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

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Aquatic Chernobyl
Part Four: From disaster to debate

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

(read Aquatic Chernobyl part one, part two and part three)

On 28 February, the Tisza River disaster was finally dealt with in the Hungarian Parliament in a so-called pre-agenda debate. Rather than cataloguing the well-known effects of the cyanide pollution, the speakers concentrated on defining what remains to be done.

József Szájer, on behalf of Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), contrasted the devastating effects of the disaster with the indomitable human spirit that manifested itself in the nation's readiness to rally round the afflicted, taking action instead of sinking into despair:

Mr Speaker, Prime Minister, Honourable Members! In the last few weeks we have been confronted by the terrible and as of yet unforeseeable consequences of human irresponsibility. The cyanide pollution has caused an ecological catastrophe in the regions of the Szamos and the Tisza and now also in the Danube region, putting the communities of hundreds of thousands of citizens at direct risk, as well as threatening their livelihoods and their homes.

A significant part of the unique biosphere peculiar to the Tisza and the Szamos has already perished, alongside a significant proportion not just of the fish, but of the food chain as a whole. The ways of life that have adapted to the river, fisheries, farming on the flood plain, providing hospitality for visiting guests and our national treasures have been partially destroyed, and part of the damage done cannot be remedied.

"The reality of our times is the vulnerability of our earth", said President Kennedy. The dreadful catastrophe must draw our attention to human responsibility, to the burden of responsibility we all share, which we owe to ourselves, to our environment, but most of all to our descendants. "The true owners of the Earth have not yet been born", as the American saying goes.

The generations that succeed us, our children and grandchildren will be the ones who assess what we do today. Our descendants will sit in judgement upon us, let us never lose sight of that!

The catastrophe proves that in the twinkling of an eye we can lose something, which we believed to be eternal and always took for granted, we can see it reduced to nothing in the space of a few moments: the safety of our environment. The safety of our environment, dear colleagues, is one and the same as the safety of our family, as our own safety. The two are inseparable. Our principle assets are the air that we breathe, the water we consume and the soil that nourishes us. We can only protect the world from the ravages of destruction by standing together, by collaborating. Disasters draw our attention to the ineluctable need for prevention and protection.

The catastrophe that has unfolded in the Szamos and Tisza region is a tragedy shared by the nation, by the country as a whole. Damage prevention and the slump in the tourist trade might cause economic losses that extend beyond the immediate region. The brunt of the damage, however, was borne by the narrower confines of the region directly affected.

The attitude of the region's inhabitants, of the local authorities and of the government prevented even more serious pollution from arising, warding off immediate danger to human life, health and drinking water supplies. It is beyond all shadow of a doubt that one of the worst environmental disasters in recent times in Europe has had a major impact on the entire country. The sight of the dead animals, of the death throes of other animals shocked public opinion to the core. Across the length and breadth of the country signs of sympathy have been apparent on the part of all those, who feel that their livelihoods were lost with the poisoning of the Szamos and the Tisza, that their nets will remain empty in the years to come.

Honourable House! The response of citizens to the disastrous situation serves as an example to us all. The maturity and wisdom with which even graver danger to human lives was averted, the spirit of helpfulness in which private individuals and organisations in many parts of the country offered their assistance all testify to an extraordinary sense of responsibility and compassion.

The damage done to nature in the region must be healed. Nor can the government abandon those, whose livelihoods have been threatened to their fate. Similarly, the question of what kind of international system of liability for damages we deem necessary to establish is unavoidable, honourable colleagues, since the responsibility is not that of each company, but also on a secondary basis is that of the state, whose environmental regulations were either not stringent enough or, if they were stringent enough, did not respect them.

Honourable Members! If we do not prove able to stop the further devastation of our environment, we can start speaking of our future in the past tense. Every last one of us must act to protect nature and our environment, we must act together for the sake of our own future and that of our children!

In a measured and dignified speech, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sketched out the government's plans for the next steps to be taken:

Indeed what we are dealing with here is damage of such seriousness, of an order of magnitude that is virtually impossible to quantify, which not only destroyed the waters of an entire river, but also its whole biosphere along with the lives of the inhabitants of the Tisza Valley and their communities. In the government's view, the damage occurred in a way that could not be foreseen and could not be prevented in any substantial sense of the word.

I can inform the Honourable House that, in spite of the seriousness of the damage done, no human lives were lost, and we hope that this will continue to be the case in the future. Joint action taken by local residents, civil organisations and the central and local branches of government meant that the pollution could be contained between the banks of the Tisza, water authority officials succeeded in keeping the reservoirs clean, in preserving the backwaters as far as circumstances would allow, in limiting the damage done to the Tisza Lake to the absolute minimum possible and in safeguarding the water supply systems of nearby communities, primarily that of the city most exposed to danger, Szolnok.

The work of assessing the damage, compiling data and processing that data in laboratories has been carried out from the very outset on a systematic and exemplary basis. At the same time, we made use of the diplomatic channels open to us to launch negotiations in order to determine who was responsible, to co-operate at intergovernmental level and to seek international assistance.

A Government Commissioner has been appointed to co-ordinate the tasks that lie ahead of us.

I would like to express my thanks to the inhabitants of the Tisza Valley, who endured the blow that struck them with astounding discipline, solidarity and collaboration and who did everything in their power to stave off an even greater tragedy. I would also like to thank the civil and professional organisations for their work, as they have been of help to us in mitigating the damage up to now.

I can group the work that lies ahead of us into five categories, the first of which is assessing the damage done. This work is already being done. According to experts the earliest stage at which we can expect a final and accurate picture of the damage to emerge will be sometime towards the end of summer.

I would include the work of alleviating the concerns about making ends meet experienced by the inhabitants of the Tisza Valley in the second cluster of tasks. Of all the duties to be performed by the Commissioner this is perhaps the most important. He will seek, and I hope that he will find, the means of allowing the inhabitants of the Tisza region to take part in the work of reviving the river and, in so doing, ensuring that the government is able to provide them with the necessary income for them to earn a living, even if the work that they do is not that work that they did earlier, though it will still be linked to the Tisza.

Here I would like to indicate my wish for help from all parties represented in this Parliament in restoring confidence both at home and abroad in the Tisza Valley and in the food products cultivated, monitored and deemed suitable for marketing there in the interests of limiting the damage done in the tourist and agricultural sectors.

The third task incumbent upon us is the resurrection of the Tisza Valley biosphere. As of yet we cannot say to what extent nature should be left in peace to activate its self-regenerating capacity and to what extent government-directed intervention is necessary.

The fourth task is that we must prevent further cases of a similar nature, and we must expedite collaboration with our neighbours as well as modernising the agreements on environmental protection agreements and frontier watercourses.

Fifth, and by way of conclusion, we must produce the necessary resources in order to carry out this work. I would like to inform public opinion via the Parliament and the television that no work will fail to be done because of a lack of money.

If necessary, money will be redirected from within the Ministries themselves and, if there is no other option open, then the budgetary reserves will be mobilised and channelled in such a way that the government will ensure the costs of all the necessary work will be covered.

Finally, I would like to ask government and opposition members alike to give their support to the Tisza Commissioner: there are many political parties, but only one Tisza. For this reason I would like to ask everyone, who has proposals, recommendations or a wish to bring about improvements, to turn with full confidence to the Commissioner, who has just been appointed and whose office has opened today in Magyar utca.

Sándor Lezsák, on behalf of the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) conveyed a message from the Tisza region:

The tragedy has already happened, and we cannot do anything about changing that. Once again we have to experience a Mohács [the defeat suffered at the hands of the Turks, that led to the occupation of Hungary, the last vestiges of resistance quashed - the connotations are so redolent of complete rout that Mohács has become a byword and is used in many expressions in Hungarian accordingly] in order to capture public attention able to take action and to muster the will on the part of the government to show concern about the Tisza.

On Friday, the Tisza Association held a conference in the People's Academy in Lakitelek. In front of representatives of both government and opposition parties, the Mayors of towns and cities along the banks of the Tisza charged me with the task of presenting their declaration to the honourable House. It was adopted on Friday by 96% of the 137 settlements along the Tisza.

I hand over the declaration to the Environment Committee. Both the declaration and the speeches and other contributions to the debate presented by experts at the conference at Lakitelek put it on record that water safety has become one of the most important issues in the security policy of the country as a whole today. Viewed from the perspective of water quantity, the danger is permanent: floods, inland waters, drought, but the situation has perhaps become even more dramatic because of the continuous pollution of water resources.

In the interests of the process of rebirth and convalescence of the Szamos and the Tisza and, on behalf of the Tisza Association, we ask for Parliament and the government to take the following measures at national and international level: the agreements and treaties concerning water-related matters concluded with our neighbours in the shared catchment areas should be reviewed and put in order in a uniform fashion.

We should designate the areas along the banks of the Tisza as special environmental protection zones, since the current situation - according to which
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certain sections enjoy environmental protection whilst chemicals may be used freely in farms and untreated waste water is released into the river along other parts of the Tisza - cannot be described as a solution.

The declaration, signed by 132 mayors, emphatically requests the Parliament and the government that the towns, cities and villages situated along the banks of the Tisza should all be classified as disadvantaged and therefore entitled to favourable treatment including state subsidies as the economic damage that followed in the wake of the ecological catastrophe will continue to affect these communities in the years to come.

The national rural development plan about to be adopted should stipulate that regulating the rural-planning situation of the region along the banks of the Tisza is something that affects the interests of the country as a whole and that the decision concerning it should be dealt with at Parliamentary level and should enter into force in a similar way to the provisions concerning Lake Balaton.

The Tisza Association's declaration also touches on the issue of developing a transport network that would improve links within the region itself, on the Tisza Valley programme for the management of solid and liquid waste, on promoting environmental awareness in economic development, on increasing the proportion of natural forests, on building the monitoring system up further, on developing environmentally-friendly industry, on finding and tapping human resources and on creating the basic preconditions for providing hospitality within the tourist sector.

The tragedy has already happened and now it is up to the environmental experts, lawyers and economists to assess the damage and its consequences in an objective manner. No stone should be left unturned in ensuring that a further catastrophe is not allowed to happen.

Several mayors also asked me to pass on the following thought to the honourable House: let us refrain from making any statements that might cause panic, since any statement that places the good reputation of the Tisza Lake region in jeopardy may end up hindering tourism and economic development for many a long year. Let us not forget that the competition will not fail to use this against us...

Finally, as a Member of Parliament elected from a constituency along the banks of the Tisza, I would like to make the following point: like everyone else in the country, like you yourselves, my dear colleagues, I have found it very difficult to come to terms with everything that has happened to the Szamos and the Tisza...

"There is a sick person in the house," we keep on saying. The Tisza is now seriously ill and if we have a sick person in the house, in the country, then it is the duty of every relative to use every opportunity and instrument at his disposal to assist a recovery as swiftly as possible. Political scuffles are out of place, that is the message of the Tisza Association.

István Csurka, of the MIEP (Hungarian Justice and Life Party), no stranger to controversy, took the floor and provoked a strong reaction:

Thank you for giving me the floor, Mr Speaker. Honourable House! I do not know what kind of coffins the bodies of the Russian soldiers who died in Csechnya will be sent home in, or even if they will be sent home at all, but I do know that nobody amongst those who extinguished the lives of these innocent young men will be made to stand trial as a war criminal in front of the Nüremberg court in a hurry.

I hardly believe either that the unfortunate fishermen of the Tisza, who, as a result of the pollution caused by the Aurul company, have been deprived of a livelihood, will get hold of a single penny from Romania in a hurry, but I do know that the timetable for accession to the European Union will be considerably retarded by this and previous episodes of poisoning in our rivers.

When the most recent phenol and manganese poisoning hits the Kraszna and the Romanian Minister of the Environment announces that he saw on Hungarian news broadcasts images of dead fish types that are not even to be found in the Tisza and that the Hungarians themselves poisoned their beloved river to throw Romania's responsibility into high relief, in other words, to prove that Romania is not ripe for Euro-Atlantic integration then anyone with an ounce of knowledge about the situation must surely feel a suspicion of malice aforethought.

Romania is one concentric circle away from us in terms of European accession. In the course of the current electoral battle the post-Communist forces are getting ready to depose their rivals, the same forces as signed the Horn government's Basic Treaty (on good neighbourly relations), and who cultivated a bloody good friendship with him, are hostile to accession, whether they show this openly or attempt to conceal it.

If they were to come to power soon - which would seem to be fairly likely prospect - then Hungary's accession is likely to coincide with their term of office in government. This is something, which Romanian society, particularly in Transylvania, would experience as a Romanian defeat, however. Do they really need this? Wouldn't it be better for Hungary not to accede in a hurry?

We in the MIEP are not unconditional believers in EU accession. We would like the Hungarian people to take a free decision concerning accession fully appraised of all the advantages and disadvantages it would entail. We also say straight out that the Euro-blindness, which is beginning to hold sway here, which is willing to break our already fragmented freedom into even smaller pieces and which is willing to sacrifice, to Brusselise even that tiny remnant of freedom in order to attain a false aim does not please us one bit.

This is precisely why we must draw the government's attention to the fact that this succession of ever more serious incidents of river pollution is not a matter of coincidence and that the assumption about what lies
Dead fish
All dead
[Photo by Eccephoto]
behind them appears justified when it sees in them that counter-interest, which either takes home bodies from their place of death or not, which gives them an orthodox funeral or not.

We have to make the leaders of Europe understand that the pollution of the Tisza began in Trianon and that all of it, lock, stock and barrel, is a result of that tragically wrong decision. This wrong decision split asunder an organic whole, of which one part wishes to accede to great Western Europe sooner and the other later, if at all. The way this stands at the moment is no good.

It is no good for us, for them or for the West! First of all, relations have to sorted out fairly - and that includes the frontiers - and peoples have to be made to cease causing each other damage, butchering each other, perpetrating genocide and shortening the lives of their own citizens. A war has already taken place in our immediate vicinity and it was a complete failure. The war against environmental pollution has been waged for decades now, but the status quo established at Trianon is maintained.

Can this be seen from behind the mountains of paperwork in Brussels? Let's look the facts head on: Trianon is flowing down the Tisza with the boundless indifference of the East. We are perishing a la Europe and we are not protesting against what we should be protesting against. Let us speak openly and frankly, as this is the only means of keeping alive.

Zsolt Németh, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took up the gauntlet immediately:

As far as István Csurka's hypothesis concerning deliberate cyanide poisoning on the part of Romania is concerned, I must unfortunately point out that I am not in a position to confirm it. [This use of the word "unfortunately" was instantly seized upon by the opposition, who began heckling]

There is not a shred of evidence to substantiate allegations of deliberate malice in conjunction with the poisoning. Secondly, allow me to stress, as regards the matter of whether the Romanian Illiescu opposition is anti-Europe, Mr Head of Political Group (Csurka) that the jury is still out on that one, the situation is as of yet unclear, we know nothing about the stance of Illiescu and the political forces rallied around him on either extremism, minority rights or the European Union.

This is why I believe that Hungarian domestic policy should manifest as much restraint as possible concerning the Romanian electoral campaign in the forthcoming year. It is possible that an anti-European line will gain the upper hand, but it is also possible that the Romanian opposition will recognise that it is not able to pick up where the Romanian opposition of 1996 left off and that the only option open to it is to accept a stance in conformity with the move towards European accession.

My third comment is a response to the remark on the pollution of the Tisza beginning in Trianon. Allow me to observe that the Carpathian Basin indisputably forms an ecological unit and that, for this very reason, it is extremely important for the Hungarian government to conclude at long last the bilateral disaster-prevention and frontier-water protection agreements, which the Romanian side has been unwilling to outline, sign or ratify for the last ten years.

We are delighted to see that there has not only been some movement on this front on the basis of the bilateral negotiations I conducted last week in Bucharest, but also that the stance adopted by Mr Verheugen, the EU Commissioner responsible for Enlargement, is unequivocal. He believes that any attempts to procrastinate in concluding these agreements, or - God forbid! - to obstruct them is unacceptable.

I believe that both parties must certainly make use of this opportunity to do more than clearing up the specific damage caused and should conclude these agreements, thereby creating the unambiguous legal basis, which would make the type of disaster we have fallen victim to avoidable.

Gábor Kuncze from the SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) wound up the debate:

Everyone has said that what happened was a tragedy. On that we agree, dear colleagues.

At the same time, I must say that whereas we cannot undo the tragedy itself, we can nevertheless draw lessons for the future from it and that it is from this point of view that our opinion should be examined when we wonder whether the government's conduct has been appropriate throughout this whole process.

If, colleagues, we now all agree that a catastrophe has occurred we must ask the question as to why, a week after the pollution took place, the relevant government officials said that the situation could not be described as a tragedy and that nothing had to be done about it from this point of view.

We must ask ourselves why we did not call on appropriate experts from the European Union to come to Hungary immediately in order to be able to document the seriousness of the pollution, as we might well have problems from this point of view looking ahead to the future. We must ask the question, dear colleagues, as to whether the recently adopted law on disasters worked or whether it proved a failure, or whether those, who ought to have implemented it failed.

It is worth learning these lessons, colleagues, it is worth examining this issue in the interests of avoiding similar problems in the future and of making sure that we are better able to protect ourselves from this type of damage and effects.

Now, I too would like to summarise in five points how our group views the issue of what has to be done in the weeks and months to come. In part these points are in harmony with what has been said by previous speakers.

I would give top priority to saying something to the people, who live in the region, because they comprise in part the individuals, who make a living directly from the waters, such as the fishermen, whose livelihoods have been threatened and in part those, who make a living out of
Tisza River Disaster
Cleaning up
[Photo by Eccephoto]
tourism, a significant number of whom has also seen livelihoods put at risk. It is indeed appropriate at this juncture to make reassuring statements to the effect that we want to resolve the issue, but we also need to be a bit more specific. Of course it is important, and I agree with it.

I also agree with what was said before I took the floor about assessing the damage and documenting it, since - if our international efforts bear fruit - we can count on full or partial reimbursement of the damage caused.

Investigations into what should be done by way of rehabilitation work must be speeded up because - I shall return to this point when I speak about tourism - this is a far more significant issue than whether pleasant work or even work of any kind should go on instead of proposals and solutions being produced quickly.

The co-operation treaties with neighbouring countries must be reviewed in this respect. I agree with the Prime Minister on the need for proposals to be made concerning compensation to be paid for the damage and that this should proceed along well-defined channels. It would appear that this problem could arise for us at any time and so a monitoring system that functions properly in practice must exist, the sources of danger abroad must be assessed and something has to be done about them with shared strength.

Finally, colleagues, there are tasks to be carried out at home as well, which is why we must learn the lessons of what happened. We must examine all sources of danger, including those that exist here in Hungary as well and which might really have an impact on the environment.

I would therefore propose that we implement the disaster-prevention law along these lines, that we should map out the possible sources of danger and prepare action plans with a view to averting disaster to the greatest possible extent.

What I would like to propose most of all is that from now on, publicity should concentrate on the solutions... Given that 93% of the water surface of the Tisza Lake remained unaffected, this paradise may continue to be at our disposal, but the reason why publicity must strive towards solutions is that the damage has already been done, that it is our task to clear it up, but that it is our task at the same time to bolster the country's good reputation in another way by making use of solutions and by pointing out that, leaving the catastrophe aside for a moment, this is a country worthy of attention from abroad.

Indeed, I must admit that I can relate to those closing sentiments concerning the amount of attention Hungary has attracted in the foreign media as a result of the disaster. I do not think that we hit the headlines quite as much even in the heady days of the Pan-European picnic.

What sort of image of us has been etched into the collective memory? That of a drab, defenceless little country vaguely situated towards the Eastern fringe of mainstream Europe at the mercy of rapacious foreign companies?

Or might it be the pictures of ashen-faced fishermen in their waders dumping huge dead fish into plastic bin bags, turning away choked with emotion as the inquisitive reporters pry into the impact of the catastrophe on their ability to make ends meet?

Or might it be the solemn funeral ceremonies held along the Tisza, with the flickering light of hundreds of tiny commemorative candles and the wreaths thrown into the murky waters, laden with symbolism? Sad irony, if this is what the world associates with us, the victims of a disaster not our making, if tourists are deterred from seeking out our unique concentration of healing spa waters and our many other natural treasures.

I for one shall be making the pilgrimage from the dusty streets of downtown Pest to our stricken river to hold a vigil for the ethereal dance of the Tisza flower [tiszavirág, a species of mayfly indigenous to the river].

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 March 2000

Read the earlier parts of the series Aquatic Chernobyl:

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


River Tisza
The Polluted River

Disaster to Debate

Once Is Not Enough!


Jan Čulík:
President Albright

Sam Vaknin:
Expat Experts

Catherine Lovatt:
Urbane Romanian



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