Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 8
28 February 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 21
February 2000

Paul Nemes

Justice Minister Ibolya Dávid last week confirmed that Hungary would file a lawsuit against the parties responsible for the cyanide poisoning, which has led to a major disaster in the Tisza and Szamos rivers. Dávid arrived in Braşov (Brassó) on Monday, where she met the town's mayor and local Hungarian representatives, for the start of a four-day visit to Romania. Dávid was scheduled to meet her Romanian counterpart Valeriu Stoica to discuss Hungary's European Union integration experience, and, of course, the cyanide spill. She also confirmed that diplomatic channels were being employed in an attempt to resolve the downturn in Hungarian-Romanian relations.

Upstream sections of the Tisza went on high alert last week as not only a great number of dead fish floated past between Vásárosnamény and Záhony in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, but also small game, bears and horses have been found in the river. The local Disaster Management Directorate confirmed that tests verified that cyanide poisoning had killed the animals. Hungarian representatives in Brussels did, however, make it clear that neither irrigation water nor soil had been polluted. Therefore, they said, Hungarian farm products have not been affected by the cyanide spill. The head of the parliamentary commission dealing with the Tisza catastrophe, János Gönczy, said last week that the fishing ban in the Tisza introduced on Wednesday would be enforced until the end of the spawning season. At the moment, there are not many, if any, fish left to catch. In the meantime, experts who have been carrying out tests in the Tisza and Szamos fear that there will be another disaster in the two rivers, after 15 heavy metals at up to 180 times their permitted level were discovered in the river bed.

On 22 February, MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) and the railway workers' unions signed a labour pact. According to MTI, a real wage rise of two to three per cent has been agreed upon, which is less than what the unions originally aimed for. Many of the points of a collective agreement are thought to have been resolved, but deduction of union membership fees from wages, in the previous weeks stressed as one of the key issues by the unions, was not included in the agreement. The unions have also promised not to hold another strike in the next three years.

After initially refusing to condemn the participation of the Austrian Freedom Party in government, saying that the new government would be judged by its actions, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke out against the party's leader, Jörg Haider last Monday. After a meeting with the European Union Commissioner for enlargement, Günter Verheugen, Orbán denounced a statement by Haider in which the Freedom Party leader said that there should be no enlargement until wages in the candidate countries reach the EU level. Orbán said, "The statement was clearly against Hungarian citizens [...] and it is very much against the policy of the EU." The Prime Minister also said, "The Austrian government should understand that Hungary and Austria during the last 40 years were on different sides of history."

On Wednesday, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner tried to reassure Hungary by saying that Austria would support EU enlargement and sees Hungary as the front-runner. She did, however, say that Austria would protect its own interests, which would require transitional agreements in a number of areas, such as the free movement of labour. In what was her first visit abroad as Foreign Minister, Ferrero-Waldner met Martonyi in Budapest on 25 February to discuss EU integration, Hungary's accession and the Austrian chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Free Democrat (SZDSZ) István Szent-Iványi made it known that he was not too amused by the Austrian foreign minister's visit. He said that, although it would not have been appropriate not to allow Ferrero-Waldner to visit, he didnot think it was necessary for Hungary to have contacts with Austria at this level, due to the current circumstances.

Günter Verheugen, speaking in Budapest on Tuesday, said that he hoped Hungary would put new funds from ISAP and SAPARD - around HUF (Hungarian forints) 50 billion (USD 19 million) - to good use in transport, protection of the environment and regional development. On the accession date, he said that the EU would do everything in its power to prepare for the accession of new members in late 2002. György Matolcsy said that it is his belief that Hungarian membership would strengthen, rather than burden, the EU. Speaking at a joint media briefing with Verheugen the day before, Orbán said it looked very likely that negotiations on the last five chapters would begin in the first half of this year and that negotiations would be completed in 2001. Verheugen warned that although transition periods in some areas are unavoidable, Hungarian requests for transitional postponements might slow down Hungary's accession process.

The Chief Co-ordinator of the Southeast European Stability Pact, Bobo Hombach and Foreign Ministry State Secretary Zsolt Németh told the media on Tuesday that working table number one (the Stability Pact's conference on democratisation and human rights, co-chaired by Hungary) is a success. Németh, who said that the Pact's policies match Hungarian foreign policy in the region, reported that a concrete list of projects would be presented at the end of this month. Hombach, who applauded Hungary's stabilising effect in the region, also said that a Budapest to Zagreb motorway was among the proposed projects. Orbán and the Croatian government personally requested the motorway.

According to the daily Népszava, Hungary will in the next seven years produce unprecedented development projects. The report comes following a development plan which incorporates several ministries. Népszava reports that modernisation in excess of HUF 10,000 billion (USD 42 billion) would be allowed for. The biggest per capita receiver would be South Transdanubia, while almost HUF 2500 billion (USD 10 billion) will be allocated to restructuring and the promotion of enterprises and regional development. Agriculture would receive more than HUF 2000 billion (USD 8 billion), as well.

Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who addressed the Pact and held talks with Hombach on Monday, said that the Stability Pact could only be successful if democracy is enforced in the whole region, stressing that this should also include Yugoslavia. He also stated that Hungary would like to play an active role in the reconstruction of the Balkans, but for this Hungarian companies would expect at least equal treatment. Martonyi suggested that reconstruction schemes should not only be aimed at southeastern European countries, but should also include countries that link the Balkans to the rest of Europe, like Hungary.

In Vojvodina, the region's Speaker of Parliament and leader of Milošević's Serbian Socialist Party, Zivorad Smiljanic, said last week that any kind of autonomy demanded by the opposition is out of the question. He also said that statements about the threatened nature of the Hungarians in Vojvodina were "sheer lies," and that "Serbia's policy has always implied respect for other nations, and it will continue to do so."

After his visit to Romania last week, Zsolt Németh once again emphasised the Hungarian policy that higher education in Hungarian is a prerequisite for the survival of Hungarians in their homeland. He said, "If this precondition is not fulfilled, there will be a tendency toward a brain drain to Hungary, especially after Hungary's accession to the EU," and added that Hungarian schools are already attracting pupils from Transylvania in order to secure additional funding from the Department of Education. Németh said that there is a possibility that a Hungarian department may be opened at the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj (Kolozsvár) but said that this would not mean that the Hungarian government is abandoning its position that a Hungarian state university is required. Furthermore, he said that Hungary would also continue to support a church-run foundation university.

The Hungarian delegation leader at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly committee in Brussels, István Simicskó, has said that the six non-EU NATO members should be involved in the creation of the European defence and security policy in a concrete way. Simicskó expressed hope that there will be a resolution on this, after the Budapest session of the Assembly in May.

The FBI office that is to open in Budapest in March will assist Hungarian police in combating organised crime and will help to counter the Russian mafia in particular. MTI reports that the US ambassador in Hungary, Peter Tufo, said on Tuesday that the FBI agents would work "under the supervision of the Hungarian government and in accordance with Hungarian law." The New York Times reported on Monday that FBI agents would be allowed to carry arms and make arrests, when cooperating with Hungarian law enforcement officers. The Hungarian Interior Minister quickly issued a statement saying that the agents of the FBI office would not necessarily have the right to carry arms and that they will not be able to make arrests or carry out house searches. The Socialists argue that it would go against the law to have FBI personnel working in Hungary under the same licence as Hungarian law enforcement authorities. However, the Socialists also support international co-operation in order to combat organised crime.

The Slovak government is planning to sell the Gabčíkovo (Bős) power plant. Economics Minister Ivan Miklos said that the Slovak government had considered either leasing the plant or selling it to an international company. Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) is thought to be a possible buyer of the controversial plant. In 1992, Slovakia diverted the Danube with the alleged reason of supplying water to the power station. Afterwards, experts confirmed that this would not have been necessary, as water could have been supplied by a smaller tributary of the Danube. In accordance with the International Court of Justice's decision, the 1977 contract between Hungary and Czechoslovakia is still valid. Therefore, Hungary and Slovakia are joint owners of the hydroelectric power plant, which consequently cannot be sold by Slovakia. The Hungarian government is currently waiting for Slovakia to respond to a proposal on the project that Hungary presented to the Slovak side last year.

On Tuesday, the government approved a decree on the staging of sports events and the security of supporters. The decree, which is aimed at preventing football hooliganism and curbing spectator violence, makes clear the responsibilities of organisers and police, and spells out who will not be allowed into sports grounds. Tamás Deutsch, the Youth and Sports Minister, said that Hungary would launch a German- and Dutch-inspired campaign to curb violence at sports grounds before the start of the spring season.

And just as that decree had been approved, Hungarian supporters had intended to throw dead fish at the Australian players during the Hungary v Australia friendly on Wednesday. The result was as smelly as the fish, for Hungarians at least, as Hungary lost three-nil. An interesting variation of the more-usual snowball throwing, but fortunately only some fish were thrown, and none of the players were hit by flying fish. Less drastic measures were taken, however, as supporters displayed banners that read "Fish Holocaust" and "In Memoriam Tisza."

Finally, some better news, as it looks like the skull of St Stephen may be on its way home. The Hungarian Catholic Church is currently discussing such a move with the Dominican Monastery in Dubrovnik, where the skull is currently held. It is thought that both the skull and the Holy Right Hand of St Stephen, held in St Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, were taken to Dubrovnik, after the defeat by the Turks at Mohács in 1526. Cultural Heritage Deputy State Secretary Zsolt Semjén said, "Co-operating with the Church, the ministry will take appropriate steps for the relic to be brought back to Hungary."

Paul Nemes, 25 February 2000


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