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Europe's Kosovo dominoes

NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia risks creating "new Kosovos" throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

By Denisa Kostovicova in Bratislava

NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia has sent shock waves throughout Eastern Europe which are rocking the foundations of the region's fledgling democracies. Should democracy lose ground, the field for the nastiest of ethnic politics remains wide open in a part of the world which is dotted with potential, as yet unexploded Kosovos.

Stroll along the streets of Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, and you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Belgrade. "STOP NATO", with a swastika squeezed into the "O" of NATO, is scrawled on the walls. Further on, protesters wave their placards: "NATO Hands Off Yugoslavia."

Support for the hard-line, nationalist policy of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is only partly a manifestation of Slav solidarity between Slovaks and Serbs. It also reflects attitudes of nationalist Slovaks to Slovakia's Hungarian minority. Indeed, ethnic Hungarians, who make up 10.6 per cent of the country's population, are already taking fright at the apparent attraction of the Balkan recipe of an ethnically pure nation state to some Slovak nationalists.

The new reformist liberal government aspires to Slovak membership of NATO and has even allowed the alliance use of its airspace for the operation against Yugoslavia. But the majority of Slovaks, hitherto reluctant, are now convinced that they do not want to join NATO. And they oppose the air strikes against Yugoslavia.

As Slovakia prepares to go to the polls to elect a new President, NATO's bombing campaign is stirring nationalist passions to the advantage of the country's own strongman, Vladimir Meciar. Fears of a return to intolerant authoritarianism with Meciar again at the helm are more palpable with each day. He has, after all, already managed two miraculous political comebacks when prime minister before finally losing power in last autumn's elections.

Ethnic Hungarians, who now have three ministers in government, are acutely aware of what Meciar's return might herald. One of his last legislative gifts was a ban on the Hungarian language on school certificates and the subjugation of Hungarian-language schools to Slovak jurisdiction.

In the face of the common threat, all ethnic Hungarian political parties have put aside their ideological differences and banded together to form a national bloc. It is a phenomenon which Slovak political analysts have called "Slovakia's Kosovisation".

Nationalists across the border in Hungary are also raising their voice. Although a marginal force in Hungarian politics, they nonetheless have parliamentary representation and are calling for a change of Hungary's southern borders to protect the Hungarian minority in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, whom they consider Serb hostages.

Janos Martonyi, the country's foreign minister, has denounced the Hungarian nationalists, as has the leader of Vojvodina Hungarians, who has also condemned the NATO intervention, not once but several times. Neither Serbian nor Slovak Hungarians, it seems, wish to see any change of borders.

The demands of Hungarian nationalists are, nevertheless, music to the ears of their Slovak counterparts. As ever, extremists feed off and derive strength from each other.

Romanians do not require interference from Budapest to feel uneasy about their Hungarian minority, who account for 7.1 per cent of the country's population. Romanians have already declared Serbs to be heroes and view Kosovo as an unwelcome precedent. For them, NATO is now fighting a war of independence on behalf of Kosovo's Albanians. They fear the Hungarian-dominated Transylvania will be next.

Small wonder then that NATO-phobia has spread across Romania in the wake of the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Only recently enthusiastic about joining the military alliance, many Romanians now view NATO as an aggressor and the United States as an interfering bully, in similar terms to their Serb neighbours.

Ordinary Romanians are increasingly at odds with their elected representatives who still aspire to NATO membership. But popular support for Serbia has not gone unnoticed by Romania's Hungarians. The improvement in inter-ethnic relations in Romania over the past decade is by no means irreversible.

The democratic consensus between the leadership and the electorate has come under pressure even in those Central and Eastern European countries basking in the safety of relative if not absolute ethnic homogeneity. Again, the trigger has been NATO's offensive against Yugoslavia.

Popular opposition to the NATO operation is growing in the Czech Republic. No sooner did Czechs become members of NATO then it ceased being the alliance they had wanted to join in the first place. Czechs sought membership to provide security from the threat they perceive in the east, not because they wish to become embroiled in the Balkans.

Memories of Yugoslavs' support for Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the Soviets intervened to "help" their "communist brother" have been revived. As have memories of Yugoslav friends opening their homes to those who were by chance on holiday in Yugoslavia during that fateful summer. This makes many uneasy about their country's newly-acquired status as a NATO member.

The plight of ethnic Albanians has, nevertheless, generated moral outrage. "Thank God for NATO. Someone to help the Albanians. There was no one to come to our rescue in 1968," says a man in the audience on a popular Czech talk-show to a standing ovation. As ordinary people come to grips with their moral qualms, the NATO action enjoys the backing of the Czech government.

In Bulgaria, the pro-Western leadership is pushing for membership in NATO, but has to face a tough question: Will NATO's profile and mission have changed so much after the strike on Yugoslavia is over as to cause voters to turn against joining the alliance?

The majority of Bulgarians have consistently opposed NATO's action in Yugoslavia. This is not because Serbs, like Bulgarians, are Orthodox Slavs, since historically the two peoples have often been enemies. Rather it is because they have one key thing in common: a mistrust of Muslims.

Fears of a spill-over of the Kosovo conflict elsewhere in the Balkans into Macedonia, Albania, Greece and Turkey have often been cited in the West as a reason for international intervention in Kosovo. While the domino-effect prophets of doom have generally cast their eyes southwards, they may also have to look elsewhere in the region.

Denisa Kostovicova is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University focusing on Kosovo Albanians' parallel educational system.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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