NYT - November 6, 1999

Eastern Europeans Trying to Heal Old Hatreds in Ruins Along the Danube

By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
ESZTERGOM, Hungary -- The road north from Budapest ends abruptly at a pale green fence here in Esztergom, on the banks of the Danube. And a good thing, too: the bridge is out. Spans of pale green steel reach to the first pilings in the river from both the Hungarian and Slovak sides, but the three middle supports stand alone. It has been thus for 54 years, since the bridge was blown up by retreating Nazis.

In Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, three more Danube bridges lie in ruins. All were bombed by NATO in the spring to cut Belgrade's links with its northern provinces. A hastily erected orange pontoon bridge has restored land traffic, but the ruins in the river are causing a crisis, cutting off barge traffic and threatening to flood the lowlands if an ice dam forms on the wreckage this winter.

In Lom, Bulgaria, there are some far older ruins; they are all that are left of a bridge built by Rome to link its provinces of Thracia and Dacia, the present-day Bulgaria and Romania. And in the "Iron Gate" between Romania and Serbia, only a plaque marks the spot where the troops of the Roman emperor Trajan built a bridge.

These collections of rubble -- twisted snares of steel or algae-covered green stones -- are metaphors for the shifting fates of the jigsaw puzzle of countries that make up Eastern Europe a decade after the fall of Communism, and for their tangled relations with one another.

Here in Esztergom, the ruined bridge is a harbinger of a new spirit of amity: Hungary and the Slovak Republic, both eager to earn entry to the European Union by showing that they can embrace their neighbors, have decided to put aside centuries of ethnic animosity and rebuild the bridge by 2001.

The Novi Sad bridges, and the stubborn demands made by those preventing the rubble from being cleared, are part of the shreds left by ethnic hatred in the former Yugoslavia, and the animosity between the Serbs and the outside world.

The long, cranky negotiations between Bulgaria and Romania over where to build one more bridge on their 600-mile river border show how difficult it is for the old order to give way to the new. The Bulgarians want a bridge on the west end of the border to zip trucks quickly from Asia Minor to Western Europe; the Romanians are happy with the old bridge at Giurgiu on the road to Moscow, its former No. 1 ally, because they collect bigger road-use fees by forcing trucks to detour several hundred miles east.

The Danube, the longest river in continental Europe, is a crucial link between the eastern and western forces pulling at mid-Continent.

Beyond inspiring Viennese waltzes, it has served as a frontier, separating Roman legions from marauding tribesmen and Christian Crusaders from Muslim holy warriors, as well as a deep-blue artery of life, carrying food, coal and people deep inland from the Black Sea.

With the canal system connecting it to the Rhine, it lets goods move all the way to the North Sea, making it the back door to Europe.

The river has served as a border between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, but "it has always been more of a symbolic border than an actual one," said Ivo Banac, a professor of Eastern European history at Yale. "The Magyars and Attila and the Germanic tribes all crossed it. You can't sidestep the Danube, but mountains are far greater obstacles."

It has never really been an ethnic divider except on its eastern end between the Romanians, who speak a Latin language, and the Bulgarians, who speak a Slavic one, said Emil Fejzulahi, vice president of a Hungarian-speaking party in Yugoslavia. On most of its western stretches, there have historically been Serbs, Germans, Croats and Hungarians on both sides.

That is exactly the issue here in Esztergom, where the girders of the Maria Valeria bridge were bolted together in 1895 by order of Emperor Franz Josef I and named after his daughter. The Austro-Hungarian emperor ruled from Vienna, and the bridge was a bit of largesse to allow two of his subject peoples, the Hungarians and the Slovaks, to commune with each other.

But peoples do not always obey natural boundaries, and the Slovak side of the river was really more Hungarian than Slovak, part of the 500,000 Hungarian-speaking ethnic Hungarians in the former Czechoslovakia. While the view of the Hungarian side is dominated by an archbishop's noble basilica, the Slovak side is full of ugly apartment blocks erected to draw more Slovaks down country to dilute the Hungarian population.

After the fall of Communism, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, conservative parties held sway. In Bratislava and Prague, anti-Czech and anti-Slovak feeling rose, and ultimately split the old country. In Slovakia this fed anti-Hungarian feeling, while in Budapest the government laid claim to deciding the fates not only of Hungary's 10.6 million citizens, but also of millions of others left outside Hungary when World War I redrew Europe's borders.

Hence, there was no government wish to fix what the Nazis had done, no matter how local people -- Hungarians and Slovaks -- were inconvenienced by the extra two-hour drive to the closest bridge.

Now, with new, more moderate parties in power in both countries and an eagerness to accept the blandishments of the European Union, a friendly bridge may well become a reality, thanks to a European Union offer to pay half the $20 million cost.

And yet Istvan Bindics, who has been the ferry captain here for 30 years, was somewhat saddened by the Sept. 16 signing ceremony between the Hungarian and Slovak leaders -- not just because his livelihood may vanish, but because, he said, he detected some of the cynicism that a new, capitalism-oriented Europe has engendered.

As the presidents of both countries met on a barge in mid-river, about 1,200 people applauded on the Slovak bank. On the Hungarian side, he said, "it was 150 kids and nuns waving flags -- a very forced celebration, the kind of thing you used to see in the Communist days."

Those on the Slovak bank, he explained, were enthusiastic because they view the bridge as a "reconnection to the motherland." But here in Hungary, the motherland, he said, "they don't care," adding, "There might be some business in it, O.K. -- but about the people, they don't care."

Among those waiting in line for Captain Bindics's ferry, it was easy to find the raw feelings demonstrating that even peaceful borders in Eastern Europe may be as divided by tribalism as they are by water.

Julia Csonka, 25, a Hungarian-speaking housewife from the Slovak side, said, "I definitely feel hated there. When I went to school and we had arguments, even my Slovak friends said: 'You don't belong here. We had a good empire, and then you Hungarian hordes came and invaded us."'

Bela Szekeres, 33, a Hungarian mall security manager waiting to make his first tourist visit across the river, said he expected life there to be much as at home. Poverty gives easterners more in common, he felt, than ethnic ties to westerners. Hungarians and Austrians were allies in both world wars, but when he last visited Austria, he saw an infuriating sign in a border shop: "In Hungarian, it said, 'Hey, you Hungarians, Don't Steal,' " he said. "Meanwhile, the money-changing guy was swindling from us."

"In my opinion," he added, "we Hungarians are too nice to everyone. The Austrians drive over our western border to shop, because they can get things for one-10th the price.

"And the Romanians in Transylvania, when we have celebrations to mourn our generals who were executed there, they demonstrate against them."

These are old grudges. The Magyar tribes invaded Slovak territory in about 896 A.D. Those generals were executed in 1849.

Still-simmering ethnic hatred -- brewed with bad politics -- led to the displacement and killing of Albanians by Serbs in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province and, this spring, to the bombing of the old, well-loved bridge in Novi Sad by NATO jets.

Now, the rubble itself is a new source of conflict.

Barges on the Danube normally move more than 100 million tons of goods a year, and the river is lined with factories, rail yards, oil depots and other users. With the river blocked, as much as $1 billion worth of business is being lost or shipped more expensively by rail or truck.

The debris could be cleared for about $15 million, and all the river's users are eager to foot the bill. But Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, is insisting that it not be cleared until NATO agrees to rebuild the bridges it blew up. The United States and Britain, the leaders of the NATO bombardment, are insisting that they will not help rebuild Yugoslavia while Milosevic remains in power.

Adding to the urgency of the matter is the fear that ice will pack onto the wreckage this winter, damming the whole river and flooding not just Yugoslavia, but the Hungarian plains.

The company that owns his ferry is going bankrupt, Captain Bindics said, because most of its income is from Danube traffic.

"It's a huge, huge loss financially," he said. "Romania just completed a canal system at the Danube's mouth -- that money is just sitting there. The traffic from France and Germany can't come down. The Ukraine is crying out. Everybody but the Serbs is interested in clearing the river, but in their little demented closed minds, it's no problem -- because their little local barges can get through."

Arguing between Bulgaria and Romania over a new bridge has gone on for years now. "It's crazy," one American diplomat said. "The bridge at Giurgiu is underutilized, but it's still 1,000 kilometers of river with only one bridge."

Because many truckers prefer to avoid fractious former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria has become the obvious route from Greece and Turkey to Europe. The Bulgarians want a new bridge at Vidin, but Romania has balked. A bridge somewhere farther east, probably paid for by European Union money, would draw in more money to fix up Romania's southern roads, and more fees paid by truckers. At the moment, the negotiations are struggling to find a compromise that might include a hydroelectric dam that trucks can cross.

"I don't believe any of this will be fixed soon," Captain Bindics said. "But skepticism is my middle name."

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