Hungary looks to both East and West: Adrian Bridge in Budapest finds Socialists may exploit doubts on Europe in the election campaign

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THE HUNGARIAN Foreign Minister, Geza Jeszenszky, has expressed optimism that his country will be able to meet the requirements for joining the European Union by the year 2000.

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Jeszenszky said that membership of the union remained the central aim of the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which has headed the government since 1990.

But with general elections less than two months away, the minister warned that victory for the Socialists - successors to the former Communist Party - could lead to a weakening of Hungary's drive to re- align itself with the West, and even to a revival of the more traditional ties with Moscow.

'When one considers the backgrounds of the people in the (Socialist) Party, one has to have misgivings,' said Mr Jeszenszky. 'Many of them spent years studying in Russia and know the Russian mentality better than the Western one. If a situation arose in which the position of Central Europe was called into question, I am not sure they would stand up for continued commitment to the West.'

In their official election programme, the Socialists, currently heading the field in opinion polls, pledge firm support for Hungary's application to join the EU, which is due for formal submission next month. The party, which reformed and renamed itself in 1989, also promises to maintain the process of economic reform. On Nato, it is less forthright. While not opposed to membership, the party believes there should be no rush to join and that the issue should be put to a referendum.

'Unfortunately, too many (Socialists) have trained for too long to view Western countries as enemies,' said Mr Jeszenszky. Although Hungary's attempts to join the EU and Nato are unlikely to form the main issues in the electoral campaign, the Socialists may be able to tap an undercurrent of disillusionment towards the West which has been growing since the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989.

That disillusionment, born from the reluctance of Western institutions to roll out the red carpet to their newly-liberated East European cousins, has been fuelled by what are perceived to have been the West's confusing and inadequate policies in the former Yugoslavia.

In Hungary, which claims to have sustained direct losses of more than USdollars 1.5bn ( pounds 1bn) as a result of the imposition of sanctions against Serbia, criticism of the government's pro- Western stance has grown. Indeed, instead of kow-towing to Brussels and Washington, some even suggest that the country's true interests would be better served by re-kindling ties with Russia and neighbouring Serbia.

That is not, however, the majority view, with most Hungarians still convinced that their future lies within the EC and Nato. 'We have lost our illusions over the past four years, but we still have our hopes,' said Mr Jeszenszky's spokesman, Janos Herman. 'We have discovered that not everything under the sun is perfect. But there are some things that are less imperfect than others.'