A Nato Role For Hungary

As commander of Hungary's armed forces, Gen. Ferenc Vegh finds himself in a ticklish position these days. Only three weeks ago, he proudly saw NATO officially welcome his country (along with Poland and the Czech Republic) into the Western Alliance's fold. Now he watches from the sidelines while U.S.-led NATO warplanes bomb Yugoslavia--Hungary's next-door neighbor. It's a potentially dangerous spot, given that Hungary is the only NATO state that shares a border with Yugoslavia, and the only one completely surrounded by non-NATO members. Moreover, Hungary's military has undergone a painful downsizing, from 150,000 troops a decade ago to only 60,000 today. Still, Vegh, 50--who began his career as a tank officer in the Warsaw Pact--remains an enthusiastic convert to NATO. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland last week in Budapest. Excerpts:

VEGH: It's a hard beginning. But it gives us an opportunity to show Hungary's credibility and to show that Hungary is not only a consumer but also a producer of security in this region. And it gives us more of an opportunity to reach intermediate goals with NATO, learning by doing, a great opportunity to study NATO procedures in a real way.

Yes, it is. We have to remember that we are a new NATO member and at the same time a neighbor of Yugoslavia. There's a national interest to have a good neighborly relationship with that country. Also, there is a sizable Hungarian minority [in Vojvodina, Yugoslavia], and we need to focus on the interests of this minority population. They could become prisoners of such a crisis.

It's possible that some people are afraid. Most of the population is not aware of what is guaranteed by NATO membership. For us, NATO membership means real safety for all the Hungarian people.

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In 1992, 1993, there was some shelling of Hungarian territory from Croatia, and both sides [Croats and Serbs] used our territory to maneuver, to make flanking movements behind their opponents. But this situation is absolutely different. It would be suicide for Yugoslavia if they use Hungarian airspace or territory. An attack on Hungary is an attack on NATO.

Do you perceive any threat to Hungary from Yugoslavia, whose military is much larger than yours now?

I don't believe we have an immediate threat from Yugoslavia. Everyone there is focused on the Kosovo crisis. They don't have such a big military that they could involve themselves on two fronts. Of course, because we support NATO's airstrikes, we are considered an aggressor. Along the Hungarian border [with northern Yugoslavia] we had intelligence that they were maneuvering, battalion size and smaller. I called the Yugoslav commander and asked for an explanation, and he said that it was only a mobilization process and that they will not attack Hungary.

We have offered only Hungarian airspace and airfields, but no other contributions from the Hungarian part.

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Welcome, welcome. So far NATO has only used our airspace, not our bases, with the exception of AWACS at Taszar. It was an AWACS in Hungarian/Croatian airspace that helped find the pilot [of the downed F-117A stealth fighter in Yugoslavia].

No. We have the same type of airplanes as Yugoslavia, and it could cause problems with identification.

I believe air power alone is not sufficient, but I don't think it is a correct answer to send ground troops.

Hungary will not send ground troops because it would not be in the Hungarian national interest.

No, it would be a more difficult situation because we would have no security guarantee. Now, we know that NATO will protect us, will protect our territory and our airspace if our own strength is not enough.

I think it will be over before the 50th anniversary [summit] of NATO [April 23-25].

A Nato Role For Hungary | News