Russia, Hungary Cancel Debts, Build New Ties

MOSCOW and Budapest warmed their relations - chilled by decades of Soviet rule - during Russian President Boris Yeltsin's first trip to Hungary Wednesday. Both sides sought healthier ties as a means to forestall further unrest in the former East bloc.

Mr. Yeltsin met with Prime Minister Jozsef Antall and addressed parliament. He promised parliament that "communism is dead, once and for all," and said that East-bloc camaraderie had been achieved only "at machine-gun point."

"We know now the price of those brotherly hugs," he said, "and we now know that they cracked your bones."

Amid budding strife in central Asia and Hungary's strained ties with neighboring Serbia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, Russia and Hungary seemed glad to have rediscovered one another.

Yeltsin promised to return thousands of art treasures looted by Soviet troops in 1945 and paid homage at the grave of Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary's 1956 revolution. Calling the ensuing years of Soviet repression "a tragedy," he pledged to hand over files detailing the KGB's role in quashing the revolt.

The documents could provide evidence in the planned prosecution of Hungarians who collaborated in the Soviet invasion or later served in the Soviet-installed regime. The Hungarian Justice Ministry last month asked for parliament's "urgent" consideration of a bill to try old Communists. Hungary's Constitutional Court struck down a similar untested law in March.

The two countries addressed obstacles to bilateral trade, which has been minimal since the Soviet trading bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, collapsed in 1990. Budapest agreed to accept spare parts for its aging military machine as payment for half of Moscow's $1.17 billion trade debt to Hungary.

The countries also softened tensions over the environmental impact of 40 years of Soviet occupation - a $2 billion toll wrought by 171 military bases abandoned when the last Soviet troops left Hungary in June 1991.

The Hungarians, previously barred from the sites, found that years of leaked or dumped jet fuel had contaminated soil and water supplies, rendering some village wells flammable. Total restoration, including work on landscape flattened by bombing drills, is expected to take 15 years.

Negotiations - which Hungarian Waste Management Department head Erno Kiss likens to "a dwarf bargaining with a giant" - broke down last September when the Soviets balked at paying cleanup costs without compensation for the sites.

The countries ended the impasse Wednesday by agreeing to a "zero option" to cancel each others' debts.

Yeltsin called the visit a "historic turnaround" in relations and warned against ethnic and religious violence fomenting further regional chaos.

Hungarian Prime Minister Antall added: "Now that the handcuffs are off," Budapest looks toward "a firm Russia in the east."

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