Center for Strategic Decision Research


Europe and the Balkan Region: Lessons Learned from Kosovo

His Excellency Viktor Orbán
Prime Minister of Hungary

Those of you who have not met me may be somewhat surprised to find a young man as the Prime Minister of Hungary. Ten years ago, when democratic changes began to take place in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe, I was still a student. But spending ten years on the political front line and taking an active part in the transformation of my country has made me feel like a political veteran.


Change is happening so quickly now that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing. The general anticipation of the year 2000 seems to have accelerated events too. This year that precedes 2000, while it is not yet over, has been filled with critical events as well as with landmark anniversaries. In Central and Eastern Europe, much attention has been focused on the tenth anniversary of the fall of Communism and the beginning of democratic changes. In Hungary, in June, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the reburial of the late Prime Minister Imre Nagy, a martyr of the 1956 Hungarian uprising that was crushed by Soviet tanks. We have also recognized the many achievements of these last ten years: the transition from Communism to a market-based democracy and the rule of law; integration into Western structures; NATO membership; and fast-track accession talks that will lead to full-fledged membership in the European Union within a few years. It is quite a dazzling record.

At the first NATO Workshop that was held in Budapest—the first ever held in a former Soviet-bloc country, in 1993—one of the principal issues we discussed was the war in the Former Yugoslavia. Isn’t it ironic that when we last met here in Budapest we had the very same issue on our plate? What was Bosnia then is Kosovo today. There seems to be a tragic continuity in our agenda.

However, there is a difference, and it is not the fact that the conflict has shifted a few hundred kilometers to the southeast. The most important difference lies in the lessons that the international community has learned since 1993. This is what I would like to talk to you about today: first, about the lessons we learned in general; second, about Vojvodina; and third, about the lessons we learned that are specific to Hungary.


While there is peace in Yugoslavia, it is often overshadowed by the reality we policy makers have learned: Every success is a doorway to another problem. One of the key post-Kosovo tasks we have is how to prevent further similar crises.

I am sure that all of us at this Workshop have been thinking seriously about the lessons the Kosovo conflict has for us regarding the future of Southeastern Europe, NATO, and the whole of Europe. We in Hungary have certainly been doing this. Some of the lessons we have pinpointed may be the same as those you have determined, but we need to underline them to help us develop an effective strategy to keep them from reoccurring.

Henry Kissinger recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “To be effective, a strategic assessment needs to be translated into an operating policy.” We are currently making assessments, but we must bear in mind that it is our responsibility to work out a policy for the long term. The following eight lessons are those that we in Hungary see as essential for a long-term solution to the southern-Slav crisis.

  • A former U.S. president said: “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” I believe that what happened in Kosovo was hardly a surprise for most people who know the Balkans. We knew for three or four years that it was going to be impossible to stabilize the Balkans with the Milosevic regime in Belgrade in power. After all, the Kosovo conflict was Yugoslavia’s fourth war and third genocide. We have learned from this series of wars and genocide that the more belated the response by the international community, the greater the human tragedy that unfolds in front of our eyes.
  • We now have the hope that the military outcome will put an end to the violence and suffering for Kosovars. However, we must be cautious not to have too much trust too soon:  Yugoslavia must be verifiably consistent in implementing all the conditions set out by the international community before we can say that peace does have a chance. Deals done with Milosevic generally were not deals for once and for all. Constant and regular verification of the current settlement will be key to long-term success in the Balkans.
  • In order to deal with Kosovo’s reconstruction, a number of international organizations must be involved. United Nations agencies will probably have to handle the issue of humanitarian aid; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will probably have to focus on democracy-training and institution-building; and the European Union will have to concentrate its resources on the reconstruction of homes, roads, and bridges. For all of these international organizations to be effective, they will need good infrastructures, geographical proximity, and insight into the region, along with reliable allies. I can tell you that Budapest is the city that can meet these needs.
  •  If the Balkan settlement is to be long-term, it cannot address only the crisis area, but must provide a comprehensive solution for the entire region. This lesson learned stems from our experience in Bosnia. Now that the Kosovo crisis has ended, we have the momentum to work out a settlement that will prevent similar crises or conflicts in the entire Southeastern Europe region.
  • If the international community develops a structure that is alien to a region and the people living there, no matter how much effort is invested, it will not take root. Take Dayton. The international community developed a scheme that seemed quite logical, and serious effort and resources were put into implementing it. Millions of dollars have been spent on maintaining it. Yet, many months after the peace agreement on Bosnia was accepted, people who used to live there are still reluctant to return to their homes. The crisis in Southeastern Europe and Kosovo was even more lamentable because it occurred at a time when all other regions in Europe were pursuing integration. Integration in Southeastern Europe is not only lagging behind but it has not even started. Reconstruction will need to gear up the region for integration.
  • I believe that a key player in stabilizing the entire region and in starting the integration process is Croatia. Croatia’s cooperation is necessary for lasting stability and prosperity in the area. A positive sign of Croatia’s zeal for integration and cooperation with the West has been the country’s prompt offer to support the objectives of the international community.
  • Kosovo made it clear that there is European agreement regarding the respecting of certain moral and legal norms. Over the past ten years, we talked a great deal about the values we share in Europe and within the international community of democracies. Resolving the Kosovo conflict was a major step toward Europe’s complete unification concerning its values.
  • In the wake of the Kosovo crisis, the European Union has shown that it needs to draw certain conclusions in order to prevent and handle future crises. This has been reflected by its decision to create an independent European foreign policy and defense strategy to prepare the EU’s own crisis management program. Hungary, as a member of NATO, supports the efforts to create a European Defense Identity. We are convinced that Europe must be prepared to handle on its own any crisis that may arise on our continent, both politically and militarily.


Security and foreign policy experts know that there are 350,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Vojvodina, and as Hungarian Prime Minister I would like to touch upon this issue.

Because of the events triggered by the Belgrade regime, it was possible that the 350,000-strong Hungarian minority living in Vojvodina might be the next target. Hungary had a special concern for this population’s fate throughout the conflict, and our government’s position was clear. Vojvodina Hungarians have now developed their own plans for their own future and have described their concept of autonomy. Through elections they wish to set up a Hungarian National Council that would provide them with the safeguards necessary to prevent a conflict from erupting in Vojvodina. Their concept makes Hungarians in Vojvodina shareholders of peace in the region.

The momentum to introduce this plan is strong because, after the crisis in Bosnia, 250,000 Serbs moved to Vojvodina. This changed the ethnic composition of the region to the disadvantage of ethnic Hungarians, and, following Kosovo, we can expect yet another flood of Serbs into Vojvodina, which would further upset the ethnic balance.

Why, you may ask, has there been no armed conflict in Vojvodina? Some believe that it is primarily because the Serbs did not want to use violence there. But I am convinced that the attitude of the ethnic Hungarians played just as important a role. If you take a closer look at the way Hungarian minorities in the region have sought to enforce their interests, you will see that they have constantly and consistently used only constitutional and legal instruments.

However, we cannot forget that the violation of the rights of ethnic groups and minorities has been a major cause of all the conflicts in the region. It therefore goes without saying that preserving minority rights must be treated as a priority. The protection of minority rights in Vojvodina must enjoy a special place in the settlement of the crisis, and, more specifically, in the Stability Pact’s implementation document.


Last but not least, let me address what we could call “Hungary-specific concerns” in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict. As a result of the policy pursued by the Belgrade regime, bombings and sanctions have knocked Yugoslavia back decades. With an economy that has regressed to the level of a Third-World nation but positioned next to a region that is increasingly prosperous and integrated, what can Hungary expect? Furthermore, what can we expect and what do we have to prepare for when we see Hungary, which is developing dynamically, neighboring war-torn Yugoslavia?

Now, after the conflict in Kosovo, such questions arise in quite a different light. The issue is not the need for, but rather the concrete role of, the Alliance in maintaining security and stability in the region, in Europe and the world. Countries of Central Europe are now active participants in shaping common security. Hungary would like to see an increasing number of Central and East European countries involved in this work. The closer we cooperate, through such structures as NATO and the European Union, the more chances we have to build a stable and prosperous Europe.

To that end, however, we need countries that are stable themselves. NATO’s Madrid summit as well as the Washington Summit resolved to continue the Alliance’s open door policy. The Kosovo crisis gave yet another reason for the need to cooperate with Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria in NATO’s efforts.

On the threshold of a new millenium we are at a moment which the twentieth century has seen the like of only a few times. We are after some truly significant events: NATO’s enlargement, the EU’s Cologne summit, the end of military conflict. These give us hope also for an overall settlement in Southeast Europe. This is a moment in history when the future does seem shapable. Decisions to be made now may remarkably shape our future. We only have to come to grips with the lessons we have recently learnt.

I have much trust that now, based on our common experience, the lessons can be added up and long-term success can be achieved. The tasks ahead of us for the years to come are not minor: they are NATO’s enlargement, the development of a common European security and foreign policy, as well as securing peace in the whole of Southeast Europe through consolidation. To make this hard-won peace a lasting one instead of a short intermezzo between the successive waves of atrocities, we must invest into it. We can call this the best investment in Europe these days.

I am confident that the result will not fail to come. It is my strong belief that the next century will justify our new optimism in a happier and more prosperous future for us all.


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