Hungary Winces as West Defers Its NATO Membership

HUNGARIAN officials are masking their disappointment now that the possibility of membership in the NATO defense alliance has been put on hold. In its place is a more ``evolutionary process'' toward membership called ``Partners for Peace,'' as touted by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher during a visit to Budapest last week. Reaction here is mixed, from guarded optimism to alarm.

``The security risk we now face spans from the instability of the region rather than a traditional military threat,'' says Laszlo Kovacs, chairman of the Hungarian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. ``We have a feeling that the leaders of the NATO countries don't understand the real situation in this region.''

Partners for Peace was unveiled by United States Defense Secretary Les Aspin on Oct. 20 during a visit to Germany. Observers speculate that the proposal was intended to assuage the concerns of Russia, which has said that an expanded NATO would be a threat to its security.

Hungary points to its own security concerns, including the prospect of a renewed war between Croatia and Serbia, which both face onto Hungary's southern border. During Croatia's 1991 war of independence, the sounds of battle could be heard in Hungarian frontier towns. Federal Yugoslav soldiers and fighter aircraft strayed into Hungary's territory on several occasions. In October 1991, a Yugoslav warplane bombed Barcs, a Hungarian border village.

Citing concerns about its inadequate air defenses, Budapest purchased 28 MIG-29 fighter planes from Russia earlier this year. This purchase in turn alarmed neighboring Slovakia, whose prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, accused Hungary of starting a regional arms race. No security guarantees

``Everyone's affected by a certain paranoia because of the unresolved issues between our countries,'' a Slovak diplomat says, referring to ongoing disputes over a hydroelectric project along the Danube River and the rights of Slovakia's 600,000-strong Hungarian minority. ``None of the countries in our region have proper security guarantees.''

Partners for Peace, as described by Mr. Christopher last week, would provide for joint exercises between NATO members and any European country that wishes to apply, but would extend no security guarantees. Instead, NATO officials say, members of the Partners group would have ``a commitment to consult in the event that their territorial integrity were threatened.''

Hungarian officials downplayed dissatisfaction with the interim solution, which some observers see as a ``holding tank'' for countries aspiring to NATO membership. At a joint press conference with Christopher, Foreign Minister Geza Jenzenszky said he welcomed ``the principle that there is a possibility and even a need for expansion'' of NATO, and he described the US proposal as ``as very good start.''

Former Soviet bloc nations also point to concerns over the Russian military, which is thought to regard East and Central Europe as part of Russia's ``sphere of influence.'' Hungarian officials winced when Russian President Boris Yeltsin reversed his earlier support for Eastern European membership in NATO. Some here believe the West is compromising East European security to bolster Mr. Yeltsin.

``It's obvious that the West talks over our heads to Moscow and that they'll pay any price not to alienate Russia,'' says Pal Duney, a Hungarian security analyst. NATO's policies have ``the additional danger of increasing Russia's role in world politics,'' he adds. ``If you let Moscow feel its power, it may not stop.'' Setting clear limits

The visit by Christopher came just two days before Hungary marked the anniversary of its brief 1956 uprising against Soviet domination. Despite Western encouragement of the revolt, the West stood by as Russian tanks rolled into Budapest.

Christopher's response to questions about the level of US commitment to Hungary's defense did little to reassure skeptics. ``Certainly if there were aggressive designs ... by other countries within this region,'' he said, ``I think the [Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe] process as well as the whole international community would take great note and express deep concern.''

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