulations and that none of the motives imputed to it by the Russian press held water. Mr Horvath could see neither logic nor sense in Russia adopting any measures that would adversely affect relations between the two countries. That the Embassy had received threatening telephone calls had nothing to do with the actual situation in Zahony and everything to do with the Russian pronouncements.
Preparations will be set in motion next week for the departure of Hungarian medical staff for Albania. Whereas little is known about the final composition of the group, its members will be drafted from volunteers who serve in the army. Twenty army doctors and fifteen ancillary staff will take part in the humanitarian aid operations. The group's main task will be to inspect hygiene conditions at the refugee camps to assess the risk of epidemics breaking out. The Hungarians will not participate in actual fighting, but will be issued with pistols for purposes of self-defence.
The air bridge between Budapest and Tirana has continued to function, though it has been hampered by minor hitches, such as occurred on Tuesday when the civilian airport was unable to accept the aid consignments due to overcrowding, which meant that the Hungarian military transport aircraft was forced to idle away the hours at an Italian airport before setting off for Tirana on Wednesday.
April 16th. The Hungarian Prime Minister returns from a lightning visit to London to visit Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. Mr Orban and his British counterpart agreed entirely with the need to step up NATO air strikes in order to increase the pressure already being brought to bear on Mr Milosevic even further. Mr Orban's main concern was to highlight and increase British understanding of Hungary's peculiar situation as an immediate neighbour of Yugoslavia, having to perform a delicate balancing act between fulfilling its duties as a member of the alliance whilst at the same time taking pains to ensure that her policies do not put the Hungarians of the Vojvodina at risk. Mr Orban pointed to Hungary's geographical position as a neighbour not just of Yugoslavia, but of Russia as well.
The Russian aid convoy is expected to arrive back at the Hungarian border at Roszke this morning. On route to Zahony, it will be accompanied by members of the civil defence as well as the police to allow for unimpeded passage through Hungary.
In Moscow, Minister Sojgu met President Yeltsin to discuss the continuation of Russian aid convoys to Yugoslavia. In the light of the problems that dogged the convoy at the Hungarian border, Mr Sojgu broached the subject of opening an air bridge, or of sending the consignments by land via Romania. He once again levelled criticism against the Hungarians, accusing them of being unable to explain the problems that arose and of violating every standard of humanitarian law. Mr Ivanov met the Hungarian ambassador to discuss the issue.
In spite of the aggressive tone adopted, an embargo against Hungary in retaliation is recognised in Moscow to offer little chance of success. As was pointed out in Russia, the country could refrain from purchasing Hungarian preserved fruits and peas, but the 3.5 million tonnes of mineral oil exported annually to Hungary cannot simply be turned off, as they are sold to Hungary by a private company, Jukos. Gazprom, a state-owned firm, exports 7.3 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Hungary a year, this year's contract dealing with 7.9 billion cubic metres, but even cutting off this supply would go unnoticed in Hungary, as she can turn instead to French suppliers, eroding the Russian company's position on the market. Such a step would, moreover, affect Belgrade, as Yugoslavia's sole source of natural gas is Russia, and that gas crosses through Hungary.
At Bekescsaba, a subsidiary site to the main refugee shelter has been opened in response to the influx of refugees. The capacity of the shelter has already been exceeded, with a total of 403 occupying premises suitable for the accommodation of 240. Until the onset of the tourist season, the town's summer day centre has been rented, providing places for an extra 200-250. The first group of refugees, 57 in all, have already been rehoused there. By Thursday morning, 632 refugees from Yugoslavia had arrived in the town, including 200 Kosovo Albanians and 300 Hungarians. Many of them have found lodgings at their own expense or are staying with relatives. The proportion of Vojvodinian Hungarians amongst the refugees is on the increase.
The volunteer team of medical experts from the Hungarian army are expected to depart for Albania on Sunday.
Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 26 April 1999
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