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
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
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
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
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. …