Danube dam splits nations

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The Independent Online
Relations between Hungary and Slovakia have started 1993 on a bad note, with a deepening row over a hydro-electric dam project on the Danube river frontier between the two countries. Western governments are closely watching the dispute, fearful that it is fuelling more problems in a region plagued by historical rivalries and by ethnic tensions in the post- Communist era.

'The whole issue became important for Europe when it became clear that it could turn into a new political conflict in the region. This is exactly what everyone wanted to avoid,' Janos Martonyi, the State Secretary at Hungary's Foreign Ministry, said in an interview yesterday.

The argument over the Gabcikovo dam flared in earnest last October, when Slovakia ignored Hungary's appeals to suspend the project and began diverting the Danube in order to power the dam's turbines. Hungary complained that the action not only threatened an ecological catastrophe but had the effect of redrawing the international frontier to Slovakia's advantage.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Community, stepped in as a mediator and persuaded Hungary and Slovakia to accept two principles: pending a full settlement, the dam's turbines should not be used and 95 per cent of the diverted water should be redirected to the Danube. But Mr Martonyi, Hungary's chief representative at the talks with the EC and Slovakia, said the Slovaks had not honoured this agreement.

He said the turbines had been operating over the past two months and Slovakia had redirected on average only about 25 per cent of the Danube's water instead of the agreed 95 per cent. 'The natural water flow can vary from 600 or 700 to 10,000 cubic metres per second, but it averages more than 2,000. Recently we have got only 200 cubic metres per second, which is next to nothing.'

In other words, Slovakia is pressing ahead with its plans regardless, and a part of the Danube that is an important wildlife preserve and provides drinking water for millions could turn into a small creek or swamp.

Slovakia's version is different: officials in Bratislava say the project will protect forests that are in the flood plain and boost port traffic as well as providing a new energy supply.

The crucial problem is that the Slovak government sees the Gabcikovo dam almost as a symbol of the new nationhood that was crowned on 1 January by the achievement of full independence for the first time in Slovak history. 'The dam is much more than an energy-producing device. If it were only that, you could find ways of compensating the Slovaks, but it is very difficult to find a solution when one side says that this is something inherent in its national sovereignty and pride,' Mr Martonyi said. 'Any Slovak environmentalist who protested against the project used to be called an enemy of socialism. Now he is an enemy of the Slovak nation.'

To complicate matters, many of Slovakia's 600,000 Hungarian minority live in the area affected by the project. Budapest and Bratislava regularly trade charges about whether this minority is suffering discrimination.

Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia agreed to build the hydro-electric system in 1977, but mounting environmental concerns caused Hungary to pull out in 1989. Hungary now wants the whole matter to go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for judgment.

Mr Martonyi said Slovakia was insisting that a transitional agreement on water management of the Danube be reached before the dispute goes to The Hague.