Hungarian troops take leap into West's arms Warsaw pact

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The Independent Online
THEIR FACES covered with camouflage cream, black woollen caps jammed down on their heads, guns at the ready, the soldiers abseiled SAS- style down the walls of their barracks before leaping through open windows.

This could be a Nato exercise anywhere in the western military alliance, but these were Hungarian troops of the 34th Laszlo Bercsenyi Reconnaissance Battalion, training at a military base in the eastern city of Szolnok.

Built in the early 1950s, the base once served the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet- led military alliance that was a counterpart to Nato. But now former enemies in the capitalist west are allies of the one-time Communist states and, from yesterday, Szolnok base, and the troops there, are part of Nato.

Adapting to Nato methods has demanded a revolution of the mind, as well as of the military. Soviet-era battle planning was largely based on Second World War methods of command and control, using human waves to advance. As loyal functionaries of a Marxist state, soldiers merely followed orders and initiative was frowned on as dangerous.

Soviet troops did not leave Hungary finally until July 1991, but before then there was little fraternisation. The Warsaw Pact was always more about occupation than alliance. Fearful of another 1956-style armed uprising, the Soviets kept their subject nations at arms length, and the two armies had little to do with one another. Now Soviet operational methods have been replaced by Nato tactics, though the Hungarian troops at Szolnok are still armed with AK-47s, rather than Nato-issue weapons.

"Officers in Warsaw Pact armies didn't have any freedom, even to think," said Captain Tibor Petho, 30. "Western military teaching is that a team leader has to think and take decisions in combat situations. My soldiers are required now to think for themselves."

Capt Petho, a career soldier, is one of the new generation of Hungarian army officers. He trained with the US Marines in Virginia and speaks English, as do many officers now. He will soon come under the command of a British officer. "It doesn't matter to me that he will be foreign," he says. "He knows exactly what he is doing and how to deploy soldiers."

Just as with politics and business, the winners in the seismic political and economic changes that are reshaping eastern Europe, a decade after the collapse of Communism, will be those who are still young and mentally flexible enough to adapt to new ways of thinking.

Much of the old high command of the three new Nato member nations has retired, the elderly officers unable to accept the death of the Soviet bloc. Now the military future belongs to young officers such as Capt Petho.