D E M O N S T R A T I O N IN W A S H I N G T O N:
Fish First, EU Entry Later
Hungarians converge on Romanian Embassy in cyanide protests
On 1 and 2 April demonstrators came together outside the Romanian Embassy in Washington to request that the Romanian government act after the contamination of the Tisza, Szamos and Danube rivers.
Upon my arrival at the Romanian embassy I was immediately issued with a black ribbon and handouts explaining why the demonstration was taking place. The pavement was covered with red paper fish. The glorious weather on the first day of the demonstration did not quite seem fitting for this occasion when demonstrators were trying to bring home the cruel reality facing the countries and peoples affected by the recent poisonous spills in Romania.
Although people with not roots all over Central and Eastern Europe had been invited to take part in the demonstration, mainly Hungarians seemed to have turned up for the first day of the demonstration. As almost everyone spoke Hungarian it soon became clear that this was a very Hungarian affair. This was also apparent in the handouts given to passers-by, which read: "After only a half-century of existence, Rumania doubled her size and began custodianship over resource-rich Transylvania. She is not living up to her obligations or to international standards and has become a danger to herself and her neighbours. Decades of Rumanian environmental neglect has crossed international boundaries and has led to the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl. Rumania has made it clear that she wishes accession to the EU. Is she ready?" One of the demonstrators told me that it was a little bit unfortunate that mostly Hungarians had turned up, as this might be seen as a weakness
Many of the protestors displayed placards. Some of which read: "Save Our Waters!," Stop the Pollution and Exploitation of Transylvania!," "Romania Clean Up Your Act!," "UN Environmental Protectorate for Transylvania!" A history of the recent waves of pollution and calls for action were read out in a loudspeaker. Many also held up red paper fish crucified on wooden crosses.
Under a green siege
Many those taking part in the demonstration, young and old, had travelled from all over the United States to take part in the weekend's events.
I was soon able to locate the group's leader, Róbert Imreh, who at the time was struggling to hold up two huge signs. Imreh, who is originally from Transylvania but is now a US citizen, gladly agreed to answer some questions on the spot.
CER: Can you please tell me something about who you and the other organisers are?
Róbert Imreh: We are part of the NGO National Coalition for Save our Rivers. We are a group of people who are expressing out concerns regarding the environmental disaster in Romania. I am based in Washington, DC, but many of us have come from all over the United States and even from Canada.
CER: What do you think about the turnout for the demonstration? Did you also contact other organisations?
RI: We expected more people to come, but this is still pretty good. Around 50 people have come and we are quite happy with this. We did contact other organisations, but unfortunately there was [some] miscommunication, and therefore no other organisation is present today. We hope that we will be joined by others tomorrow. We know that we have the support of the World Wildlife Fund and the Mineral Policy Institute. We also contacted the Romanian lobby. They said that they support us, but at the same time they did not want to take part in the demonstration, which is directed against their own country.
CER: What is the purpose of this protest, and what exactly do you aim to do at the Romanian Embassy today and tomorrow?
RI: We want to do three things. First, we want to bring the disaster to the attention of the media and the public. Second, we would like to see treaties signed between the countries in the region. We want measures that prevent future disasters to be taken. Liability should also be established, and compensation for the damage should be paid. We would also like to see the introduction of fines. We believe that this could prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. Thirdly, we also want to see those responsible prosecuted.
We demand that compensation is paid, not only for the short-term effects, but for the long-term as well. The lives of the peoples who live along the Tisza has been affected by these recent poisonous spills, and there should be some compensation for this.
CER: Do you plan to hand over a petition to the Romanian Embassy?
RI: No, we will not hand over a petition. We only want to raise awareness. The Romanians know very well why we are here. We simply want to bring this to the public's attention.
Many of the passers-by did not know about the environmental disaster in Central Europe, but were quickly informed by the demonstrators.
CER: What do you think about the response from the Hungarian government and the lawsuits that have been filed?
RI: I think that co-operation with Romania is the right way forward, but Hungary are right in demanding compensation. I also think that filing lawsuits is correct. If no action like this is taken the issue will just be forgotten.
CER: What immediate actions would you like the Romanian government to take?
RI: We have five demands.
1. Romania should compensate for all damages, including economic ones, and especially compensate its neighbours.
2. We want Romania to shut down all polluting mines and factories.
3. Romania should sign and adhere to the international treaties and laws for a) prevention, b) liability, c) damage compensation, d) non-compliance fines.
4. Clean up the environment first, and then a) spend money on weapons and the military and b) start EU talks.
5. Spend money on the environment instead of on Romanian Orthodox Churches in Transylvania, especially in the Székelyföld where 90 per cent of the population is of Hungarian ethnicity. Simply concentrate on the environment instead of on the forced assimilation of ethnic Hungarians.
We also think that those responsible have to be found. Those responsible should be dismissed and prosecuted, including directors and people in high positions.
CER: Do you think that EU membership would prevent disasters as those recently witnessed to happen in the future, or do you think that Romania should not be allowed to begin negotiations with the EU until they adhere to certain environmental standards?
RI: Romania should not be allowed to begin negotiations with the EU until they adhere to certain environmental standards.
CER: What was the response from the public and passers-by? Have you achieved your aim of informing the public and the press?
RI: Yes, we achieved our aim of bringing awareness - most of the public was very receptive.
CER: Do you think that public opinion will put pressure on the Romanian government to act?
RI: We certainly hope that this may have some positive impact on our cause - if not, we will organise more demonstrations...
CER: So you plan to take further steps to press for the acceptance of responsibility and compensation?
RI: Yes, we may organize even more demonstrations - worldwide.
Duna TV came along to film and interview the demonstrators, who then
grouped together just outside doors of the embassy and called out: "Stop the pollution of Transylvania." This was repeated many times, until the word Transylvania was exchanged for Hungary, then Vojvodina, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Slovakia, Europe, the World, the Tisza, the Danube, the rivers. Their message was made even clearer when the protestors began calling out "Polluter pays!"
I again caught up with one of the organisers, this time Gabriella Taylor (whose maiden name is Tomanovits) from New York.
CER: What does your organisation think about the European Union's role in this?
Gabriella Taylor: This was a very difficult issue, and opinions vary on this. Many think that the EU are not interested at all. The same goes for, for example, the World Bank. The EU has a responsibility to force Romania to adhere to certain environmental standards. It is the laws that are the problem. The peoples in the affected countries should make the laws, so that they will not risk being subjected to similar disasters again.
In the words of Róbert Imreh: In the name of those victims living along the Tisza river whose lives were destroyed for many years to come, and in the name of all Hungarians, Yugoslavians, Bulgarians, Romanians, other nations affected, and everyone who cares about the welfare of OUR PLANET: EARTH.
CER: I have not seen anyone from the Romanian Embassy. In fact, the Embassy looks dead quiet. Has there been any response from embassy personnel?
GT: The only embassy to respond was the Embassy of Hungary, not the Romanian Embassy! They phoned to say that this demonstration might harm the good relations between the Hungarian and Romanian embassies.
Paul Nemes, 1 April 2000
More information on the National Coalition for Save Our Rivers can be found here.