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Vol 2, No 24
19 June 2000
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Hungary news News from Hungary
All the important news
since 10 June 2000

Paul Nemes

Environment Minister Pál Pepó resigned on 15 June after having been much criticised by both environmental groups and by Zoltán Illés, head of the parliamentary environmental committee. Pepó resigned after being urged to do so by Smallholder Chairman József Torgyán. Torgyán had supported Pepó until he asked for Illés's resignation a few weeks ago. After talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Torgyán announced that he had proposed Ferenc Ligetvári, currently head of the Szarvas agricultural college, as Pepó's successor. It is expected that Ligetvári will possibly be sworn in as early as the week of 19 June.

The opposition Socialists (MSZP) and Free Democrats (SZDSZ) welcomed the resignation, with MSZP Chairman László Kovács saying that he hoped Pepó's successor would be selected more carefully. The Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) expressed regret at the resignation as "his work was not unacceptable." It is also thought that Defence Ministry State Secretary János Homoki, also of the Smallholders, will be dismissed shortly.

László Pallag (FKGP), who has accused politicians in high places of involvement in illegal oil sales during the period 1992 to 1996, met with Prosecutor General Péter Polt on 15 June. After the meeting, Pallag said that the authorities are compelled to investigate when they discover criminal activities and that Polt verified this.

The previous week, Pallag brought forward alleged evidence of such corruption after a witness accused politicians, police, Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and the Socialist Party, whose treasurer is accused of having received more than HUF (Hungarian forints) 750 million (USD 2.8 million) from criminal organisations, collaborating with criminal organisations. Criminal groups have made enormous profits by selling heating oil, on which there is no excise tax.

Polt also said that both he and the witness are ready to assist the Prosecutor's Office in an investigation. Police spokesman László Garamvölgyi said that the witness, Zsolt Nógrádi, was questioned on Thursday but only about his father's disappearance and not about oil dealings. The SZDSZ urged that a commission of prosecutors of "unquestionable integrity" should be set up to investigate the case.

As accusations flew in every direction, Pallag last week said that an "Oil Committee" would hold a special session on 21 June. Meanwhile, former Hungarian Democratic Forum Chairman Sándor Lezsák, whose name was mentioned by the witness, has reported Pallag to the Budapest Prosecutor's Office for trying to "defame public personalities." Pintér, who says that he has never met the witness, has also reported Pallag to the police.

Hungary began negotiations on the last chapter of the EU membership criteria at last week's 5th round of accession talks. A delegation lead by Foreign Minister János Martonyi arrived in Luxembourg on 14 June to open ministerial talks on agriculture. Before the talks on Wednesday, Martonyi said that it was important that the accession talks gathers momentum over the next few months while expressing his hope that talks could be concluded by the end of 2001.

Later, the Foreign Minister told a news conference, "All chapters have been opened, 11 have been provisionally concluded and there is a good chance that others also may be concluded in the next few months." EU foreign ministers confirmed that the Helsinki summit resolution is still valid, meaning that the EU will be ready to admit new members by late 2002 if accession talks have been completed.

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In a contradictory statement, Martonyi said that the EU thinks members should be admitted in a bloc rather than separately, but at the same time, a country should be judged on its own merits and not have to wait for other countries. The Foreign Minister did however express optimism after the talks, telling reporters in Budapest that "the significant result of the current round was that an agreement was reached on switching to a new, qualitative phase at the talks."

Romania has again started to operate the gold smelter in Baia Mare (Nagybánya), where the cyanide spill which caused the environmental disaster in the Tisza and Szamos rivers originated. This surprised government-appointed Commissioner János Gönczy, as the Romanian government promised him in April that he could inspect safety measures before the re-opening of the smelter. Foreign Ministry spokesman Gábor Horváth also confirmed that the Ministry had not been informed that Aurul had been issued a licence to resume operations.

On 13 June, Parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution which gives the cabinet, instead of Parliament, the power to make decisions on the movement of foreign troops in Hungary and the use of Hungarian airspace. The amendment was necessary because of Hungary's membership in NATO. However, Parliament will still have to approve the stationing of foreign troops in Hungary and Hungarian peacekeeping operations by a two-thirds majority.

Two bills limiting the use of state-owned properties by parliamentary parties to 30 at 5000 square metres were also passed by Parliament. The Socialist Party (MSZP), which currently uses up to 200 state-owned properties, will take the case to the Constitutional Court in a bid to have the law overturned. Properties exceeding the limit must be returned within 90 days.

Parliament also decided that the victims of Communism would be commemorated in schools on 25 February every year. 25 February is the date when in 1947 Béla Kovács, the leader of the Smallholders (FKGP), who had won 57 per cent of the vote in the 1945 general elections, was arrested by the Soviets.

A forest area of more than 300 hectares was on fire for two days at the beginning of last week in Bács-Kiskun County. Fire fighters could eventually bring the blaze, which was started by a campfire, under control. The fire near Kecskemét is believed to have caused damage of more than HUF 100 million (USD 370,000). Following the fire, the Agriculture and the Interior Ministries enforced a ban on all fires in or near woods.

Visiting Transylvania last week, József Torgyán (FKGP) said at a news conference in Oradea (Nagyvárad) on 13 June that Hungary has an interest in Romania joining the EU, but stressed that integration not only involves economic issues but also human rights and minority rights. Torgyán made similar remarks when speaking to students and teachers at the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj (Kolozsvár) the day before. Hungarian Justice Minister Ibolya Dávid (MDF) held talks with her Romanian counterpart Valeriu Stoica.

The US company Hallmark Entertainment, founded by Hungarian-born Robert Halmai, is looking to invest around USD 300 million in Hungary over the next five years. Hallmark, which produces films for ABC and NBC, wants the money to fund films and literary adaptations for Hungarian TV. Hallmark plans to buy a share in the movie company Mafilm, which Hallmark says lost up to USD 25 million in foreign orders last year due to tax increases.

Sports without frontiers? During last weekend's international athletics meeting at Salgótarján, the Hungarian-Slovak border was temporarily opened from 6 am to 7 pm on Saturday 17 June at the nearby village of Somoskő. The weekend's special arrangements enabled Hungarian inhabitants of Somoskő and visitors at the athletics competition to visit Somoskő's castle (which is on the Slovak side of the border) by only a short walk, instead of taking the customary detour to the nearest border crossing, which is not quite so nearby.

Paul Nemes, 16 June 2000

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