Past and present: A tragedy waiting to happen: The plight of three million ethnic Hungarians could suck Budapest into war. Can disaster be averted this time?

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THE FATE of ethnic Hungarian minorities outside Hungary is a challenge for Europe. Tensions over the issue have cast a seemingly permanent cloud over Hungary's relations with Romania, Slovakia and Serbia - the three countries with the largest Hungarian communities, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor.

If institutions such as the European Union, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe fail to dispel this cloud, instability in central Europe may turn into something more dangerous. There will be no more talk of integrating any of these countries into Nato and the EU, the two most important Western institutions.

The cloud was hanging over central and eastern Europe even before the collapse of communism in 1989. It is an error to think Hungary's communist rulers were ever fully satisfied with the treatment of the minorities, particularly in Romania. Still, until the late 1980s, Soviet domination and internal communist repression tended to keep the problem under wraps.

Hopes ran high in December 1989 when ethnic Hungarians joined Romanians in liberating Romania from the cruel dictatorship of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. These hopes were quickly dashed. Ethnic violence broke out in Tirgu Mures in March 1990, and several nationalist political parties rose to prominence in Romania.

'It is a tragedy that the unique historic opportunity for Romanian-Hungarian reconciliation offered by the revolution was quickly undermined by communists turned nationalists and extremists,' said Geza Jeszensky, Hungary's foreign minister.

A similar process has taken shape in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, where ethnic Hungarians were treated relatively well until the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic and the growth of militant Serbian nationalism.

Slovakia's Hungarians are probably better off, but their status is affected by the inclination of the newly independent country's rulers to regard them as a disloyal, irredentist group.

There is little Greater Hungarian sentiment in Hungary. But Hungary and its neighbours still seem incapable of reaching the obvious solution: to guarantee the rights of the Hungarian minorities in return for a cast-iron commitment to respect existing borders. Neither the Hungarians nor their neighbours are especially warlike, but the longer the problem festers the more possible a conflict becomes.

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