BUDAPEST — FOREIGN troops have often swept across Hungarian soil over the past 1,000 years. This time, though, they'll be invited.
Hungary's lawmakers, eager to join the West's military alliance, on Tuesday approved NATO's use of southern Hungary as a staging ground for peace-enforcement troops in Bosnia.
US-led NATO commanders are likely to use the town on Kaposvar as the logistical support for the 20,000 American troops to be based in Tuzla, Bosnia, roughly 150 miles away.
NATO officials worry that if the logistic center were in the former Yugoslavia, it would be vulnerable to attack from forces opposed to the Nov. 21 peace accord reached in Dayton, Ohio.
The decision to host NATO has divided this small nation of 10 million. Debates about whether to join NATO and the European Union - if invited - have illuminated starkly contrasting visions of the future for this European nation.
Kaposvar offers NATO two garrisons virtually empty because of drastic cuts in the Hungarian military. And in the nearby village of Taszar, the military airfield's runway is the only one in the region large enough to handle large military transport planes carrying heavy tanks and artillery.
Brussels has yet to decide how many NATO personnel will be stationed here. And awaiting the go ahead from Washington is the US 1st Armored Division in Germany, expected to contribute the bulk of the US contingent.
They will have access to rail links and 10 border crossings into the former Yugoslavia; an army hospital in Pecs, a tourist town 10 miles from Croatia; and R & R jaunts to nearby Lake Balaton, where most Hungarians vacation.
Membership in both NATO and the EU is a major thrust of Hungary's foreign policy and is presented as a panacea for healing Hungary's woes. Protection from the Russians has become secondary, overtaken by the drive to lure investment. The ruling socialist-liberal coalition duly notes that investors prefer to sink their money into stable, secure countries.
By contributing to the peacekeeping mission, Hungary will be prove itself to be a cooperative partner and improve its chances for NATO acceptance.
But the voices against NATO membership are growing stronger. Wishing for a neutral ''Hungarian Switzerland,'' the opposition Worker's Party last week submitted to the electoral commission a petition bearing 100,000 signatures, demanding a nationwide referendum on NATO entry.
Visit could be a boost
NATO advocates hope the alliance's anticipated one-year stay will help make their case for membership. But hosting NATO is also a move aimed at political survival: The coalition must somehow demonstrate to voters seething over economic austerity measures that Hungary is inching closer to the West.
Complete civilian control of the military and compatibility with NATO technology and training are two major hurdles to NATO alliance.
Hungarian officers even complain there's not enough gas for armored vehicles or well-trained soldiers to handle their Soviet-made equipment. ''Officers in our military see the reality,'' says Maj. Gen. Lajos Urban, deputy commander of Hungary's land forces. ''Joining NATO is not going to be a one- or two-year process like the politicians say. It's not even a five-year process, but more.
Throughout Central Europe there is potential for social upheaval and more ethnic strife. In Hungary, healthcare workers, teachers, and students have staged massive demonstrations and threatened strikes, protesting low wages and tax increases. Hungary is also embroiled in disputes with several neighboring countries over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians.
It has also been asked by NATO to contribute 300 to 400 peacekeepers for purely ''technical support'' in Bosnia. But the suggestion has drawn strong public opposition and will likely be rejected.
Hungary must tread carefully with its warring neighbors. Both Croatia and Serbia, which contain significant ethnic Hungarian communities, are major trading partners. Hungary lost close to $3 billion in trade, transportation, and investment because of the international sanctions against Serbia.
Hungarians will also want to move cautiously with their NATO guests. In recent polls, a majority said only US involvement could resolve the Bosnian conflict. But a large number are leery about foreign occupiers of any sort, even if invited.
Hungary has always been Westward-looking, but often swarmed over by the East. Hungarians easily tick off the list of intruders: the Mongols, the Tatars, the Turks, the Austrians, and in this century, the Germans and the Russians.
Even during the communist era, Hungary was the most liberal of the Warsaw Pact countries and was referred to as ''the happiest barracks in the Soviet camp.''
Now many want to realize the dream of a group of progressive thinkers from the interworld war period. They rhapsodized about a ''Kert Maygarorszag,'' or ''Garden Hungary,'' which would use its fertile soil to become an agricultural power and build a strong army only for self-defense.
That vision was crushed by Nazi-backed Hungarian fascists eager to recapture chunks of territory lost in a 1920 post-World War I peace treaty to Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia.
After experiencing Russian-imposed communism for four decades, many Hungarians thirst for real independence and self-sufficiency. The Worker's Party petition, if validated, would require a vote within four months. Of course, they haven't been invited yet.
After experiencing Russian-imposed communism for four decades, many Hungarians thirst for real independence and self-sufficiency.