Hungarian Realpolitik

NATO ultimatums on Bosnia aside, a small but important domino is beginning to tilt in Eastern Europe - one that should be watched closely. Reports this week indicate that Hungary, having assessed Western policy toward Russia, the former Yugoslavia, and Eastern Europe, will take some steps toward normalizing relations with Serbia, its neighbor.

After international outrage over the the recent massacre in Sarajevo, Hungarian officials are playing down these steps. Still, in late January Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky paid the first diplomatic visit to Belgrade since 1990; sources indicate the new Hungarian approach has been in place for a month.

The thinking in Budapest bears attention as a signal of the deeper patterns forming in the East. Hungary's move comes after two years of steadily voting with the West on Yugoslav issues in the United Nations Security Council, including upholding sanctions that have cost Hungary $1.5 billion. Having watched Western inaction on Bosnia, Budapest is concerned for the 400,000 ethnic Hungarians in the bordering Serb region of Vojvodina. And the timing of the initiative is important. It comes on the heels of Hungarian disappointment with the Partnership for Peace security plan, seeming Western deference to Russia in the region, and a perception of declining United States commitment to Europe following President Clinton's trip there.

Hungary is answering a Western Realpolitik of self-interest with its own Realpolitik. Intimately familiar with Western policy on Bosnia - including initiatives to lift the sanctions on Belgrade, until now the only punishment the West has imposed on Serbia - Hungary calculates that the West has essentially accepted a ``Greater Serbia.'' Hungary wants to be in a favorable position should Serbia sign a peace accord and begin formally to trade again. Decisions on sanctions are easy to make in London or Washington; it is the Hungarian economy, among others, that suffers.

Sadly, the Hungarian view marks an end to the spirit of 1989 - liberation, exhilaration, freedom. No country was more pro-American, pro-democratic, or pro-West after the Berlin Wall fell. Certainly Europe and the US could not solve Hungary's social and economic woes. But Budapest was unprepared for the gap between Western action and rhetoric over the past four years. In time, the ``self-reliance'' preached by Brussels and Washington came to seem more like a form of Darwinian survival than the hoped-for embrace into a community of free nations. Disillusioned and caught between a hardening Russia and Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, Budapest will move toward cutting the best deal it can and look after its own interests. This is understandable.

What will not be understandable is any effort to use ``Greater Serbia'' arguments to feed the ``Greater Hungary'' nationalism that is nascent but growing. Hungary's position is not carved in stone. Now that NATO has given an ultimatum on Serb aggression in Sarajevo, it will be interesting to watch what Budapest does. At the moment, Hungary is skeptical.

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