Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000

hungarynews C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Hungary
News from Hungary since
14 February 2000

Paul Nemes

Hungarian authorities have called the cyanide spill from the Aurul goldmines in Baia Mare (Nagybánya) the worst environmental disaster in the region since Chernobyl. Chairman of the Parliamentary Environment Committee Zoltán Illés said, "It is as if a neutron bomb were dropped. All living organisms have been destroyed." Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said that Hungary must get compensation to revive the Tisza. Hungary will take legal action against the Romanian company, Esmeralda Explorations of Australia, and demand compensation from the Romanian state through international courts. Romania has accepted full responsibility for the accident, but said on 14 February that it would not pay compensation. A statement from the Hungarian Civic Party [FIDESZ] - read, "It is unacceptable that on the threshold of the third millennium in Europe, the health of hundreds of thousands of people and the whole eco-system of great rivers is being threatened in the sole hope of material gain." On the Australian company's refusal to take responsibility for the disaster, Foreign Minister János Martonyi said, "As I see the current situation [...] declarations which are aimed at denying responsibility are not serious, are immoral, indecent and incorrect."

According to MTI, the Pan-European Lawyers' Union is ready to represent authorities along the Tisza. The Union regards the enforcement of European legal norms its duty. Therefore, the Union is willing to coordinate the work of lawyers and experts so that compensation is given. On 14 February, Foreign Minister János Martonyi told EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen that Hungary will ask the EU for assistance and financial support to deal with the environmental disaster. Michael Lake, EU ambassador to Budapest, said on Monday, "This incident must make everyone realise how important it is to comply with environmental regulations and rethink that kind of industrial activities that can be allowed at particular locations." Margot Wallström, the EU commissioner in charge of environmental issues, arrived in Hungary on Wednesday, where she assessed the extent of the damage. At a news conference in Szeged, she said that the EU would not get involved in compensation claims, but she added, "whoever is responsible for the pollution should pay." Also on Wednesday, local representatives of seven counties along the Tisza met in Szeged to discuss reviving the dead river. The conference agreed that there was a need for a complex plan to make this a reality, and also that there is a need to re-think international protection treaties.

The Council of Europe offered its assistance after Hungary presented documentation of the environmental and economic damage caused by the cyanide spill. Several other international organisations and states have also offered to help. Besides the EU, the United Nations Environment Programme has offered natural, technical and legal assistance, while offers from individual states have been coming constantly.

Staying with Romania, Prime Minister Orbán has said that he will visit Bucharest in April after being invited by Romanian Prime Minister Mugur Isărescu. Orbán, who is expected to also meet Hungarian leaders, said, "For us, the Hungarians in Transylvania are important not only for their own sake but for the sake of Hungarians in Hungary as well. We, ourselves, are measured by what we can provide for people of our ethnicity, and what we can do in their interest." The two countries' Prime Ministers are also thought to be close to finalising plans on the opening of two Hungarian consulates in the Székelyland: a chief consulate in Miercurea-Ciuc (Csíkszereda) and a consulate in Covasna (Kovászna). The opening of a cultural and economic representation centre in Cluj (Kolozsvár) is also on the cards. In Budapest, the new office of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) has received more than 800 enquiries since Romania passed a new law allowing property to be reclaimed by former owners. Szilárd Sztranyicki, an employee at the Office, stressed, "time is running out, as the claims have to be presented to the competent Romanian local authorities before 10 March." He added that the Law only applies to those who have kept their Romanian citizenship. The number for the Budapest office is: (368) 020-1388.

It also looks like the Hungarian-Romanian Minorities Subcommittee deadlock may soon be broken, or at least that is what Foreign Ministry State Secretary Zsolt Németh said after he and the President for the Office for Hungarians Beyond the Borders, Tibor Szabó, held talks with the Romanian Minister for Minorities, Péter Eckstein-Kovács. Eckstein-Kovács added that a number of topics had been discussed, including the return of church property, the conditions of the Roma and the protection of monuments, which may be welcome after last years' events in Arad.

The rail strike ended on Monday, after fourteen days. The three unions said they had ended the strike because Hungarian State Railways(MÁV) had made several important concessions. MÁV said they had emerged victorious from the strike. One official said, "It seems they could bear it for two weeks then they throw in the towel." The new agreement on wages is not far from MÁV's original 8.5 per cent increase offer, which the unions did not accept. However, both parties had as of Thursday last week failed to settle the issue completely. MÁV wants the Unions to sign a three-year contract to guarantee that there will be no more strikes in 2001 and 2002. The Unions, on the other hand, refuse to put pen to paper, unless MÁV continues deducting membership fees from wages. The 329-hour strike has cost MÁV HUF 1.9 billion [USD 7 million]in lost revenue. Final figures have yet to be published, but it is thought the company lost HUF 137 million [USD 527, 000] each day of the strike.

On 13 February, tens of thousands commemorated the liberation of Hungary after the Second World War. The demonstration's main aim was to prevent a neo-Nazi commemoration of the soldiers who died fighting the Red Army at Buda castle. The organisers, the Civic Forum, said it wanted Government regulations to prevent neo-Nazi demonstrations. Police were on alert for possible neo-Nazi gatherings, but only the laying of wreaths by a small group at a war memorial in Győr was reported. A mass to remember the victims of the Second World War was held in the Mátyás church, where wreaths were laid on behalf of President Árpád Göncz, the Government, Opposition and the World Federation of Hungarians, among others.

Hungarians living in Sweden are urging Budapest to secure Hungarians living outside Hungary the right to vote. The National Association of Swedish Hungarians are delighted that Hungarians in the West are represented at the Hungarian Standing conference, which includes Hungarian political parties in Hungary and beyond the borders, but the Stockholm assembly considers the voting rights of Hungarians not only in Sweden but also in other Western countries to be vital.

The day before, more than 1000 Hungarians demonstrated in support of Austrian Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider. The demonstration, which was organised by the Hungarian Life and Justice Party (MIÉP) youth section, took place outside the Austrian embassy. MIÉP youth leader András Tasnádi said, "The EU has violated Austria's sovereignty and questioned whether the Austrian people are mature enough for democracy." Tasnádi also said that the MIÉP "supports the Freedom Party and wishes it well." Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider meanwhile has said that there has been no contact between his party and the MIÉP and added that "the Freedom Party does not seek relations with foreign parties."

Last week, Albanian President Rexhep Meidani visited Budapest, following an invitation by Árpád Göncz. The two presidents held talks, and the two countries also signed an agreement on cooperation in the fields of education and health and medicine. After the two presidents' meeting, Göncz said that the high rank of Albanian officials was proof of both parties' belief in good relations, and stressed the good historical relationship between the two countries. Göncz also promised that Hungary would be there to assist Albania. Meidani also held talks with Speaker of Parliament János Áder, who asked Albania to specify the areas in which Hungary could offer assistance.

On Tuesday, Croatian officials pointed out that a FIDESZ delegation was the first foreign parliamentary visitor to Zagreb since the new government took office. The delegations' leader, József Szájer, stressed the importance of these words, the strategic importance of relations between the two countries and that Hungary would like to further strengthen this relationship. Croatia also proposed that the two countries should cooperate to protect the interests of minorities outside Hungary and Croatia, especially Hungarians and Croats in Vojvodina. After meeting Hungarian leaders in Osijek (Eszék) and Zagreb, Szájer also said that one of the aims of the trip also was to affirm contacts with Hungarians in Croatia. Meanwhile, President Göncz has invited new Croatian President Stipe Mesić to Hungary. On Friday, Göncz attended the inaugural ceremony of Mesić in Zagreb.

A new law protecting women from discrimination at work may be in place by June, if ratified by Parliament. Today, only 8.3 per cent of MPs are women, which is significantly less than in other European countries, and also somewhat less than in other Central European countries.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen was scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Orbán and Foreign Minister Martonyi on 21 and 22 January. According to the Foreign Ministry, issues that would be discussed included Hungary's current accession situation and future tasks. Verheugen was also going to address a plenary session of the South-East European Stability Pact.

According to Zoltán Illés, Chairman of the Environmental Committee, Hungary's sole nuclear power station may have to be shut down in ten to 15 years' time, when its technology becomes outdated. The Soviet-made plant was first put into use in 1982. Illés told Népszabadság on Wednesday that Hungary would have to be ready to "eliminate its reliance within this ten to fifteen year period."

On Wednesday, The Hungarian embassy in Washington held a "Millennium gala" and a reception at the Kennedy Center earlier in the evening to mark the beginning of a number of events celebrating the Hungarian millennium. US congressmen Tom Lantos and Ernest Istook were among those attending the event.

Ultra-Marathon runner István Sipos started a 20,500 km run last Monday in an attempt to break the world record of 19,030 km, set by Australian Gary Parsons in January. Sipos intends to achieve the feat in 264 days, without resting even one day. Sipos has already covered smaller distances - he has already won the 4709 km Trans-America race.

Paul Nemes, 18 February 2000


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