In Libya, as a revolt against Muammar Qaddafi’s four-decade regime turned dangerous, Hungarian diplomats did what most others didn’t do: They stuck around.
“When everyone left, we still stayed,” Csaba Korosi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview. “We tried to be a bridge builder, even between the two sides.”
Long after the U.S., U.K. and France shut down their embassies, evacuated their staffs and rushed to get their citizens out of Libya, Hungary kept a presence in the capital Tripoli. It became the diplomat of last resort for some 50 absent governments throughout the seven-month conflict.
Among its successes was securing the release of four foreign journalists: two Americans, one Spanish and one British. In August, the Hungarian embassy even managed to get Talitha van Zon, a former Dutch model and one-time girlfriend of Qaddafi’s son Mutassim, out of the country after she jumped from the balcony of a Tripoli hotel trying to escape.
Humgary’s reward for such steadfastness could be a seat on the 15-member Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body. UN members are scheduled to vote Oct. 21 for five new council members, who will serve two-year terms beginning Jan. 1.
The tightest race will be for the Eastern European seat, sought also by Azerbaijan and Slovenia, to replace the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Hungary, an imperial power before World War I and a Soviet satellite until the late 1980s, had no vested interest in the North African country, Korosi said. Yet, when the Libyan uprisings began in February, Hungary, then-head of the rotating European Union presidency, felt duty-bound not to leave.
As the channel of communications, Hungary provided a way “to rescue a lot of people and civilians from the country,” Korosi said in an Oct. 14 interview. “We tried to speak on behalf of all those countries that asked us to do so. We sent messages back and forth.”
The U.S. shut down its embassy on Feb. 25, as President Barack Obama prepared to sign an order to freeze assets of Qaddafi, his family and collaborators in the first of a series of sanctions. A day later, France and Britain closed their missions. Germany, Italy and Spain and others followed within weeks. Turkey, which conducted the biggest evacuation in its history to rescue 25,000 Turks who lived and worked in Libya, cited “great security risk” as the reason to shut its embassy in May.
That left Hungary to hold the fort with a skeleton staff. Among the other countries that kept embassies operational were China and Russia -- among the fiercest critics of NATO’s military strikes in Libya -- and a handful of Qaddafi’s most stalwart, radical allies such as Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela.
Maja Kociancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said in May that the “situation is definitely very difficult and we pay tribute to the Hungarian presidency for the work they are doing.”
Hungary is weighing closer economic integration with Europe, where formerly Communist neighbors such as Slovenia, its biggest rival for the council seat, have joined the nations using the euro. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government took over in May, has set a new deadline to switch to the euro: 2020.
Europe hasn’t reached “the bottom of the economic crisis,” said Korosi. “It will test the durability of many countries. Some fragile societies may suffer more than in the past years.”
Azerbaijan, geographically the largest country in the Caucasus region, is seeking a seat in the council for the first time and is the only Muslim applicant for the Eastern European seat. It has the second highest concentration of Shiite Muslims after Iran.
Slovenia, which like Bosnia was formerly part of Yugoslavia, was the first to secede from the communist state following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the only one to meet the economic criteria to qualify for the euro.
As one of smallest and newest euro members, cradled between Italy and Hungary, Slovenia joined the 17-nation bloc in 2007 before Greece’s financial debt plunged the region into a debt crisis that threatens the existence of the single currency.
“We believe it’s going to be a tight race,” said Korosi of his competition. “There are two very good friends of ours. One is a neighbor.”
The countries that fled Tripoli have since returned after rebel forces wrested control of the capital from Qaddafi loyalists.
Libya’s ambassador to the UN praised the Hungarians’ actions during the conflict.
“I think they have played a positive role,” said Ibrahim Dabbashi, who became Libya’s ambassador after defecting from the Qaddafi regime in February.
Their actions have already met with some recognition on the ground. The road next to the Hungarian embassy was renamed by locals Hungarian Street.
-- Editor: Terry Atlas