Leading Article: Hungary puts Nato on the spot

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HUNGARY is nervous. With the permission of the government in Budapest, its airspace is being used by Nato's Awacs surveillance planes monitoring the Bosnian no-fly zone. It has a long border with Croatia and Serbia, and is thus involved in the international sanctions against Serbia, which are also affecting its own economy. In the Serbian province of Vojvodina and in Serb- occupied Croatia there are some 400,000 ethnic Hungarians who could fall victim to a new outbreak of 'ethnic cleansing'. Within Hungary itself, there are understandable fears of cross-border punitive air raids by Serbian planes, and eventually of Serbian expansionism.

Hence the presence at Nato headquarters in Brussels yesterday of the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Geza Jeszenszky, seeking assurances that the West would come to his country's help if it were attacked. He received no specific commitment. But Nato's Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, said that 'it is inconceivable that the international community would remain passive' if any party in the former Yugoslavia took action against any neighbours.

Mr Jeszenszky left professing himself reassured. None the less, his visit was a sharp reminder of the security vacuum between Nato's eastern borders and those of a still potentially threatening Russia. Mr Worner in effect passed the buck to the United Nations. He meant that if Hungary were attacked for its part in supporting a UN-mandated operation in any part of former Yugoslavia, the UN would not stand idly by. Such an attack would, in any event, be a breach of the UN Charter, just as was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Mr Jeszenszky did not, it seems, expect Nato to extend its own mutual defence pact to a non-member state. To do so would create a precedent and stir old fears of encirclement in Russian nationalist breasts. Yet Nato's inability to offer such a guarantee highlights the organisation's failure so far to find a convincing role in the post-Cold War era.

It is true that it is involved at several levels in former Yugoslavia, ranging from Operation Maritime Guard in the Adriatic and the Awacs operation to the provision of the main UN command post in Bosnia itself; and that it has evolved a plan for the implementation, should that ever be sanctioned, of the Vance-Owen proposals. It is also true that participation in peace-keeping operations is helping to reintegrate the French into Nato's chain of command. German servicemen are helping man the Awacs planes. These are important steps. But to historians they will surely seem unequal to the needs of the day.

Behind that failure to rise to the occasion, which is shared by the European Community, lie the confusion, indecision and divisions of the West's political leaders. The EC has great reluctance to open its markets to East European exports: not easy at a time of recession, but of great psychological as well as economic importance to the nascent free- market culture of the new democracies. In the case of Nato, there is a real difficulty in providing security to the east without reawakening Russian paranoia: Serbia may at present be the greatest threat to Hungary, but it is the presence of Russian troops and a large Russian minority that worries the Baltic states. Like the UN, Nato is suffering from an excess of credibility. Everyone in Eastern Europe wants to join, even - as a 'long-term political aim' (Boris Yeltsin, 20 December 1991) - Russia itself, a step that would probably induce a state of decisionless paralysis. Mr Jeszenszky's visit to Brussels was a reminder of the embarrassing gap between those expectations and Nato's inability to act as the policeman of Europe.