NATO enlists a reluctant Hungary into Kosovo war

US fighter aircraft began flying from Taszar air base May 28.

Ask average Hungarians about history, and they'll likely lament the nation's centuries-long losing streak in military conflicts.

When Hungary joined NATO March 12, along with Poland and the Czech Republic, it seemed less out of a desire to be on the "winning" side from the cold war than to snuggle beneath NATO's security blanket.

So imagine the collective groan here when - just 12 days later - the alliance launched its first airstrikes against Yugoslavia, in effect putting Hungary at war with its southern neighbor. Two months later, reluctant Hungarians are being dragged deeper and deeper into the war.

While there has been general support for the NATO air campaign and free use of Hungarian air space, recent opinion polls show a solid two-thirds of the public opposes launching attacks from Hungarian soil. Even more resist the possible use of Hungarian troops in either a ground offensive or a peacekeeping mission.

But the public outcry falls on deaf ears in Brussels and Washington. With NATO prodding Hungary to own up to its alliance obligations - while dangling the carrot of a significant role in Balkan reconstruction - the Hungarian leadership consented to the launch of fighter aircraft from Hungarian air bases.

Buzz of Hornets

Last week, 20 of 24 US Marine F/A-18 Hornets arrived in southern Hungary. Equipped with laser-guided bombs, the Hornets began flying combat missions May 28.

Turkey, another NATO member, was more enthusiastic in granting access to its bases last month, and Turkish aircraft are already flying missions out of Italy.

These are the latest steps in what NATO officials describe as an intensified assault on the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

With no choice but to play along, Hungarian officials are applying the proper spin. After inspecting the F-18 Hornets last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi gamely lent his government's support to the air campaign.

"This is exactly the kind of NATO we wanted to join 10 years ago, one that stands for a certain set of values," said Mr. Martonyi, as the aircraft were unveiled to local media May 25. "Now, NATO is fighting to defend those values."

Meanwhile, the mood among Hungarians has turned fatalistic. This is especially evident in Taszar, the small village adjacent to the air base where the NATO aircraft are being stationed. The base has also served as the staging ground for NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia since late 1995.

"We never wanted them here, but nobody asks what the simple people want," says retired truck driver Laszlo Kalmar, as an F-18 roars overhead. "More and more people around here are talking about World War III."

Strategic location

While Mr. Kalmar and others in Taszar fear they may now be targets for Yugoslav missiles, there's no denying the strategic value of Hungary in this military operation.

Hungary is the only NATO member that borders Yugoslavia. In fact, it is a virtual island that borders no other NATO state. Its proximity to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital (100 miles away), and other key cities, makes NATO aircraft in Hungary more "deployable" if quick action is needed.

And should NATO decide to invade with ground forces, the flat terrain and short distance between Hungary and Belgrade is vastly more appealing than the rugged mountains that separate Kosovo from both Macedonia and Albania.

For now, at least, Hungary will only host aircraft. Taszar is also reportedly awaiting as many as 18 A-10 "Warthog" aircraft, tank-busters that could do low-flying dirty work against Serb forces on the ground in Kosovo.

Overall, NATO officials say launching combat missions from Hungary and Turkey serves two purposes: It relieves the workload at NATO's base in Aviano, Italy, and opens up two new fronts against Mr. Milosevic.

"We're here, we're threatening, from the tip of the sphere," says one of the roughly 40 American F-18 pilots who recently arrived at Taszar from the US Marine base in Beaufort, S.C.

"We'll make Milosevic feel like he's in a box, with NATO staring at him from every side."

Elsewhere, NATO aspirants Romania and Bulgaria, next door to Yugoslavia, are allowing free use of their airspace. Greece, which sympathizes with fellow Orthodox Christian Serbs, has been the only NATO member to refuse use of its airspace.

No such option was given to Hungary.

The next Kosovo?

Nevertheless, the official line in Budapest, the capital, is that expanded involvement in NATO's campaign endangers the 350,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Vojvodina, the northern bit of Yugoslavia that was Hungarian territory until a post-World War I treaty. Some 50,000 of them fled to Hungary during the Bosnian war earlier this decade.

Vojvodina may become a more central issue as the search for a settlement to the Kosovo conflict continues.

Like Kosovo, it is a province within Serbia that had autonomy in the old Yugoslavia until Milosevic abolished it in 1989. Serbia and Montenegro are the two remaining republics of Yugoslavia, but the federation threatens to fracture further.

The NATO campaign is geared toward restoring autonomy for Kosovo, but many ethnic Albanian refugees are demanding independence. And there is a movement within Montenegro to break free of Milosevic's grip.

Some in Vojvodina, too, hope to regain autonomy, although sustained air attacks on the regional capital, Novi Sad, have squashed support for NATO.

Hungarians on both sides of the border fear that if a peace resolution for Kosovo fails to address Vojvodina's status - like the Dayton peace deal in 1995 failed to address Kosovo - it may sow the seeds for a future Balkan conflict.

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