27 April 2021
Hungary in Command – The Importance of the KFOR Mission from Hungarian Perspective
From the autumn of 2021 a Hungarian Brigadier General, Ferenc Kajári is going to be the Commander of the NATO’s peace mission in Kosovo. The one-year-long appointment is not only a military, but also a diplomatic success for Hungary since we are talking about one of the greatest missions in NATO.
Hungary was always committed supporter in the creation of peace in the Western Balkans. Hungary is a member of KFOR since the beginning of the mission. By now, Budapest is the third largest contributor in the context of operational forces from the 27 member states of the mission. For Hungary it is vital, that their neighborhood – the Western Balkans – has a long-lasting peace and stability. The gained position shows did the NATO respect not only the Hungarian operation in Kosovo but in other missions, too. The decision is also the success of the Hungarian Balkan policy. It is a worth-mentioning interesting fact that this will be the first time when country which joined the alliance in 1999 is going to give the Commander in a NATO mission. We also need to highlight that with the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan the KFOR is going to be the biggest NATO mission by the end of 2021.
Since 2013 Italy was the country who continuously filled the position of Commander in the Kosovo mission. According to procedure it was always the country with the largest number of forces on ground who gave the Commander for this position. Since this country – the United States – did not want to live with this opportunity the next country – Italy – had to be the one. It was just in the recent years when Hungary first declared its ambition to take over this important job for the first time from the Italians. However, for this to happen Hungary needed the support of Rome in their ambition which they finally had. We also must mention that this ambition did not came out of the blue. Hungary consciously enlarged their engagement in the mission. Since 2017 Hungary became the member state who gives the operation tactical reserve battalion.
The Commander position is one of the most complex in the mission. The Commander needs to keep contact with the key leaders, whether we talk about the head of the security forces, politicians, or diplomats, working in the region.
In 1999 the initial operational staff of the KFOR was around 50.000 personnel, since the security situation in the mentioned region improved, the number of forces decreased. The number of forces today is around 3500 personnel. However, in the recent years Hungary kept increase the number of their forces on ground in Kosovo and by the end of 2021 there is going to be 700 military personnel in the country. (In 2020 Hungary had 400 troops on ground in Kosovo, while contributing on a dozen of other NATO and EU missions, too all around the world.) Another interesting fact is that with the Commander position Hungary is going to be the one, who can fill up the positions attached to the Commander, such as the mission commanding senior master sergeant, the camp chief pastor, and a lot of other head of department, too. The job of the increased Hungarian delegation will be to set up an office, that helps the Commander and an insurance department, too. However, one of the most important tasks are going to be the installation of a Role-1 type health department, that means the providing health care below the hospital level. We can confidently say that a mission like this is going to not just a great achievement for the Hungarian forces, but an opportunity, too as a Central European nation. But how does the Hungarian KFOR story look like and how did we end up here?
The Kosovo War and a polarized social support
In the beginning, Hungary joined NATO in a very turbulent period, right after the Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian parts of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995) and at the beginning of the Kosovan period (the NATO policy towards Hungary was to conclude the formal process as soon as possible that resulted that Budapest could join the alliance four days earlier than originally planned). To understand the significance of this one should know that the whole conflict happened right across the border of Hungary and the post-Yugoslav states. With all the problems of the recent Hungarian regime change (1989), the freshly democratic Hungary had to face the challenge of the conflict – in which Budapest was neutral and tried not to involve and that often had consequences in the country (e.g., the bombing of Barcs). Also, during the war tens of thousands of refugees arrived at Hungary from the war-torn countries seeking shelter.Probably this was the primary reason why the dedicated and freshly NATO-member Hungary’s population opposed so much any involvement only 3 years after the previous war. (A solid two-third of the public opposed the launching of any attacks from Hungary against Yugoslavia, regardless of whether it is a ground offensive or a peacekeeping mission.)
However, we need to underline the significance and geostrategic importance of Hungary in the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict. During this period of NATO, Hungary was the only one NATO-member country bordering small-Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo) as an island, surrounded only by non-NATO member states. This was one of the main concerns, why the Hungarian population was not so supportive towards the NATO actions against Yugoslavia. The other reason was the fear of gaining similar decisions from Belgrade against the Hungarian population in Vojvodina, as they did over the Albanians in Kosovo (such as genocide, forced eviction, etc.). By that time parliamentary representative István Csurka of the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party shared his view, saying: “… as the map of the region will probably be redrawn – It may be possible that a part of Vojvodina will be returned to Hungary, or that the area will receive autonomy to the extent that ensures the protection of ethnic Hungarians living there.” As we can see, the Hungarian civil society was polarized, while the NATO needed the help of their newest member state as soon as possible.
Finally, the Hungarian government decided to reply to the call of NATO and play out their geostrategic advantages against their neighbor. Hungary became an active member both in the IFOR and SFOR missions, just as the help of the Kosovar people during the Kosovo War. Budapest made the airfield of Taszár available for American and NATO aircraft, that were responsible for the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. As Hungary was more and more involved in the conflict, the Hungarian Parliament even authorized the NATO in 1998 to use their airspace and airfield indefinitely until 24 March 1999. (Important to mention that due to its oversensitive nature – the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina – Hungary did not participate in the bombing of Yugoslavia.)
The decision of the Parliament reached a heavy criticism from the leaders of the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina. The representatives said blamed the Hungarian government for “playing with the fate” of the ethnic Hungarians in Yugoslavia. This decision also led to a serious confrontation with the Russian Federation. However, it was an important opportunity for the Hungarian Defence Forces to show their power and reliability in the alliance.
Changing governments, persistent support towards Kosovo
Just as during the war, Hungary continuously supported Kosovo right until 2008. Between 1999-2008 first the Hungarian unit helped in the securitization of Pristina and its neighborhood, then during the next phase the Hungarian involvement limited only on the inspection of Peć. After the unilateral independence of Kosovo on 17 February 2008, Budapest had to mull over their next step, just as they did in 1998. After considering the status quo, the unsustainable UNMIK administration and the possibility of a mutually beneficial outlook, the Hungarian government decided that they recognize the Republic of Kosovo as an independent state on 19 March 2008. After the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kinga Göncz (2006-2009) requested, President László Sólyom (2005-2010) officially established diplomatic relations with Pristina (during this time, the decision of Hungary was like most of the EU countries).
During a V4 summit in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009) even stated that the way of Kosovo towards independence is “irreversible”, so the Central European countries should support this endeavor. His personal view on this topic was that there is no realistic option for a comprehensive peace and stability in the Western Balkans without the option of autonomy/independence in any region of the post-Yugoslav states. The official Hungarian foreign policy during that time even stated that “the independence of Kosovo serves peace and long-term stability, regional development and other integration processes”. With this official foreign policy directive Hungary was on the same standpoint as the vast majority of the EU and NATO.
Since the recognition of Kosovo Hungary kept contributing to the increasing of regional security and stability both in the NATO’s KFOR and the EU’s EULEX missions. This contribution was not prevented by the fall of the Gyurcsány-, then Bajnai Governments (2009-2010) – both with the leading of the Hungarian Socialist Party – and the rise of the Fidesz and the leader of the party, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (2010-). Fidesz won the 2010 Hungarian parliamentary elections with the two-third of the votes and did not change the foreign policy towards Kosovo. We can confidently say that Budapest deepened their relationship with Pristina even more. (This approach is even more interesting since the moderation of Belgrade’s politics, Budapest declared the two states as equally important partners. Hungary is committed to support both the integration of Serbia to the EU and the independence of Kosovo.)
The migration crisis and the growing importance of the Kosovo-Hungary relations
In 2015-2016, during the peak of the European migration crisis, because of the Balkan migration-route the importance of Kosovo started to grow. In 2016 on a meeting between the Commander by that time General Guglielmo Luigi Miglietta and Hungarian State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence Tamás Vargha agreed, that the greatest threat the region – so Kosovo, too – had to face is the illegal mass migration. This was the moment when the primary Hungarian interest met with the Kosovan primary interest. Vargha stated that “Hungary is fully committed to maintaining stability in Kosovo and it will continue to sustain KFOR for a peaceful Kosovo”. Since that we can see an ever-growing interest and approach from Hungarian side towards the KFOR mission that led to the events of 2021.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the Hungarian forces left the Central Asian country, the KFOR mission has strengthened in the eye of the Hungarian government. While other states kept withdrawing their units from the Western Balkan country due to its recently safe nature, Hungary kept increasing their numbers in Kosovo. Thanks to these tendencies by 2018 Hungary became the 5th largest contingent with 380 personnel in the newly born state. Since 2008 the nature of the Hungarian contribution has changed a lot, too. In the recent years Hungary provided the Tactical Reserve Maneuver Battalion (or KTM), which is the so-called “fire-fighting” corps of the KFOR, which act directly by the orders of the Commander. While at the beginning Hungary worked together on KTM with the Portugal Armed Forces, now we can find only Hungarian soldiers in it. The KTM is basically the first unit to arrive in any conflict that should fire up in Kosovo, under the aegis of the KFOR. (KTM is the only battalion that faced any kind of conflict in the recent years – which usually means fighting with Serbian/ Albanian extremist demonstrators – that makes this unit the most-trained in the whole mission.) The KTM also a tactical reserve to the EU ALTHEA crisis-management unit, so whatever happens in Bosnia that requires the help of the KFOR, this is the unit that the Commander can provide for them.
Before the breakthrough appointment of Ferenc Kajári, Hungary also gave the Deputy Commander of KFOR in the second half of every year (because of that, the Commander is provided with Hungarian political advisors for years as Deputy Commanders).
It was in the summer of 2019 when the Hungarian government decided to increase – once again – the number of their military forces on ground, as their official gazette, Magyar Közlöny published. As the resolution told, Hungary decided to increase its participation in the KFOR mission by a maximum of 260 troops between 2019 and 2022. Later Defense Minister Tibor Benkő confirmed the statement of the gazette.
The underline the importance of the KFOR mission from Hungarian perspective even President János Áder (2012-) paid a visit to Kosovo in 2019 (that year Hungary marked the 20th anniversary of their involvement in the NATO’s peacekeeping mission). President Áder once again underlined the importance of the mission, stating that the conflict of Kosovo has not yet fully dissolved and the threat of illegal mass migration through the Balkan route further complicates the situation. The President added that for Hungary the KFOR mission is not just meaningful but also essential for the security of Central Europe and the integration of the Western Balkan states.
The way until the office of the Commander
On 29 February 2020, the Hungarian military’s Chief of Staff, Ferenc Korom Lieutenant General paid a visit to Washington DC (United States), where he discussed with the United States Central Command (CENTCOM – the unit that deals with foreign involvement and the leading of missions). He visited this priority unit of the US Army because by that time, Budapest decided their official ambition is the position of Commander of the KFOR mission. Korom stated that “this [would be] a recognition of the work, that Hungarian soldier did and do all around the world, for example in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq” (until November 2021 Ferenc Korom holds the title of highest ever ranked Hungarian officer in NATO missions with the position of Deputy Commander of the KFOR mission between 2015-2016). Later he added: “There will be a lot questions we are going to cover during the next period, such as or involvement in Afghanistan after a possible peace treaty or how to continue our way in Kosovo. Hungary’s clear ambition is the gain the office of Commander in the KFOR mission of NATO in Kosovo. This would be the first time in history and a great, historic achievement of the work of Hungarian soldiers”.
The discussion later continued: the Chairmen of the NATO Military Committee, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach have met with the Hungarian Minister of Defence, Tibor Benkő and Ferenc Korom in Budapest between the 10-11 July 2020. The Chairman highlighted after the meetings: “Hungary is one of the largest troop contributor to our KFOR mission and is also extremely active in our Resolute Support Mission, exemplifying what it means to be an Ally by actively contributing to our shared security” (this announcement was underlined with the fact that both in April and June 2020 the Hungarian KFOR contingent’s soldiers won the Soldier of the Month honorary title and later in August, too).,
It was in the autumn of 2020, when it finally became official that Hungary is going to replace Italy in the office of Commander in November 2021. In an official meeting in the October of 2020, Secretary of State for Defense István Szabó announced, that during the Kajári-period of the commanding of the KFOR mission the aims of the new leadership is going to be the restoration of regional stability and the fight against terrorism, also the prevention of influx of illegal migrants in the region.
Brigadier General Ferenc Kajári, who is going to be the first ever Hungarian Commander in any NATO missions, is a very experienced military officer. He served first in the Bosnian IFOR mission in 1996 at the Hungarian Technical Contingent as a reconnaissance and liaison officer. Later, he joined the African Union’s Darfur Mission in 2004 for a year in Sudan, where he served first as a European Union consultant, then as a military observer. He also filled the position of reconnaissance chief of the northern region of the German ISAF mission in Afghanistan, but he also served in the foreign service in Norfolk or in the Atlantic Headquarters of NATO, which is the Transformation Command today. According to his own confession he has a good friendship with former Commander Lieutenant General Giovanni Fungo (2016-2017) and current Commander Colonel Franco Federici, who are going to help him prepare for the important job.
The future of the KFOR mission under the Kajári-period
In an interview with the official gazette of the Hungarian Army, Ferenc Kajári clarified the major steps he would like to take as Commander from the beginning of November 2021. In this interview he stated that with his team they have already created a complex preparation program, which contains separate periods. In the first period, Kajári lists as the phase of individual preparation, where he tries to enlarge his knowledge over the region, recognise the major challenges, political actors, the details of KFOR’s activities and the tasks ahead of the mission. (In this phase the specialist of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Defence Policy Department of the Ministry of Defence and the Command of the Hungarian Armed Forces are going to help him.) During this period Kajári plans to visit the states of the region and the different troops and units of the mission. (With the deployment of Ferenc Kajári another increasement of Hungarian soldiers can be expected, too, that is going to enlarge the full number of their troops to 600-700. This number is higher than any Hungarian contingent ever deployed in any NATO mission. The peak number is Afghanistan 2010-2012 so far, when the total number of Hungarian soldiers on ground was 550 personnel. Hungarian Minister of Defence Tibor Benkő confirmed this rumour in February of 2021, when he announced the increase of Hungarian presence in Kosovo at a working session on NATO’s reflection process and the Alliance’s concept of deterrence and defence.)
In the February of 2021, Ferenc Korom stated to the Belgrade/based Balkan Security Network, that they have already discussed with all NATO members, affected in the KFOR mission, and Hungary has received all their support. Once again, he underlined that the mission is a “high-priority military operation” for Hungary.
We can confidently say without any doubt that Hungary’s achievement in the NATO is not only a historic success of the country, but the whole Central European region, too. Only with opportunities like this can be ensured, that a region, that is historically squeezed between two axes (the East and the West) can defend itself, whatever happens. With a great chance like this the Hungarian leadership can experience the method of leading an important military operation, which might give them enough knowledge to implement these insights and prepare not just themselves, but also all their critical allies (e.g., the V4 countries). In the end we also must mention that this opportunity might give a chance for any Central European country to use this special situation as a springboard for any major position like this, which can only benefit them and the region we are living in.
 This time it was the third largest involvement is KFOR after the American (660) and the Italian troops (540). (WAGNER, Péter : Kajári Ferenc dandártábornok lesz a KFOR parancsoka 2021 novemberétől. Biztonságpolitika és terrorizmus, 27.01.2021. Source: http://wagnerpeter.blogspot.com/2021/01/kajari-ferenc-dandartabornok-lesz-kfor.html [Accessed on 27.04.2021]) (According to Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, with their 52 soldiers on ground Hungary is also the third largest contributing force in the EUFOR’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (MAGYAR HÍRLAP : Szijjártó: Fel kell gyorsítani a Nyugat-Balkán országainak uniós csatlakozását! Magyar Hírlap, 25.03.2021. Source: https://www.magyarhirlap.hu/kulfold/20210325-szijjarto-fel-kell-gyorsitani-a-nyugat-balkan-orszagainak-unios-csatlakozasat [Accessed on 27.04.2021])
 In 2020 beside the KFOR mission Hungary had 90 troops in Afghanistan (RSM mission), 150 in Iraq (NATO Mission Iraq, Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS), 160 in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Althea), 20 in Mali, while contributing to the V4 EU Battle Group together with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia, too. (TERLIKOWSKI, Marcin – JÓŹWIAK, Veronika : The Next Evolution of Hungary’s Defence Policy. PISM, 15.09.2020. Source: https://www.pism.pl/publications/The_Next_Evolution_of_Hungarys_Defence_Policy [Accessed on 27.04.2021.])
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Crisis Management in the Balkan: The Kosovo Mission. Daily News Hungary, 19.07.2018. Source: https://dailynewshungary.com/crisis-management-in-the-balkan-the-kosovo-mission/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 MOJSILOVIC, Julijana (1991): Yugoslav Warplane Bombs Hungarian Village; Official Calls It Accident. AP, 29.10.1991. Source: https://apnews.com/article/2dfde117a1ea65321c4964ee43595789 (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 JORDAN, Michael J. (1999): NATO enlists a reluctant Hungary into Kosovo war. The Christian Science Monitor, 02.06.1999. Source: https://www.csmonitor.com/1999/0602/p6s1.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 JORDAN (1999): Ibid.
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 JORDAN (1999): Ibid.
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 GÉCI–SHERIFI, Shkendije (2014): Supporting Emerging States: Kosovo — Hungary Relations after the Independence of Kosovo. AARMS – Academic and Applied Research in Military and Public Management Science, vol. 13, no. 3, 2014, pp. 433-442.
 MÉZES, Dini (2007): Hungary is the 17th EU country recognizing the independent Kosovo. Café Babel, 11.12.2007. Source: https://cafebabel.com/en/article/hungary-is-the-17th-eu-country-recognizing-the-independent-kosovo-5ae00507f723b35a145dcb44/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 GÉCI–SHERIFI (2014): Ibid.
 NATO (2016): Hungarian Defence Official Welcomed to KFOR. NATO.int, 2016. Source: https://jfcnaples.nato.int/kfor/media-center/archive/news/2016/hungarian-defence-official-welcomed-to-kfor- (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 DAILY NEWS HUNGARY (2018): Ibid.
 HUNGARY TODAY (2019b): Hungary to Increase Role in International Military Missions. Hungary Today, 13.06.2019. Source: https://hungarytoday.hu/hungary-increase-role-international-military-missions/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 HUNGARY TODAY (2019a): Benkő: Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary Sign Letter of Intent on Creating Regional Operations Command. Hungary Today, 15.02.2021. Source: https://hungarytoday.hu/benko-slovakia-slovenia-croatia-hungary-sign-letter-of-intent-on-creating-regional-operations-command/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 ABOUT HUNGARY (2019): President Áder visits Hungarian troops in Kosovo. About Hungary, 11.12.2019. Source: https://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/president-ader-visits-hungarian-troops-in-kosovo (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 MAGYAR HÍRLAP (2020): Magyarország ambicionálja a koszovói KFOR-misszió parancsnokságát. Magyar Hírlap, 29.02.2020. Source: https://www.magyarhirlap.hu/kulfold/20200229-magyarorszag-ambicionalja-a-koszovoi-kfor-misszio-parancsnoksagat (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 MHP PKI TNYO (2020): Magyarországra látogatott a Szövetséges Fegyveres Erők Európai Főparancsnokának helyettese. Honvédelem.hu, 21.11.2020. Source: https://honvedelem.hu/hirek/magyarorszagra-latogatott-a-szovetseges-fegyveres-erok-europai-foparancsnokanak-helyettese.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 Magyarország Nagykövetsége Washington (2020): Korom Ferenc altábornagy: Magyarország ambicionálja a koszovói KFOR-misszió parancsnokságát. Magyarország Nagykövetsége Washington, 29.02.2020. Source: https://washington.mfa.gov.hu/news/korom-ferenc-altabornagy-magyarorszag-ambicionalja-a-koszovoi-kfor-misszio-parancsnoksagat (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 NATO (2020): Hungary is a major contributor to NATO’s collective security, says the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. NATO.int, 10-11.07.2020. Source: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_177222.htm?selectedLocale=en (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 MH KFOR (2020): Dupla magyar siker a KFOR-ban. Honvédelem.hu, 11.07.2020. Source: https://honvedelem.hu/missziok/balkan/dupla-magyar-siker-a-kfor-ban.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 MARÁCZI, Tamás (2020): A jelenlétünk pozitív megítélést vált ki a koszovóiakból – a kitüntetett magyar KFOR-katona a Mandinernek. Mandiner, 04.09.2020. Source: https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200904_kituntetett_magyar_kfor_katona_a_mandinernek (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 HONVÉDELMI MINISZTÉRIUM (2020): Magyarország haderőfejlesztési programja sikeres és összhangban van a NATO céljaival. Honvédelem.hu, 23.10.2020. Source: https://honvedelem.hu/hirek/magyarorszag-haderofejlesztesi-programja-sikeres-es-osszhangban-van-a-nato-celjaival.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 DRAVECZKI-URY, Ádám (2021): „Megvan a bizalom Magyarország és a Magyar Honvédség iránt” Interjú Kajári Ferenc dandártábornokkal. Honvédelem.hu, 07.02.2021. Source: https://honvedelem.hu/hirek/megvan-a-bizalom-magyarorszag-es-a-magyar-honvedseg-irant-1.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 WAGNER, Péter (2021): Interjú a KFOR-ról Kajári Ferenccel. Biztonságpolitika és terrorizmus, 15.02.2021. Source: http://wagnerpeter.blogspot.com/2021/02/interju-kfor-rol-kajari-ferenccel.html (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 SOMKUTI, Bálint (2021): Magyar parancsnok veszi át novemberben a koszovói misszió vezetését. Index, 19.02.2021. Source: https://index.hu/belfold/2021/02/19/magyarorszag-tamogatja-a-nato-2030-program-legtobb-elemet/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 FARKAS, Ágnes Virág (2021): Stoltenberg: A NATO-nak felkészültnek kell lennie a jövő kihívásaira. Index, 17.02.2021. Source: https://index.hu/kulfold/2021/02/17/jens_stoltenberg_eu/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 EUROPEAN WESTERN BALKANS (2021): Korom: Hungary received support from NATO members to appoint a KFOR commander. European Western Balkans, 08.02.2021. Source: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2021/02/08/korom-hungary-received-support-from-nato-members-to-appoint-a-kfor-commander/ (Accessed on 27.04.2021.)
 Another interesting part of the interview was that according to Korom, Hungary considers the cooperation with Belgrade good, even though Budapest consistently stands up as a major supporter of Kosovo’s nation-building endeavor. (EURACTIV : Hungary receives NATO support to appoint new KFOR commander. Euractiv, 09.02.2021. Source: https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/hungary-receives-nato-support-to-appoint-new-kfor-commander/ [Accessed on 27.04.2021.])
Author: Róbert Gönczi
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