If the rearmament of Hungary and Serbia threatens peace in Europe

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In the course of the two previous analyzes we spoke first of the figure of the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Mihály Orbán, and how he managed de facto to subvert the structures of the Danubian state by creating what is, in effect, a regime of a personal nature and, secondarily, we have dealt with the historical trajectory of Hungary throughout the twentieth century and until now starting with a look at demographics.

Now, at the end of this series, we will deal with a very thorny subject: the rearmament of the “Magyar Honvédség”, the Magyar Defense Forces. At the same time, we will also deal with the specular rearmament of the "Vojska Srbije", the Serbian Armed Forces, and how these two mirror processes can in perspective trigger a chain destabilization such as to endanger the stability not only of the Balkans and Central Europe, but also of Mediterranean and Western Europe. This may seem like a "strong" thesis, so at first glance, yet it is not.

If seen from the point of view and from the geographical location of Italy, the Balkan area and Central Europe occupy a geopolitical position second only to the Mediterranean itself and it is obvious that any upheaval, small or large, affecting that area, would immediately affect itself. upon us, now as a "breath of wind", now as a "storm". This is why what is happening in Hungary and Serbia cannot and must not leave us indifferent, given that in the hierarchy of our geopolitical interests, that area is much more important than the final destiny of Ukraine.

The modern Hungarian Defense Forces ("Magyar Honvédség", in Magyar language) were formally born on March 15, 1990, succeeding in all respects the so-called Hungarian People's Army ("Magyar Néphadsereg" in Magyar language), that is the armed forces of the former People's Republic of Hungary (Communist Hungary).

Like all communist countries, the People's Republic of Hungary was also a country characterized by significant armed forces and a highly militarized society. At the time of its maximum expansion on the eve of the 1956 Revolution, the Hungarian People's Army lined up as many as 200.000 well-trained men (the largest standing land army in Hungary's 500-year history) in its ground forces. by a large and modern air and air defense force.

The Revolution of 1956 and the brutal Soviet repression (which lasted until 1958), left the Hungarian armed forces in a state of profound frustration and disorganization. The new government, led for the next 3 decades by Giovanni Giuseppe Csermanek, better known as János József Kádár, did everything to improve its image in the eyes of the people, as well as the living conditions of the Magyars (so much so that, at the height of Cold War, the People's Republic of Hungary was euphemistically called "the happiest barracks within the Communist Bloc") but did little to renew the Armed Forces, which continued to slowly and inexorably perish until the fall of Communism and Warsaw Pact. In fact, in 1989, although the Hungarian People's Army counted a total of 105.000 men, supported by a theoretical reserve of another 130.000, and equipped with 1500 tanks (of which 250 modern T-72 and the remaining T-54/55 are in the basic and updated versions), it constituted in any case the smallest and worst trained among the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact and the central planners of the Communist alliance had assigned it only secondary tasks of security in the rear, of better intervention against other riotous members of the alliance (as happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968) or an attack on Italy through neutral Austria. In the latter scenario, the Hungarian People's Army would be backed up by the Contingent of Soviet Forces in Hungary (also known as the "Southern Force Group"), which in size exceeded the Hungarian Armed Forces themselves. Furthermore, the assignment of Italy as a military target given to the Magyars in the event of the "Third World War" was not accidental because Italy was considered from a military point of view as the weakest member of NATO and therefore “within the reach of the poor Hungarians”.

The end of the "Cold War", Communism and the Warsaw Pact began a phase of both reform and reduction of the military instrument of Budapest. For a short period of time, the Magyar Honvédség saw a new increase in their role in the wars that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. At that time Hungary played a pivotal role in Western strategies for several reasons. Initially, the Magyars saw the possibility of obtaining valuable currency by selling their arsenals to Croatian and Bosnian separatists. Subsequently, the threat posed by some serious violations of the airspace by Yugoslavian aircraft and the overall escalation of the war prompted the political leadership of Budapest to take a series of important decisions both at the military level (for example by opting for a strengthening of the line hunting through the purchase from Russia of 28 Mig-29 specimens) and at the political level (entry of Hungary into NATO in 1999).

At the time of the Kosovo War, Hungary played a fundamental role as a "NATO forward base" on the outskirts of Belgrade, and this role remained with it in the following years. The end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the further enlargement of NATO to include most of the countries of the Balkan and Central European area coincided with a new era of cuts and reductions in the military field which saw, among other things, the suspension of military conscription in 2004.

Despite an overall “downward” transformation process, there is also no lack of initiatives aimed at improving specific sectors of the Armed Forces that are particularly in need of investment. The decision taken in 2001 to rent and then buy 14 examples of the Swedish fighter Saab JAS 39 should be read in this light. Gripen to replace the previous Mig-29 placed in reserve. Overall, however, the Magyar Honvédség continued to languish due to a mix of low social status, staff reduction and underfunding.

Things changed in 2016, and the trend was reversed thanks to Orbán, although the outcome of this process may not necessarily be positive for us in the medium to long term. Thanks to the fundamental role played by the military as "guardians of the country" during the "Migrant Crisis" of 2015 and using the pressure offered by the Trump administration on European allies to raise the level of spending on the Defense budget until reaching the threshold of 2% of the respective GDP, the Hungarian leader approved an intensive modernization plan called "Zrínyi 2026" with the threefold objective of:

  • reach the threshold of 2% of GDP destined for defense;
  • to bring the Magyar Honvédség troops to 37.650 soldiers, backed up by 20.000 reservists:
  • completely renovate the equipment park.

Although this plan, taken in and of itself, is absolutely legitimate, it assumes disturbing contours if inscribed in the general context of the substantial disintegration of democracy and Hungarian society described in my two previous analyzes.

As already abundantly described above, and although the number of his "supporters" here in Italy is very disturbing from my point of view, Orbán has slowly, inexorably and patiently built a regime which, despite the presence of apparently "almost free ", can be associated with a dictatorial regime (only" softer "than others) because it lacks the fundamental" checks and balances "that characterize a modern and functioning liberal democracy. Hence the fact that the plan for the modernization of the Armed Forces in a context in which, starting from the new legislation approved after the "Migrant Crisis", the government now has the possibility of deploying the army within the country to its own discretion does not represent something reassuring for those who care about the health of democracy. Not only that, the connections that Orbán has patiently woven over the past 12 years between his Fidesz party, the Magyar Honvédség and the political organizations and associations of ethnic Magyars living in the countries around Hungary have already rung more than one bell. alarm, if not in the governments, at least in the public opinion of these states which, historically, have never had good relations with Budapest and have always feared a potential revenge.

The situation is particularly delicate for Romania and Slovakia, the two countries that have the two largest ethnic Magyar communities outside the borders of Hungary. On the surface, one would be tempted to believe that relations between Hungary on the one hand and Romania and Slovakia on the other, propitiated by joint membership of NATO and the European Union, are excellent. If we look, for example, at the tourism sector and general economic relations, we see that Hungary is linked by a double mandate to its neighbors. For some years now, the number of inhabitants of Romania and Slovakia who regularly visit Hungary has only increased (it would be interesting to understand how many of these tourists are actually Romanians and Slovaks and how many ethnic Hungarian citizens of those two countries!) several hundred thousand. Conversely, the number of Magyars who visit Slovakia on an annual basis has long since exceeded the threshold of 100.000 while those who visited Romania in the year 2021 were 3.561.548 according to data from the National Statistics Institute of Romania. ! Likewise, if we look at the economy in general, Romania (with 5,4%) and Slovakia (with 4,8%) respectively represent Hungary's second and fifth trading partner on the export side, and with 5,3% Bratislava also appears on the import side (in fifth position). Conversely, Budapest represents an important partner for Slovakia both from the export side (seventh position, with 6%) and from the import side (fifth position, with 6,4%) and the same applies to Romania. , where Hungary absorbs 4,43% of exports (fourth position) and supplies 6,96% of imports (third position).

In the light of these data, anyone would ask why the political leadership would have an interest in witnessing a deterioration of mutual relations? Yet if the history of the complicated relations between France and Germany can serve as a point of comparison, it happens far more often than is believed that countries that are the best trading partners in peacetime turn into bitter enemies in wartime, and the economy in and of itself cannot act as a simple "automatic pilot" and does not fully replace national interests or national and territorial security issues. The same ones that Orbán has openly mentioned during the current Russian-Ukrainian War, stating that: "Hungary is a country with a particularly vulnerable economy because it has no access to the sea, and to protect itself, it should have one". Needless to say, his statements sparked an uproar in Croatia, which during the "golden age of the Kingdom of Hungary" was exactly the "gateway to the sea" for Budapest.

Yet, the Hungarian one is not the only "cauldron" that is boiling in that part of Europe since, at the southern borders of Budapest, even Serbia is experiencing a parallel rearmament process, in a perspective no less disturbing than the Hungarian one.

While in Hungary the levers of power are held by Orbán, in Serbia they are instead firmly in the hands of Aleksandar Vučić, a long-time Serbian politician who has held the position of president since 2017, having previously been prime minister and much more.

To a careful observer it is immediately apparent that the political career and the regime that Vučić established in his country seem to be a photocopy of what Orbán did in Hungary, so it will not be the subject of more detailed explanations. What needs to be said, however, is that, mirroring what happened with Hungary, Serbia also has several "open accounts with history".

Just as the Magyars saw the dream of "Greater Hungary" fall twice in a row during the twentieth century, so the Serbs witnessed the collapse of the multi-ethnic state of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia over which they were unable to build their ambition of the so-called "Greater Serbia", that is a large pan-Serbian state which in addition to Serbia proper (plus the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo) also included North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and a large portion of Croatia located east and south of the line passing through Virovitica, Karlovac, Ogulin and Karlobag.

The flag of Serbian nationalism served, at the end of the 80s and during the 90s, to launch the career of Slobodan Milošević, but it shattered in the endless succession of disasters that the war of disintegration of Yugoslavia (1991- 2001) led to Serbs in general (regardless of whether they lived or lived inside or outside the borders of Serbia proper).

It seemed that with the end of their dreams of "grandeur" the Serbs had resigned themselves to a progressive and inevitable landing on the "institutional shores" of the European Union. This expectation on the part of elites and Western public opinion has been soundly denied by the facts. Essentially three factors acted as a driving force for the progressive revival of Serbian nationalism:

  • the political and economic stagnation of the southern Balkans area (still the poorest on the European continent, except for the ex-Soviet territories), substantially and culpably ignored for twenty years by both Washington and Brussels (except for exceptions);
  • the substantial failure at all levels (political, economic, social, identity and so on and so forth) of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country capable of embarking on its own autonomous development path outside international protections;
  • the very delicate issue of Kosovo, faced up to now by the international elites in a childish way is an understatement, which since the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of February 17, 2008 has continued to represent a nerve in the psyche of the Serbian people.

This coexistence of events, dragged on over time, combined with the sense of frustration of the Serbian people caused by a perception of the events of the last decades described as "punitive" has constituted a formidable undergrowth for the revival of nationalism in all areas inhabited by ' Serbian ethnogenesis so much so that, at a certain point, unscrupulous leaders such as the aforementioned president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the head of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, found it more useful to "ride the tiger" rather than "work to tame it" .

Just like for Hungary, Serbia also accompanied its attempt to reconstruct its own "sphere of influence" by embarking on a race for rearmament that has led it to have Armed Forces today ( Vojska Srbije) with a power comparable to that of the armed forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia combined.

The question takes on an even worse dimension if we also consider the fact that, in the last eight years, there has been a progressive approach in the foreign policy positions of Hungary under Orbán, Serbia under Vučić, the Bosnian Serbs of Dodik and of all of them with Putin's Russia, so much so that, in the event that the current Russian-Ukraine War actually ends with the "manu military" suppression of the Ukrainian state, the possibility of creating a formal axis (seasoned with a territorial continuum) between Moscow, Budapest, Belgrade and Banja Luka (the latter capital of the Republika Srpska, in Italian the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina) constitutes a serious danger to the stability of the European continent.

Meanwhile, the great conventional war that has been bleeding the lands that once belonged to Scythia Maior for more than 5 months is giving valuable military lessons to both the Magyars and the Serbs. In Budapest, both political and military leaders are already openly discussing the fact that the ambitious modernization plan "Zrínyi 2026" is insufficient with respect to the wars that the country will potentially find itself fighting in the future and that the Magyar Honvédség should be further strengthened both in the number of personnel (there is talk of adding an additional 100-120.000 men to the reserve) and in military vehicles (for example in the numerical doubling of the hunting line by purchasing another 14 Gripen to be added to the 14 already in service).

Several voices, for the moment in the minority, even speak of the possibility of reintroducing compulsory military conscription for both men and women. The debate on the reintroduction of universal military service has caught on even in Belgrade, despite the fact that decades of compulsory military service (abolished in 2011) and 10 years of bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia have left Vojska Srbije with a considerable amount of over 600.000 reservists trained in the use of weapons, and among the standard bearers of this "recovery of tradition" there is also President Vučić himself.

In short, from any point you want to see it, and in the light of what was written in my previous analyzes, always on the subject of Hungary, it is necessary for our political decision-makers, analysts and public opinion in general to continue to monitor what is happening in the Central Europe and the Balkans, because any revanchist pressures on the part of Budapest, Belgrade and Banja Luka, supported by robust military contingents and openly or covertly supported by Moscow, can represent a very dangerous surprise for us all.

Photo: honvedelem.hu