Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999
C S A R D A S:|
Chronicle of a Conflict Foretold
Hungary, NATO and the Kosovo crisis [Part V]
Hungary has been going through trying times in the last few days, as her relations with Russia have hit rock bottom due to the latter's oversensitive reaction to the delays imposed on the aid convoy before it was given permission to cross through Hungary. Russia's attitude is like that of a wounded Goliath, smarting with the blow to national pride. Hungary has taken the latest diplomatic moves in her stride, instead of indulging in churlish retaliation, taking the posturing from Moscow with a pinch of salt.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the past five weeks, CER's analyst Gusztav Kosztolanyi has written over 29,000 words examining the situation of Hungary in the current phase of the Balkan crisis. To see his earlier contributions, have a look at PART I, PART II, PART III and PART IV
Feathers were ruffled, however, at news that Hungary was suspected of disloyalty to her NATO allies by supplying Belgrade with oil consignments. This emanated from an article published in The Washington Post, in which the author presumed that comments made by Chancellor Schroeder, in fact, applied to the new ally. In my opinion, such a charge betrays an insufficient grasp of the circumstances that prevail in the region. Perhaps, at a pinch, the author might have confused Hungary's concerns for the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina with a wish to placate the Serbs by bribing them. Nevertheless, the assumption is irrational. A more likely candidate for clandestine shipments would be Greece, which has not attempted to conceal its sympathy with the Serbs, though even if a trickle of fuel were to have reached Serbia from an EU country, it would have ceased as a result of the decision to impose an oil embargo.
Hungary never had the opportunity to bask in a honeymoon period with NATO but was plunged into the fray, literally and metaphorically, almost from the moment she joined. This has not led to disillusionment or complaint. Hungary has buckled down, trying to fulfil all her duties as she sees them. Coming back into the western fold has cost her dear, but failure to do so would have been even more costly in the long term. NATO membership is seen as a testing ground. Hungary feels the need to prove her worth, that she may be relied upon, that the doubting Thomases who consigned her to the invisibility that came from being behind the iron curtain were wrong. If she were to falter in her current obligations, it would not bode well for her candidacy for the EU. Hungary is very conscious of the scrutiny of the existing member states and is keen to pick up Brownie points. In this context, any words of encouragement or appreciation are eagerly lapped up as proof that she is doing the right thing. Hence the dismay at the news that her name had been mentioned as a possible rank-breaker. Fortunately for Hungary, she was spared the anguish of "methinks she doth protest too much" by NATO rallying to erase the slur against her name. Hungary continues to pay very close attention to any article that appears about her conduct in the foreign press.
On the home front, a certain amount of carping could be heard from the opposition concerning the government's handling of the crisis. This is largely due to the opposition being relegated to the back seat whilst the Prime Minister, and, by extension, his party, hogs the limelight. Far from being undemocratic, it is a symptom of crisis that the opposition pipe down and do not upset the apple cart. Because of the nature of the moral issues at stake, the opposition cannot afford to attack the Prime Minister wholesale, they merely wish to remind the voters that they exist. There is a certain irony to the MSZP presenting themselves as the champions of the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina. Were the Prime Minister to do the same now (he played exactly the same part whilst he was in opposition), a cacophony of protest would be heard. He would be pilloried as a revisionist. Mr Orban is treading carefully, showing greater tact and sensitivity to the bruised sensibilities of the opposition than he has for quite some time. The court is still out on whether this is a sign of greater political maturity.
April 17th. In a commentary in Magyar Nemzet, Gabor Stier captures the mood of concern about possible deployment of ground troops, weighing up the pros and cons of the risk: "Will a ground-based operation be launched, and, if so from which direction, and will it be limited or extensive? We can hear and read about the guesses being made with increasing frequency. The war in the air against Yugoslavia is taking longer than expected, whilst the bombardments have wrought a single block out of Serb society and hundreds of thousands are fleeing from the terror out of Kosovo. Events quickly overtook the aims as originally conceived and new instruments are needed to attain new aims.
As we can see, the solution is, in theory, easy to deduce. This hypothesis, however, does not pass muster on several points. It does not take into account, for example, that political support for action of this kind is lacking for the time being, given that even ensuring the return of the refugees would cost NATO dear in the hills of Kosovo. Even limited operations would, moreover, give grist to Milosevic's mill as it would mean, in practice, the division of the province. Of course, after two or three months' worth of preparation, it would be possible to occupy the whole of Kosovo, but by then there would be no reason to do so, since there would not be any Albanians left in the province. It is also very likely that even this would not force Serbia to submit. This is something that the military planners are aware of even today, and, in the course of their strategic options assessment, it emerged that an attack would have to be mounted from several directions at once, including from the North. This, on the other hand, clearly supposes Milosevic being overthrown, which, for the time being at least, is not a realistic prospect, not to mention that, if this were to be the scenario, NATO would once again have miscalculated, as it would be confronted with several million armed Serbs. Steering a "Vietnam course" would hardly be in anyone's interests. Moreover, in this version, the last spark of the process of democratisation would be extinguished, transforming all of Yugoslavia into a theatre of war. This solution would also harm the interests of the allies who are in a delicate situation, as well as those of Hungary, who would hardly give her consent to this approach.
What remains is the course that seems easiest to follow and which the politicians uniformly espouse at the moment, that of seeking diplomatic solutions via various channels alongside military action intended to weaken the opponent".
In an interview with Colonel Ferenc Vegh, Hungary's representative at Chief of Staff level meetings within NATO, Frigyes Varju asked several searching questions about the likelihood of ground force operations as well as the state of readiness of Hungary's army. In response to the issue of Hungary's participation in such operations, particularly in the light of Hungary's perceived suitability as a base for military action, the Colonel reacted as follows: "Until such a stage as we have reached the end of the air strikes, making guesses about the future would be an exercise in speculation. There are two possibilities: firstly, that the air attacks will be a success, that they will break down Yugoslav resistance and peace would ensue. Then a joint civilian and military action could be launched in Kosovo, that is to say that after the conclusion of military operations to bring about a peace, further operations to maintain that peace would be organised. Of course, it is a matter for political decision-making to determine how and under whose leadership this would be done as well as what type of forces would be involved. The second variation is one in which the air strikes become so protracted in terms of time as well as the area they cover and in which they show so little by way of results - something that I, by the way, do not believe will be the case - that other military means have to be resorted to. Naturally, this step would require the unanimous approval of nineteen member states, but it is already apparent that, regardless what shape or form an escalation of the attacks from the air would assume, it would entail calculable and incalculable political and military risks of such dimensions that we ought to persist in faith in the success of the air strikes at all costs".
The Colonel was then quizzed on the Hungarian army's conduct in the last three weeks: "The Hungarian army has been buckling down to the tasks of crisis management in an extraordinarily disciplined and well-equipped manner. Many have already stressed that we have not stepped up our state of preparedness for conflict, but that does not mean that the special units we have and which are constantly primed for emergencies would not be in a position to carry out the tasks that would arise if a conflict were to occur. We are in a high state of general readiness and the soldiers are already in the fourth week of enduring the strains that are part and parcel of being on the alert, making the best of the disadvantages far from their families. Many of our aircraft are in service keeping us ready for action and take part in patrolling work. Our search and rescue teams have been on the alert for weeks on end, and the national air force HQ is continuously in operation. NATO's fundamental principle is that we too must contribute to security".
As to whether the Hungarian army would be able to defend the country against a hypothetical attack by its Yugoslav counterpart which, until the campaign of air strikes began to diminish its combat efficiency, was reckoned to be the strongest in the region, the Colonel expressed confidence: "Of course, since the purpose of all our activity of the last three weeks has been to maintain our ability to respond and to live up to our duties as laid down in the Constitution. We do not talk about it much, but it has to be made known that we have all the instruments and forces at our disposal for solving the problem, and since the 12th of March we have been fully-fledged members of NATO, which means that if for some reason, the Hungarian army were not to prove strong enough, NATO's forces would be at our disposal".
The city of Szabadka, situated a good ten kilometres from the Hungarian border is not exempted from NATO air strikes. Missiles hit targets in both the city and its immediate surroundings. Although residential areas were severely damaged, there were no deaths amongst the inhabitants. This is the closest attack to the frontier to date. Four loud detonations were heard, and radar stations attached to local barracks destroyed. One missile struck the outskirts of the city, the force of the impact tearing trees up by the roots, flinging them to the ground and roofs were blown off. Although the damage was described as extensive, it paled into insignificance in comparison with the extent of previous devastation. The result of the attack was that alarm spread like wildfire throughout the population, as this part of the Vojvodina, part of the frontier zone with Hungary, had been spared up to this moment.
Other targets included North Bacska, Kisradanovac and Teszlatelep. Novi Sad, administrative capital of the region, was also exposed to attacks in the course of the night, though the citizens of the city have gradually grown accustomed to the blare of sirens and the impact of missiles. Once again, one of the targets was the oil refinery, where three explosions were followed by a burst of flame so intense that it lit up the entire vicinity. One of the city's suburbs was also hit.
In Pancova's industrial quarter, the petrochemical and artificial fertiliser plants were bombed, giving rise to fears about air pollution. Seven people were injured.
NATO representatives responded to a flurry of questions concerning the attack on Szabadka by pointing out that important military targets must be eliminated and no distinctions can be drawn on the basis of where they are situated. Mr Andras Simonyi, Hungarian ambassador to NATO, stated that whilst Hungarian diplomacy was undertaking strenuous efforts on behalf of the Vojvodina, it could not be singled out for special treatment, and specific targets are not agreed upon at the ambassadorial level. According to a military source, the Vojvodina would be regarded by Serb leaders as a "protected zone" if it were to be left entirely untouched, and would subsequently be used as a safe haven for Serb troops.
The American ambassador to Hungary, Mr Peter Tufo, was quizzed by Lajos Pietsch about his appraisal of Hungary's role in the current crisis: "Hungary is no longer a buffer state, nor is Hungary a neutral country, but a member of the strongest military alliance, involved in a conflict with one of its neighbours, Yugoslavia. In my opinion, the Hungarian government has adapted well to the new realities. On the one hand, it has lived up to its responsibilities within the Atlantic alliance in its capacity as partner by supporting, alongside the other member states, NATO's efforts to stem the ethnic murders taking place in Kosovo, to put a stop to the persecution of the Kosovo Albanians and to ensure that the refugees can return home by bringing about the withdrawal of the aggressive Serb war machine and by setting up an international peace keeping force. Apart from that, it has made important contributions that will allow the alliance to bring its efforts at restoring peace to a successful conclusion, and this includes volunteering medical and technical auxiliary staff as well as authorising the use of air space and airports. On the other hand, it plays an active part in the meetings of the NATO Council, expressing its views based on the special position it occupies in the region, and, in so doing, shedding light on the situation of the Hungarians who live beyond Hungary's frontiers, in this instance, on that of the Vojvodinian Hungarians, so that European and North-Atlantic public opinion will have a better grasp of it than was ever the case before".
The issue of Hungary's fears of a flight of foreign capital and a trickle down effect on investment was contrasted with the ambassador's optimism and the opening of two new American trade development offices in the capital during the previous week: "On the basis of talks held with American business representatives living in Hungary and with businessmen who wish to invest in the country, I can safely say that the present conflict has not upset their long term plans and has not deterred them from making investments. At the beginning of the week we also opened a new American factory in Retsag, and, in conjunction with our initiatives in Eastern Hungary, other investors are about to take similar steps. I do not believe that the present conflict will have a detrimental effect on investments. I am convinced that the protection afforded by NATO will dispel all the concerns that Hungary might be dragged into war on her own territory. As a result, investors continue to be optimistic".
The economic dimension of the conflict was also mentioned by the Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Mr Geza Jeszenszky, who stated at a press conference that Hungary had lost two billion dollars because of the embargo.
The tourist industry in particular has had to sustain major losses in the wake of the crisis. Dr Istvan Meggyes, director of Hungarian Tourism PLC, described Europe from the viewpoint of the Japanese or the Americans as a "large village where gunfights are taking place at the moment". This serves as an explanation for the drop in interest in Hungary as a holiday destination in those two countries. The Americans, moreover, are avoiding Hungary as a conference venue as well, cancelling existing bookings whenever they can, but where a trip to Hungary is unavoidable, they leave their families at home.
German holidaymakers have not been scared off by the war, but are uneasy about terrorist attacks on airports, staying away from Greece and Turkey because of the perceived threat from the Kurds. Dutch tourists, by contrast, have cancelled their holidays in Hungary in droves, and the French and Italians are equally cautious. In Dr Meggyes' eyes, the fact that Hungary is the only NATO member bordering on Yugoslavia has had a negative impact on tourism.
The convoy of aid from Russia and Belarus that attracted such controversy returned from Yugoslavia to Hungary on schedule, heading towards the Ukraine. Mr Jozsef Scheiber, spokesman of the Hungarian Civil Defence Headquarters, announced that the entire convoy had made its way back, including, in other words, the "dual use" jeeps.
April 19th: Statements made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and published in The Washington Post necessitated a rearguard action on the part of NATO to defend Hungary's honour as a stalwart member of the alliance, whose loyalty was beyond the merest shadow of a doubt. The Chancellor claimed that oil was being sent to Yugoslavia through one of NATO's members, and the American newspaper assumed that he was alluding to Hungary, although the Chancellor himself did not provide any further indication of which country he actually had in mind. Greece was a more likely suspect. Jamie Shea rushed to exonerate Hungary of any hint of blame by declaring to the world's assembled press that Hungary had only just turned back a consignment of oil that had arrived at her frontier with the Ukraine. He made it clear that he had no information that would implicate Hungary and that if oil pipelines did lead to Yugoslavia, they entered its via other territories.
Representatives of MOL (Hungary's sole oil company, in which the state has a majority stake hold) pointed out that only gas pipelines cross from Hungary to Yugoslavia, and they were closed off when the crisis began.
On Sunday, waves of NATO aircraft bombed the oil refinery in Novi Sad, scoring a direct hit which also led to the explosion of three oil tanks. Sunday's series of attacks were the most forceful against the city since the campaign began.
The Mayor of Szabadka, Mr Jozsef Kasza, sent letters at the weekend to the President of Hungary, Mr Arpad Goncz, to the Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban and to NATO's General Secretary, Mr Solana, in which he condemned the bombing of his city, which sets a good example of peaceful cohabitation of different nationalities for others to emulate. The Mayor emphasised the linchpin role played by the city in the process of democratisation in the region, that it had always been on the side of peace. "After all these efforts, we by no means deserved the fate that awaited us", he wrote, adding that "NATO airforces were bombing the coexistence that has grown up over centuries" and called on the world to put an end to the destruction. The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Mr Janos Martonyi, manifested his surprise at the attack on Szabadka in an interview on Hungarian TV, giving assurances that he would seek an explanation from Hungary's allies.
The special rescue team headed by Laszlo Pavelcze departs from Szekesfehervar for Kosovo.
April 20th: NATO attacks on military targets continue unabated, with the regional government building for the Voivodina being hit. The missiles damaged the interior of the premises, leading commentators to assume that the allies' intention was to prove that anti-aircraft defences are powerless to ward off the onslaught. On Monday morning and afternoon, crowds gathered around the gutted offices, with many venturing inside to inspect the results at closer quarters. The head of the provincial government, Mr Bosko Perosevic, also put in an appearance to make a brief speech emphasising that NATO had, in attacking Novi Sad, attacked Europe itself.
The radar stations of Kisradnovac in the vicinity of Szabadka were also subject to attack, causing extensive damage to surrounding dwellings.
Amidst increasing speculation about the likelihood of intervention by ground forces, the Foreign Minister, Mr Martonyi, denies that the rumours have any substance. Deployment of ground forces does not feature on the NATO agenda, nor do plans to launch such operations from Hungarian soil.
Responding to journalists' questions about Chancellor Schroeder's remarks, the minister drew their attention to the fact that NATO's official spokesman had already denied that there was any truth to allegations about Hungary being responsible for oil shipments, repeating that neither oil or oil-derived products are exported by or transited through the country.
Laszlo Kovacs, former Foreign Minister and leader of the Socialist group in the Hungarian Parliament criticised the Prime Minister for urging NATO to intensify its campaign of air strikes, and members of his party joined in the chorus of complaint by reminding the House that he had, in October, given assurances that areas populated by the Hungarian minority would not be targeted. In spite of these quibbles, the Socialists by and large endorsed the government's handling of the crisis. The Socialists called on the government to keep all political parties informed of its intentions rather than presenting them with a fait accompli and to stop taking their good will (as the second largest party in the Parliament) for granted.
In a reply to the letter sent to various leading Hungarian public figures, the Foreign Minister reiterates that not a single aircraft participating in the bombing raids against Yugoslavia has taken off from Hungarian soil, since even those aircraft that safeguard Hungarian air space use Aviano in Italy as their base. He also underlines the fact that Budapest has on numerous occasions requested NATO to refrain from bombing Hungarian settlements to the extent that it is feasible to do so, whilst preventing the Serb troops from regrouping in the Vojvodina. If the province were exempted from raids altogether, it would be exploited as a "protected zone", dangerous to the alliance given the proximity of the Voivodina to the Hungarian border. In spite of all this, Hungary feels genuine sympathy for the plight of the Voivodinian Hungarians and continues to draw attention to their vulnerability in every conceivable international forum. "Please permit me to express once again in the name of the Hungarian government my regret and sympathy for the fact that, in the late evening of the 15th of April 1999, a missile that had strayed off target damaged dwellings in Szabadka, and that, as a result, several individuals were slightly injured," wrote the Minister.
The Russian ambassador to Budapest, Mr Felix Bogdanov, is recalled home on the pretext of consultations being necessary. The Hungarian Foreign Minister's visit to Moscow, originally scheduled for May, is postponed.
April 21st: In a commentary in Vilaggazdasag, Istvan Bundula examines the shortcomings of NATO's military actions and looks at some possible implications thereof. The first mistake made by the allies was to adopt a rational approach to irrational phenomena, ignoring Milosevic's political mindset and the role of historical myths in the daily lives of people living in the region and proceeding to military coercion prematurely. The spectre of border revisions haunt the mind: "It can do no harm to realise that in Yugoslavia, even though the official media has not for the time being proclaimed it from the rooftops, the Vojvodinian card could be played at any time and, in the current situation, Serb public opinion can be whipped up at any time, particularly susceptible as it is to historical analogies. Given that Serb propaganda has likened NATO actions to the storming of Yugoslavia by the Nazis in the second World War, Hungary's betrayal could also be raked up within the space of minutes (not long after the conclusion of a treaty of eternal friendship, the Hungarian army marched into Bacska), whilst in Romania a constantly recurring theme in the media is that after Kosovo comes Transylvania, which NATO has adjudicated to Hungary. This is clearly insane (also because the alliance is in great need of Romania) yet public opinion, in the trammels of a catastrophic situation economically, is rendered particularly susceptible to national myths ("we might die, but we will never relinquish Transylvania") and still takes such pronouncements seriously.
In Hungary nobody except the members of a marginal party in Parliament [the author is alluding to Csurka's Hungarian Justice and Life Party] is openly harping on about an adjustment to existing frontiers. Let us not, however, forget that representatives of the coalition parties formerly made numerous declarations of a similar ilk or which had a smattering of irredentist feeling about them. Let us recall for example the speech made in Parliament a couple of years ago by the Independent Smallholder Party member, Kavassy, in which he would have sorted out the status of Ruthenia with the Ukraine, or the demagogy trotted out by Fidesz members at the time of the conclusion of the Basic Treaty with Romania, which they opposed, and which proclaimed that the autonomy of the Szekely Lands was self-evidently in Hungarian interests...
It could not therefore do any harm to declare that regardless of how the war ends, Hungary will not raise any territorial claims against Yugoslavia. Hungarian politics in other words ought to be thinking ahead already: announcing Hungarian Serb co-operation in the field of reconstruction after the war could represent moral capital. It would, furthermore, have a the effect of reassuring the not insubstantial segments of Romanian and Slovak society that tremble at the loss of territory at Trianon... Hungary, as a member of NATO and as the best placed candidate for accession to the European Union, has become a factor in the region".
Mihaly Dobrovits, in his article "Greetings from a Country in the Front Line" (Magyar Hirlap), draws a comparison between Hungary and Turkey, both in NATO and as candidate countries waiting in the wings to join the EU. He writes: "In the broader region, the West can rely on two countries. On Hungary and Turkey. Both countries wish to demonstrate their commitment to the West by providing unconditional support for the action [taken by NATO]. From the point of view of Turkey's relations with the West, the Balkan adventure arrived like manna from heaven...
It is an open secret that Hungary's admission to NATO was a political rather than a military decision. It was Washington which first and foremost espoused the admission of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, in the midst of barely concealed grumbling on the part of Western Europe. Western opposition has since passed away. For Hungary, accession was accompanied by a feeling of historical recompense... The common frontier with Yugoslavia and the Hungarians in the Vojvodina, however, make our decisions particularly difficult. Like it or lump it, Hungary has become a true front line country.
This is not Hungary's aim, however. It is precisely the example of Turkey that we require to warn us against this. To count on rewards from Brussels for standing by our Washington Treaty allies is an act of folly. From that point of view, we would do better to pay attention to the tiny, everyday details instead of the political orations. For example, to details such as the fact that in Belgium at the moment, Hungarian certificates of good conduct are accepted on the basis of the Minister of Justice's counter-signature without anything else being required (this is a privilege we share with only a very few completely dubious Latin American and Black African countries), or that bureaucrats in Italy or Austria will be fairly exasperated if they have to react to the challenges of mass immigration that may be presumed to come from the direction of Hungary. All of these indicators demonstrate that, although Hungary has approached Turkey's position in the international arena, going beyond it will mean a long and laborious game. In this situation, it would be good to avoid being forced into battling on two fronts. At the same time, our situation would not be hopeless if we were to try to open up to the East. Or rather, if we were to force the West finally to try its hand at consolidating the Balkans, and, if possible we too could be given a role to play in that process. This is also important since the Turkish economy, which cannot yet place hopes in accession to the EU, will obviously seize upon the potential of the region at dizzying speed. If we are afraid of Russia, then it would do us no harm to follow the lead of the West. Stepping beyond Russia, we can take a stab at rebuilding our relations with Central Asia. Globalisation. This world alludes to the fact that the world is round. Sooner or later, a tragic fate awaits the countries in the front line".
The programme of the summit in Washington, originally planned as a celebration of 50 years of the NATO alliance is modified due to the Kosovo crisis. As the formalities of celebration are to be dispensed with, the President of Hungary, Mr Arpad Goncz, no longer sees the need to take part, and declines the invitation. The President is, however, expected to pay a state visit to Washington between the 7th and 9th of July, on which occasion the Americans wish to pay homage to Hungary for her long struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights. Mr Goncz's personal involvement in the events of 1956 were singled out for special mention in this context by the spokesman of the White House. Hungary's role in NATO, the Kosovo crisis and the stabilisation of South East Europe will be the focus of discussions between the President and Mr Clinton.
The President of the SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats), Mr Balint Magyar, sends a letter to the Prime Minister asking the head of government to reach agreement with the leaders of all political parties before departing on Thursday morning for the NATO summit. The justification for such a meeting can be found in the fact that NATO actions have failed to achieve their stated political and military aims, and public opinion in Hungary is extremely worried about a worsening of the crisis as well as the prospect of it becoming even more protracted. "It is important that the Prime Minister set off for Washington with the broadest possible base of support," he emphasised. The politician also voiced his approval of the Foreign Minister's declaration that if ground forces were to be sent to battle, they would not be allowed to use Hungary as a starting point. Mr Magyar that a debate of Hungary's contribution in the run up to an eventual deployment is crucial, particularly in light of the reality that previous government assurances concerning the bombing of the Vojvodina did not turn out to come true.
The Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Mr Geza Jeszenszky, on the subject of the forthcoming NATO summit, reminded the press that it was the Hungarian Foreign Minister who initially proposed that a Balkan Stability Pact be debated, and that this would be on the agenda of the meeting of the heads of state concerned in the American capital. Mr Martonyi originally broached the idea of setting up a reconstruction fund for South East Europe at a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers barely a week ago as a means of proving that NATO and the EU can offer prospects for the future. The ambassador stressed the vital strategic and economic interest of Hungary in a return of peace to the region. He denied that the deployment of ground troops had been officially included on the agenda.
Rumours concerning huge numbers of Yugoslavians crossing the border to Hungary in order to buy up fuel in vast quantities were dismissed by the deputy commander of the customs office at Roszke, Mr Zoltan Csore. Since the beginning of the air strikes, frontier traffic has fallen to one tenth of its normal volume, with lorry transports drying up altogether. Part of the explanation for the unseasonal slump is that the Yugoslav authorities no longer allow men of military age to travel abroad, or they levy such a high amount of duty on those who wish to cross the frontier that it acts as a deterrent in most instances. Wealthy Yugoslavians make their way to Hungary, with entire families renting accommodation in Szeged. They do not engage in fuel trading. In the vast majority of cases, girls and women go to Hungary. The Yugoslav customs officials do not impede their passage, with the result that they import massive quantities of cosmetics and food back home. Hungarian officials do levy duties on those who make several trips legally in private cars to buy up petrol in containers that do not exceed the maximum legal size. These inspections slow down the traffic, but many Yugoslav citizens lack the financial reserves to be in a position to even attempt smuggling or speculating in fuel. More Hungarians can be seen in the duty free sales areas along the frontier buying cigarettes and alcohol than Yugoslavs filling up their petrol tanks in Roszke.
Meanwhile, the search for the real culprit in the oil to Belgrade scandal continues. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Gabor Horvath made Hungary's stance unequivocally clear yet again: "We do not transport fuel to Yugoslavia, nor do other countries transport fuel there via Hungary". Mr Peter Zavodczky form the Ministry of Economic Affairs pointed out that neither the UN nor the EU had adopted any resolution that would prevent Hungary from trading even in oil with Yugoslavia, since the existing ban only applies to military equipment and material that could be used for purposes of oppression. He added, however, that since the bombing raids had begun, trade with Yugoslavia had more or less ground to a halt. In the first two months of the year, Hungary sold 19 million dollars' worth of food products, fuel, chemicals and vehicles to Yugoslavia and purchased some 5 million dollars' worth of products from her neighbour. Gas is sent to Yugoslavia via Hungary through pipelines that originate in Russia.
Hungarian-Russian relations receive a further dent in the course of a war of words between the Hungarian Minister of Defence, Mr Janos Szabo, and the representative of MIG. The quarrel erupted over Russia's failure to comply with contractual obligations and supply spare parts for MIG aircraft in the Hungarian air force. Mr Szabo accused the Russians of being unreliable, to which came the reply that his statements were groundless and were a means of pandering to the West.
April 22nd: A six-party agreement is reached prior to the Prime Minister's departure for the NATO summit in Washington concerning Hungary's future participation in NATO actions. Hungary intends to stick to her present course, in other words, permitting use of her air space and airports. The Prime Minister denied that NATO had planned the deployment of ground forces. Hungary had not been consulted about such actions, and the alliance had not requested Hungary to broaden or modify the support that she already provides.
Both Mr Laszlo Kovacs (MSZP) and Mr Balint Magyar (SZDSZ) condemned Mr Istvan Csurka's remarks inside and outside Parliament, in which he called for the restoration of the Vojvodina to Hungary, labelling them as dangerous and counterproductive, as they might inflame anti-Hungarian sentiment in Yugoslavia. Mr Csurka, however, remained undaunted, repeating that since the entire map of the region is on the brink of being re drawn anyway, part of the Vojvodina should either be ceded to Hungary or allowed to enjoy a degree of autonomy that would afford adequate protection to the Hungarians who live there. The Prime Minister joined in the chorus of criticism, dismissing Mr Csurka's statements as being at odds with the Hungarian interests.
The Prime Minister made it clear that he would arrange for discussions with representatives of any Hungarian political party if new events were to occur that might have implications for the Hungarian stance. He emphasised the importance he attaches personally to knowing that he goes to Washington with the full backing of colleagues in the Hungarian Parliament.
The third, and final intact, bridge over the Danube in Novi Sad is bombed by the allies. Although it still stands, no traffic can pass over it.
In response to the recalling of the Russian ambassador, Mr Felix Bogdanov, the Foreign Office describes the move as unfortunate and unjustified. The sole motive was that of protesting against the delay incurred by the aid convoy at the Hungarian frontier. The Hungarian official line is that the issue of the convoy is entirely separate to that of the state of Russian-Hungarian relations, and that the one should not influence the other. The Hungarian inspections were in compliance with the established rules, and Hungary was merely respecting her commitments to the UN embargo in turning back certain dual use vehicles. As soon as the Hungarian authorities were satisfied that the relevant provisions were being followed, the convoy continued on its way without let or hindrance. The Hungarian authorities would, moreover, follow exactly the same procedures should another aid convoy wish to travel through the country. Budapest's desire to develop and improve relations with Russia has not waned, and the Hungarians do not have the remotest intention to exacerbate the situation by following suit and recalling their ambassador. The Russians have remained silent on the issue of the Prime Minister's visit scheduled for summer, and the Hungarian Foreign Ministry hopes that Russia will re-evaluate her position in the interim.
The Hungarian ambassador to Moscow, Mr Erno Keskeny, reckoned that relations between the two countries had not been at such a low ebb since 1956. In the space of eight days, he had been summoned into the Russian Foreign Ministry twice, firstly into the presence of Mr Ivanov himself, to listen to his verbal protests concerning the convoy, and subsequently to be informed by officials that Mr Martonyi's visit at the end of May would be postponed indefinitely, until such a juncture as Hungary's behaviour merited such a favour. The Russians also deemed the timing of Mr Torgyan's (Minister of Agriculture and regional Development) proposed visit "unsuitable". Expert level meetings at which consular and foreign-policy questions are dealt with would, however, go ahead. The ambassador went on to express his hope that the Russians would not consider exerting economic pressure on Hungary, as trade between Hungary and Russia had stagnated since the onset of the Russian economic crisis.
Mr Andras Kelemen (MDF)calls for the future of the Vojvodina to be discussed alongside the future of Kosovo after the conclusion of the war in Yugoslavia, with Hungarian autonomy as an integral part of such deliberations. The politician is firmly convinced that the future of the Vojvodinian Hungarians will, at best, be uncertain, hanging in the balance if the province remains embedded in Yugoslavia, but fears that the next minority to be targeted after hostilities have ended will be the Hungarians.
In the near future, Mr Jozsef Szajer, FIDESZ group leader in the Hungarian Parliament, will meet the mayor of Szabadka, Mr Jozsef Kasza when the latter comes to Budapest (Mr Kasza is also the leader of the Association of Vojvodinian Hungarians).
On April 25th, a 35-strong team of army medics will complete their preparations for participating in humanitarian aid actions to help the victims of the disaster. The Hungarian Parliament recently approved their mission, which will focus on epidemic prevention, with ill refugees being separated from the rest to avoid large-scale outbreaks of disease. Lieutenant Colonel Istvan Kopcso will head the team. The Hungarian team will be taking the lead in their specialist area in Albania, shouldering responsibility on behalf of the country as a whole. The challenge promises to be all the more exacting because of the difficulties of the terrain and the low quality of health care infrastructure in Albania.
Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 3 May 1999
Click here for Part VI.
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