Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

Hungarian News Round-up C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N    N E W S:
News Round-up for Hungary
News from Hungary since 6
March 2000

Paul Nemes

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) specialists have now taken samples along an 800km stretch of the Tisza, Szamos and Lápos rivers. The testing of the samples began last Monday, and results can be expected in March or April. The Hungarian Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), László Haraszthy, last week said that the WWF had come up with a program to cleanse the Tisza of pollutants in the riverbed in the vicinity of where the pollution occurred.

The Hungarian commissioner appointed to deal with the disaster, János Gönczy, has said that Hungary and Romania should use diplomacy to settle the issue of compensation. He also said that the two countries would have to think with a long-term view, and not only concentrate on the aftermath of the Tisza disaster. Furthermore, cooperation in the long-term development of the region would in his opinion reduce tensions between the two countries. On the around 200 potential sources of pollution on the Szamos, Gönczy said that Hungary could not stand by idly as long as there are possible dangers along the waterways leading into Hungary. He said that it would not be able to determine the costs of the damage caused until the end of the year.

The international community has pledged to provide funds for the revitalisation of the rivers. The US has vowed to give USD 25,000 forthwith, to both Hungary and Romania, while the Dutch, British and Japanese governments have promised USD 20,000, 16,000 and 10,000 respectively. The US has already established pollution-monitoring stations on the Szamos, Hernád and Berettyó rivers.

Despite the Haider affair and worrying reports coming out of Brussels that enlargement could be delayed until 2008, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is optimistic that Hungary will be a member of the European Union by 2003. Speaking at Eötvös Loránd University on Wednesday, Foreign Minister János Martonyi dismissed any reports of Hungary's EU membership being delayed as not being serious. Martonyi stated, "It continues to be realistic and possible to conclude the accession talks in 2001, if there is a political will for this in the EU." Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gábor Horváth said the whole thing was a misunderstanding, saying that an article in the Financial Times had been misinterpreted when translated into Hungarian.

On the Freedom Party, Orbán said that the response from some European states was related to the strength of extremist forces in those countries, while in Hungary, these forces are relatively weak and not much of a threat. Michael Lake, EU ambassador to Budapest, said on Wednesday that the Union is sending a clear message to members in waiting - that parties opposed to democratic values will not be acceptable. On the rumours of a delay in the enlargement process, Lake said that there are no signs of any delay and that the EU would stick to the time-frame.

Michael Lake has also warned that the recent scandal surrounding the radio and television supervisory board and the resignation of the Chief Prosecutor could harm Hungary's accession process. On Thursday, Lake said, "The media affair cannot be separated from EU accession and its political criteria," and "public service [broadcasting] cannot be credible, cannot be seen as credible until it operates under balanced and objective control." Foreign Minister Martonyi had earlier called for an amendment to the media law because of the recent criticism of the method of electing board trustees. With some EU member countries expressing concern over the speed of the enlargement process, this issue, and the Haider affair, could be used as an excuse to delay Hungary's accession.

László Habicsek of the Demographical Research Centre of the Central Statistical Office said that the family welfare policies in place now would not reverse the negative trend of Hungary's population decrease. If this year's figures are anything like last year's, Hungary's population will fall below 10 million. A study by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences recommends a better health care system and large-scale immigration to boost declining population figures. The study proposes two alternatives: to adjust immigration from 15,000 to either 40,000 or 50,000 per year. Immigration applications to Hungary grow every year. As early as 1036, the founder of the Hungarian state, St Stephen, wrote: "Make the strangers welcome in this land, let them keep their languages and customs, for weak and fragile is the realm which is based on a single language or on a single set of customs."

As a result of the enlargement of the port of Rijeka (Fiume), Hungarian shipment via the Croatian port is expected to increase significantly in 2002. MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) representative Márton Kukely met Subat Dragutin of Croatian Railways to discuss goods freight from Hungary to the Adriatic. The two agreed that a special freight train would start running from Hungary to the port, which is being upgraded with partial funding from Hungary.

Meanwhile, FIDESZ - Hungarian Civic Party Chairman László Kövér and Foreign Ministry State Secretary Zsolt Németh made a one-day visit to Zagreb on Wednesday to hold talks with officials of the Foreign and Economic Affairs Ministries. Kövér said on 8 March that "time has justified the Hungarian government's foreign policy towards Croatia," while Vesna Cvjetković-Kureles, First Deputy at the Croatian Foreign Ministry, said that her talks with Németh were "the start of a more extensive cooperation between the two countries." Németh's talks at the Ministry for Economic Affairs centred on the free-trade agreement between the two countries, while passport-free travel between Hungary and Croatia was also discussed.

President Göncz visited Berlin last week, where he met President Johannes Rau and Anke Fuchs, president of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Talks concerned mainly Austria and the Freedom Party. Göncz told journalists that he agreed with Rau's position that "Austria cannot be reduced to a single person, Jörg Haider." The German President said that he would be present at the conference of Central European presidents in Székesfehérvár on 28 to 29 April.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda met Viktor Orbán in Békéscsaba on Sunday, where the two were expected to hold talks in the Slovak Culture House. The two were also scheduled to visit the house where the future Slovak consulate will be located. Slovak President Rudolf Schuster will also visit Hungary this month. On 21 March, Schuster will meet President Árpád Göncz, and also visit Békéscsaba and Miskolc.

Last week was the first anniversary of NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Secretary General Lord Robertson told journalists from the three countries, "This was the largest enlargement in the history of NATO, which was immediately followed by the largest-ever military conflict of the Alliance. The three new members were thus faced with a test, which they passed with flying colours." He said that the three states fit well into the organisation, but added that "even greater tests await the three countries: they must rise up to the NATO norms and participate in NATO's programmes."

The Free Democrats (SZDSZ) have now collected over 100,000 signatures in a bid to request a parliamentary debate on conscription. SZDSZ Chairman Bálint Magyar said that the collection of signatures would continue until 20 March to make sure that 50,000 valid signatures have been collected. Magyar said that not only is conscription an expensive way to defend the country, but the country will have to pay the costs of an Armed Forces reform if conscription is retained. SZDSZ MP Imre Mécs said that Defence Minister János Szabó's estimates that a changeover to turn the Armed Forces into a professional national defence is nothing but "scare tactics." According to him, conscription could be abolished at no additional cost to that currently forecast for the 2002 Defence budget.

The US Department of Commerce now regards Hungary as a market economy country. Pál Kertész, the business and trade attaché in Washington, said that this has "put an end to the last practice that had failed to reflect the major changes in Hungary." Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Péter Balás met Cathy Novelli, Deputy US Trade Representative, in Budapest on 9 March. Talks centred on improving bilateral trade. The two agreed that talks about specific trade policy questions would continue at a later date.

The Competition Office has ruled that Matáv can buy the remaining share of Westel Rádiótelefon Kft and Westel 900 GSM Mobile Rt. The Competition Office decided that landlines and mobile telephony are separate sectors and, therefore, there is no risk of a monopoly. Matáv already own 51 per cent of the two companies, but because of the fast-developing mobile market, the company is ready to buy the remaining share of the two companies.

Writer and poet Sándor Csoóri has been awarded the László Tőkés Foundation's individual prize, as recognition of his efforts to promote and improve the conditions of Hungarians beyond the borders. Csoóri was behind the launch of Duna Televízió, which has successfully provided a media link between Hungarians in Hungary and outside the borders.

On 15 March, one of the major national holidays, Hungarians everywhere will gather to commemorate the beginning of the War of Liberation in 1848, in which Hungarians fought Austria in the name of the constitution. Hungary lost, of course, but it remains one of the great defining moments in Hungarian history and the statues of the Polish general Józef (or József to Hungarians) Bem, who led an anti-Habsburg campaign in Transylvania, and Sándor Petőfi, were two major demonstration points during the 1956 Revolution. The government and the City of Budapest plan to coordinate events in the capital, and the Descendants of the Martyrs of Arad will march to the steps of the National Museum, where Petőfi recited his national song in front of the assembled crowd on 15 March 1848.

Paul Nemes, 10 March 2000


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