Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Aquatic Chernobyl
Part Three: Central Europe is Europe too

Gusztáv Kosztolányi with Paul Nemes

(read part one HERE)
(read part two HERE)

As a frequent visitor to Brussels, there are two peculiar features of the Belgian capital that never cease to strike me. One is the remarkable architectural variety, the other the unique dinginess of the steel grey clouds that conspire so often to block out the rays of the sun, spreading an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling of depression, of inevitability.

I had ample opportunity to muse on both of these on the afternoon of Thursday 2 March as I sat in a brasserie on Luxembourg Square awaiting the arrival of a group of demonstrators, Hungarian students from the University of Louvain. The streets were virtually deserted, taxi drivers idling away the hours buried in their newspapers behind the wheel, buses trundling by, heading for the city centre. Custom was also slow for the cafes, pubs and restaurants that throng with European officials in the summer: the white plastic moulded chairs and tables that occupy the pavements in brighter weather still in storage. 2:15pm. Sipping my second petit cafe (a weak brew compared to the caffeine-rich thimblefuls of fekete in Pest), I surveyed the remaining trees, naked branches pruned into artificial discipline and the peeling facades of the huddle of older buildings dwarfed by the modern splendour of the European Parliament's new premises.

A flash of blue light signalled the arrival of the local police force, several officers on motorbikes to escort the protestors over the arterial roads leading to the Australian Embassy and vanloads of reinforcements in case the protest turned ugly. Better to be safe than sorry. I paid my bill, donned my jacket and headed into the biting wind.

2:40pm, almost exactly on time, the demonstrators gathered on the square, having emerged from the concrete bunker-like depths of Leopold Station. The mood was cheerful rather than angry. As the students prepared for the slow march to the Embassy, I approached their leader and official spokesman, Péter Losonczi.

Central Europe Review: Here we are on Luxembourg Square in the vicinity of the European Parliament. Could you please tell me a little about who you and your companions are?

Péter Losonczi: The main organiser of the demonstration is the Association of Hungarian Students at the University of Louvain (a Louveni Magyar Diákok Egyesülete - LEMDE). Strictly speaking there were five of us who took part in the work of organising the demonstration: Balázs Vizi, Géza Szeravits, Gergely Juhász, Kinga Kalocsai and myself, Péter Losonczi. We subsequently managed to win the Louvain Students' Organisation over to our cause and then we were fortunate enough to get in touch with the international organisation of Friends of the Earth, which took part in the preparatory work not simply by giving us support, but also as an organiser. We were also given support by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

CER: What do you think of the turn-out? How many people did you expect would turn up for the demonstration?

PL: There are about 70 Hungarian students at the University, but not everyone can come here today, unfortunately, as many are sitting exams or studying for forthcoming exams. We expected between 50 and 100 people to come, and in the end there are 60. The Friends of the Earth (FoE) representative tells me this is a good turn-out, and I think it's a big success. We heard that in Budapest, unfortunately, only 200 people were present at the demonstration organised to protest against the pollution. We are also glad to have Romanian and American students at the demonstration. But, on the other hand, we are a bit surprised by the neutrality of the Belgian Hungarian communities and that of the Embassy of the Republic of Hungary.

CER: Why did you select the European Parliament as the starting point for your demonstration?

PL: We do not feel that this matter is simply Hungarian or Central European, as the Tisza was one of the richest living water habitats of Europe as a whole, and it was murdered in the course of three days. We believe that, although we are not yet members of the European Union, we must protect nature as emphatically and we must realise that the significance of the events is the same for us in Hungary as it is in the West. What we thought was that since we are here in Belgium, the centre of the EU, as students anyway we have a duty to speak out and to make out voices heard.

CER: Can the EU in your opinion do anything to alleviate the long-term effects of this appalling catastrophe? Do you believe that politicians have a responsibility to take action?

PL: I certainly do, and on many different levels. We sent letters and invitations, for example to Mrs Wallström, who is responsible for nature conservation within the European Commission as well as to other EU organisations in the interests of on the one hand encouraging them to provide financial and expert aid to the countries affected and on the other of bringing a united front of pressure to bear on the Australian government and the company concerned. Thirdly, the countries we are dealing with here were cut off for several decades from the process of development in the united Europe and they would now like to accede to the EU. This affair must not be allowed to delay or impede the enlargement process in any way. Unfortunately, there have been statements to this effect, and whatever happens we would like to stress that we should not be put at a disadvantage because of what happened, since we are the ones who have had to suffer the effects of the disaster.

CER: Do you think that EU membership would prevent such a disaster from happening in the future?

PL: It is clear many Western investors in Central Europe, in Asia and so on, try to avoid those ecological and human norms that they accept in the so-called developed countries. That said, it is equally clear that such an accident could also happen in an EU member country (as happened in Spain). Still, I suspect that if such a disaster occurred in an EU member state, we would see more positive and responsible behaviour from the EU.

CER: During the last Strasbourg part-session of the European Parliament, a speech was devoted to the Tisza disaster. Have you heard the very positive contribution made by Commissioner Chris Patten, in which he clearly states who is responsible for the incident and delineates the EU's role in alleviating the effects of the disaster?

PL: Unfortunately, I haven't, but if I may be allowed to make a general point, I feel that it is very important for the issue of responsibility to be clarified by every party involved. This is precisely the sort of issue that does not just affect individual national governments or individual companies, but has a global dimension. There is a global responsibility here and the task in hand is global as well: co-operation can only become a reality once the questions of who is responsible, what the scope of authority was and what mistakes might have been made are cleared up and that this should be done as soon as possible.

CER: On the question of responsibility, do you think that the cyanide leak is a result of Esmeralda neglecting the environment in a drive for profits, or can it be put down to negligence on the part of both the Romanian government and the Australian company?

PL: I think these factors peculiarly "coincided" in Romania, or in other countries being in a similar situation.

CER: How do rate the responses from the Hungarian government so far? By this I mean the initial measures taken to protect the population and the speed by which Hungary alerted and informed the European Union. Should the Hungarian government have asked for international assistance much sooner?

PL: On the one hand, the Hungarian government quickly appointed a special envoy, Mr Gönczy, to coordinate governmental actions in this regard. The legal actions are supervised and managed by the former president of the Constitutional Court, Mr Sólyom. On the other hand, we know about the criticisms addressed from different sides to the Minister of the Environment, Mr Pepó. For us, their criticisms seem reasonable. However, we disagree with those different political groups who tried to use this issue against the government. We feel that such actions weaken the efficiency of the necessary legal and political steps.

CER: Do you see the cyanide leak as a problem between the countries affected and the Australian side, or rather as a Hungarian-Romanian problem? This is, after all, not the first time the Tisza has been polluted by Romania. Would in your view inter-state treaties minimise the likelihood of a repeat of such a disaster?

PL: Naturally, it is a Hungarian-Romanian problem, too. We hope that the Romanian government will be able to step beyond certain prejudices and realise our common interest in environmental protection. We were sad to hear about the ambivalent declarations of the Romanian environment minister. All parties and countries in the region are to realize that the Carpathian Basin is one geographical and ecological unity. But, as I mentioned before, this is a more complex issue, and certainly a problem between the richer and poorer nations.

CER: The Australian government and Esmeralda Exploration have made some rather remarkable comments on the reason why tonnes of fish died. What is your view on this?

PL: These are the cynical reactions that motivated us to mobilise a broader public on this issue. I could characterise their attitude with the following example. Imagine that a kangaroo was hit by a car in the desert and someone claimed that the kangaroo died because of exposure to the sun.

CER: What action do you think Hungary should take against the Australian company and the government there? Do you think that Hungary, and the other countries in the region, will be successful in demanding compensation?

PL: The Hungarian government has already moved toward legal actions, and we welcome this. We deeply hope that the company and the involved governments of Australia and Romania will give a reasonable compensation.

CER: What do you intend to do in front of the Australian Embassy today?

PL: We intend to give a number of speeches there. We would certainly like our demonstration to be a peaceful one, as it is not our wish to kick up a row in the bad sense of the term. Instead, what we want to do is to prove that the representatives of a region, which, for the time being at least, is not in a position to attract the same amount of attention as other regions in Europe are also capable of standing up for their rights in a dignified, but very resolute manner.

CER: What specific actions are you demanding that the Australian company and the Australian government take?

PL: In the petition we ask:

1. Please, give correct information to the Australian public on the present situation, the damages caused and the consequences of the pollution, and the responsibility of the Australian owner.

2. In view of the damages caused and the Pan-European effects of the pollution, we call on the Australian government to provide all possible professional and financial, as well as moral support, to all the countries and regions concerned.

3. Please, find the necessary legal and political means to ensure that all Australian investors respect the environmental standards and human norms.

In the meantime, the assembled crowd of protestors had picked up their assorted banners, with slogans such as "Nature is our Gold Reserve!" and distressing pictures of the aftermath of the poisoning with piles of rotting dead fish. A large blue plastic sheet symbolising the Tisza was borne aloft by several participants and one young woman carried a jar with a live fish. I turned to Balázs Vizi to enquire about the latter:

CER: Would you be kind enough to tell me about what the fish symbolises?

BV: This fish represents nature abandoned to its fate. The fish is the last survivor in the Tisza.

CER: Does the fish really come from the Tisza?

BV: No, but it is the same type of species, a bream, as lives in the Tisza as well as other rivers. As you can read on one of our banners "Don't abandon us!" The slogan is exactly the sort of thing that this little fish would say.

Prompted by the impatient sirens of the police, the procession began winding its way through the narrow side streets, bringing traffic to a halt, much to the delight of the marchers. Péter Losonczi led his followers in chants in a mixture of English and Hungarian:

Save the Environment! Come and Join Us!

Environment is our common heritage!

We are demonstrating against the cyanide pollution in Central Europe!

Don't poison nature!

Aki magyar, velünk tart!

Hajrá magyarok!

Central Europe is Europe as well!

A folyóink a miéink (our rivers are ours)!

Poisoners go home!

We need no gold, we need nature!

Gold no, Tisza yes!

That the prevailing mood was cheerful rather than sombre can be shown by a gem of typical Hungarian humour as two stragglers rushed to mingle with the rest and were urged to "go to the back to act as a crowd" (menjetek tömegnek hátra!).

By this time, we had reached the Australian Embassy in Rue Guimard, a soulless, though immaculate, office block tucked away discreetly amongst countless other functional edifices, its flag lashed mercilessly by the bitterly chill wind. Bemused police officers blocked the entrance, as the demonstrators took up position on the cobbled roadway. A solitary embassy official sheepishly peered from his vantage-point behind the protective pane of glass several storeys above.

Péter Losonczi was the first to speak (in Hungarian):

My dear friends! We have come here today to make our voices heard! To protest against the irresponsible devastation of the natural treasures of Central Europe! To draw the attention of European and world public opinion to the fact that the pollution that made its way down the Szamos, the Tisza and the Lower Danube has wreaked a trail of havoc that will last for years and even decades! To draw attention to the fact that the catastrophe that struck the peoples, who together inhabit the Carpathian Basin was not merely an ecological one, but has also caused them to suffer economic damage on a scale that cannot yet be calculated fully. We must get to grips with more than just the task of preventing further damage by assisting in the restoration of a complex biosphere.

There are further important challenges to face up to. We must avert the danger to drinking water supplies, we must guarantee the necessary preconditions for activities in the realm of agriculture and fisheries, we must restore the confidence, which is absolutely essential to the development of the tourist sector. May we in all honesty contend that the losses incurred were ours alone? Is it not true that the drastic extent of the annihilation of countless species native to the Tisza, such as the lápi póc [a species of mud-minnow], the réti csík [a species of loach], the tiszai ingola [Lampetra fluviatilis, a species of lamprey] and, of course the tiszavirág [a species of mayfly], represents a loss common to all humanity? It is possible that the tragedy that has struck us now is merely one chapter of a long story, although we cannot see it yet.

This is a story about the behaviour of investors, who, in the interests of short-term gain, irresponsibly endanger a natural environment, which bears the mark of millions of years of evolution. All of this simply provides yet another clear illustration of our global responsibility, of our mutual interdependence within our region and it equally clearly shows that any kind of economic and social development depends for its successful realisation on respect for the interests of the natural and human environment. The individuals, who attempted to trivialise the true significance of the affair by playing down the dangers of contamination, pointing to the "beneficial" effects of cyanide on the organism and by cynically explaining away the death of the fish as a result of the water temperature must also be aware of the real issues at stake! We know that we are not alone! The world's leading news agencies, civil organisations, the Commission of the European Union and those, who take part in political and public life in Europe are all aware of the affair's significance.

We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone, who has stood by us in our hour of need! Particularly to the Student Board of the Catholic University of Louvain, to the Friends of the Earth organisation and to the other international environmental organisations that have supported and assisted us in holding this demonstration! Perhaps they are not even aware of what it really means for students to be able to hold this demonstration in Brussels, in the centre of the European Union. We know that taking action in this matter is the task of the governments of the countries affected by it. We hope, nevertheless, that this demonstration will provide them with important moral support in the work that lies ahead of them. If we succeed in that undertaking, the demonstration will have served its purpose!

Thank you for listening!

The speech was repeated in Flemish and French, interspersed with cries of "Save the Rivers of Europe!"

Balázs Vizi then gave his version of the speech in English:

Dear friends! I do not know how many of you have ever heard of the River Tisza before and whether any of you could locate it on a map. I suppose that only those of us, who come from Hungary, Romania and Serbia are crying, those of us who have been enchanted by this river know it well. It is not your fault. In past decades, neither side of these politically long-separated countries of Europe has had much information about the other. Today the situation is different. In the past ten years, everyone has been speaking about the reunification of Europe, about the common cultural heritage of our peoples, about the common European values that we all share.

Today we see that there are many issues, good and bad, that unite us. Our concern for the protection of the environment is a positive concept that we all feel to be of great importance. Thus, the global poisoning of rich European rivers is reason, albeit a negative one, that serves to unite us here for this demonstration. What happened to the Rivers Tisza, Szamos and Danube is an ecological and human catastrophe for all of Europe. The cyanide emitted by the responsible Australian-Romanian joint venture gold mine in Romania has poisoned the waters of several countries. The cyanide severely polluted not only the river Szamos in Romania, but also the waters of the Tisza and Danube in Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, threatening the extinction of the ecological richness of the region, whilst also endangering the waters of life [presumably the waters that provide a livelihood] and everyday life of millions of people who live along the riverside.

The general protest evoked by the accident and our demonstration today clearly show that such irresponsibility cannot be tolerated in the Europe of today [cries of "Yes!" and applause]. Investor countries claim that continuous efforts are made to achieve general acknowledgement for the protection of natural heritage. We should not need to restart this struggle in other parts of the world, but we should make it unequivocally clear that the ecological norms applied in Western countries are not regional norms, but global standards to be respected everywhere, in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in other less developed continents. No one can violate these norms, no profit-motivated reason can justify the destruction of nature, the destruction of living economic resources of people.

Politicians are talking about building a new Europe, but this new Europe can be built only one way: by our united efforts to realise the true community of our nations and our united efforts to avoid environmental danger, such as this ecological catastrophe. This demonstration is the new Europe, the common solidarity, which we all feel with those, who suffer the consequences of this pollution, those, who want to preserve the natural variety of our countries. Today we have come here to Brussels, the capital of the European Union, an organisation which our countries are committed to join.

But this ongoing European integration cannot go ahead without the universal respect for environmental and human values. Candidate countries like Romania also have to pay much greater attention to these things in order to prevent such accidents in the future. However, [...] the Western governments as the Australian government should also create and apply the necessary legal and political framework to exercise pressure on business society to respect these environmental norms. Above all, investors from Australia or from any other country must learn very well that there is no place for the ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources in Europe [applause].

This demonstration testifies that there is a general concern about our common ecological heritage. The fact that we are now together demonstrating here shows that the peoples of Europe are already united in the protection of the environment and that we all call for unconditional respect for it in every country.

Thank you for your attention!

The final speech was made by Patricia Lorenz on behalf of Friends of the Earth Europe. She began by contradicting Balázs Vizi, pointing out that the Tisza was equally famed for its beauty amongst the inhabitants of Austria and the Czech Republic, who had dubbed it a fisherman's paradise. These memories had, however, been firmly consigned to the past and the river would henceforward be famed for the ecological disaster that befell it, killing off the life in its waters and along its banks.

It was now the sad duty of Friends of the Earth both to inform the citizens of the world about what had happened and to ensure that they did not forget the catastrophe.

Perhaps the one positive effect of the tragedy would be to encourage the adoption of tougher legislation amongst all candidate countries. This would have the dual benefit of preventing similar destruction in the future and of affording immediate protection against the depredations of companies that are increasingly moving to Central and Eastern Europe precisely because they believe they can get away with practices that would be unacceptable in the more developed parts of Europe.

We caught up with Péter Losonczi once again.

CER: How did the Australian Embassy respond to your demands?

PL: The response of the representative of the Embassy, First Secretary Mr J Brown, was positive and correct. He took the petition that we handed over, and talked to the demonstrators as well.

CER: As you have handed over a petition to the Australian Embassy representative, do you think that Esmeralda Exploration primarily should be held responsible for the catastrophe?

PL: We were informed by Mr Brown that the Esmeralda representative finally contacted the effected countries and also the European Union.

CER: Was the demonstration a success in terms of informing the public about the pollution? As a result of the demonstration, will Australians be better informed about what has happened and also about the accountability of the Australian company?

PL: We hope, they will be informed. The press was well represented. Television broadcasters, radio stations and news agencies (Reuters, MTI) were present at the demonstration, and we also gave some interviews. The First Secretary of the Embassy, who took our petition, told us that different legal procedures are in progress against Esmeralda Exploration. In the meantime we have been informed that the Australian press also changed its tone and made efforts to give a true picture on the issue.

CER: In your opinion, will public opinion in Australia put pressure on the Australian government and Esmeralda Exploration Ltd to act?

PL: We have not heard about the details, but, for instance, Friends of the Earth in Australia have taken steps to draw public attention to the matter.

CER: What's your next move in pressing Australia to provide assistance and ensure that what has happened will not happed again?

PL: LEMDE is not an environmentalist organisation, however we will ask the FoE to continue to exercise pressure by all possible means.

Here in Brussels, Patricia Lorenz on behalf of Friends of the Earth Europe concluded her speech:

It is high time for the EU to come forward with a forceful environmental liability law instead of delaying it and delaying it like the EU has been doing up to now. The environmental liability law has to make companies pay full compensation for the damage they cause and this has to be introduced in candidate countries like Romania and Hungary at the same time, because otherwise it would be useless. Pollution doesn't respect borders. The whole of Europe should make it clear to companies that they can no longer get away with damaging the environment.

Amidst the enthusiastic applause, the youngest protestor, pushed to the embassy in a pram by her mother, began to grow restless. As I turned to leave (my plane was due to leave uncomfortably soon), a few mournful drops of rain fell from the forbidding sky.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi with Paul Nemes, 5 March 2000

Read part one of this series HERE
Read part two of this series HERE.

Note: readers may be interested in consulting the brief English-language summary of events on the Hungarian Ministry of the Environment web site at: http://www.ktm.hu/cian/QuickReport.htm

Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary



A Failed Protest

Martin Mejstřík
'89 Student Leader

Revolting Students?

Glory or Glorification
Book Review


Sam Vaknin:
Faustian Financiers

Catherine Lovatt:
Dirty Elections


Haider or History?

Aquatic Chernobyl

Balkan Burden

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