The Americans and Russians Are Coming, Yelp Hungarians
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — THE things some folks will do to be accepted. Auditioning to join NATO, Hungary has volunteered to serve as the staging ground for 20,000 US troops headed to Bosnia.
But Hungarians are holding their breath over the expected arrival of Russian soldiers, having just recently ended 40 years of Soviet occupation.
Moscow last week requested permission for a top-notch contingent of 1,500 to 2,000 troops to pass through Hungary shortly after the Bosnian peace accord is signed Thursday in Paris.
Russia's cameo appearance highlights a sense of helplessness among the 10 million Hungarians. Smack on the great East-West divide, Hungary has had little opportunity to control its destiny. It has been overrun by Tatars, Turks, Austrians, Germans, and Soviets. Now, as NATO's staging ground, Hungary must accept the Russian visit.
Hungarians hope the Russians make a quick stopover, but a Russian official in Budapest said he expects some troops to stay behind with NATO personnel at a logistics base in southern Hungary.
Hungary's parliament will surely approve the plan, but not without stirring bitter memories of occupation.
''They won't be allowed to stay here; we'll only cordially invite them as guests,'' said Imre Mecs, chairman of the parliament's defense committee. ''The Russians are considered part of the mission, not a separate force.''
The Russians' specific travel route is still unclear. But once they arrive, via Ukraine, they won't need a road map: They know the terrain well. Russian forces are linked indelibly to two infamous periods in Hungary's checkered history.
Hungary's 1848 bourgeois rebellion to abolish serfdom was stamped out in mid-1849 when the Austrian Habsburg monarchy called in the Russians - then the ''gendarme of Europe.''
Russia's second tour came a century later when its troops liberated Hungary from the Nazi-backed fascists. But by the mid-1950s, it was obvious the 65,000 soldiers, operating under the Soviet flag, were nothing more than occupiers.
The anti-Communist insurrection of Oct. 23, 1956, was sparked by students and workers in Budapest who demanded greater democracy. Soviet forces around the country quickly crushed the uprising in brutal fashion.
From then on Soviet troops were a permanent fixture in Hungary. In 1990, among the first acts of the first democratically elected government was to facilitate a troop departure. The last of them marched out in June 1991, leaving behind trashed facilities and toxin-laden property.
This time around, the Russians won't be calling the shots. They'll be under the thumb of the Americans, a fact Hungarians find somewhat comforting.
''It can't be as bad as before if they're working together,'' said an elderly woman named Erzsebet. ''But I'd rather the Russians not come here at all. Forty years was enough.''
Hungary generally welcomes NATO's mission for it will restore quiet to its neighborhood and trade relations with Serbia. But with 2,500-odd American logistics experts to be stationed in the Kaposvar-Taszar region for one year, residents fear an influx of prostitution and drug-dealing. With Russians, the general fear is simply they may once again overstay their welcome.
''Hungary's always been in the situation where it couldn't help itself,'' said Laszlo Berenyi, manager of a Budapest bingo parlor. ''Hungary needs NATO so we can help ourselves.''
Going it alone is ideal but unrealistic, say Mr. Berenyi and the vast majority of Hungarians.
The Hungarian Workers' Party intends to prove otherwise. The former Communists maintain that alliance with the West will antagonize bullies in the east and shut Hungary out of traditional markets. They prefer neutrality, a policy reversal of their Communist predecessors.
The Workers Party, although it holds no seats in parliament, is on the verge of forcing a referendum on NATO membership by virtue of having collected 142,000 signatures. Parliament's six parties all support NATO accession.
''It's just as bad to have Russians here as Americans - they're all foreign soldiers,'' said party Vice President Attila Vajnai. ''We have a historic opportunity to make our own political decisions without asking anyone.''