Beautiful Danube, ugly dispute Dam: A hydroelectric project has two former Iron Curtain countries in a legal and political wrangle that may get worse.


DOBROHOST, Slovakia -- Laszlo Beks leaves off gutting his modest haul of underweight trout and turns his eyes toward the silent marshland as if it held the ghost of a dead friend.

"The Danube?" he murmurs mournfully, nodding south across a belt of thirsty-looking poplar and silver birch that separates this tiny hamlet from Europe's longest river. "It's over there, beyond the trees."

The 62-year-old farmer is perched on a 15-foot-tall cobblestone embankment, built generations ago by villagers seeking protection against seasonal flooding. Not too long ago, the river formed a mighty delta here. Hundreds of meandering branches formed one of Europe's most important remaining wetlands. Each spring and fall, the main channel, which is the border between Slovakia and Hungary, burst its banks, flushing the surrounding bogs with nutrient-rich silt.

Then, in 1993, the Slovak government diverted 80 percent of the Danube's flow to power a new hydroelectric dam at the nearby town of Gabcikovo. Dobrohost was left sandwiched between the "New" concrete Danube and the "Old" Danube, which had become practically a trickle, flanked by 60-foot-wide mud flats thick with weeds and dried-out mussel shells.

Originally, the enterprise -- conceived during the Cold War as a showpiece of international socialist brotherhood -- was to have been a joint affair. Hungary was supposed to build a similar complex 90 miles downstream near Visegrad.

It always seemed a silly place to build a dam. Visegrad, where the river turns south through the wooded, game-laden Pilis hills toward Budapest, is one of Hungary's biggest tourist attractions. The 14th century castle -- the summer residence of Hungary's medieval kings -- once afforded spectacular views upstream. Even today, the view is stunning, as long as the visitor doesn't focus on the aquatic scrap yard below the castle walls.

"We apologize for the mess," says Sandor Hunyadi, a hotel owner and vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "All our guests say the same: 'It's such a shame. It's such a shame.' "

Across the river lies the village of Nagymaros, the site Hungary chose for its half of the Cold War-era hydroelectric plan. But when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the government in Budapest pulled out on environmental grounds, demanding that the plan be scrapped. While Slovakia went ahead with its side of the bargain, Hungary took its grievance to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Dutch capital.

Last summer, the judges came to the area to see for themselves. It was the first time in the tribunal's 52-year history that the judges had visited the site of a dispute. They had a lot to ponder. Independent on-site studies suggest that 90 percent of flora and fauna found in an area of 32,000 acres is threatened with extinction.

"We thought we had a clear-cut case," recalls Alexander Zinke, of the World Wildlife Fund in Vienna. "The trees are dying of thirst. The birds are leaving. It's a disaster."

Other equally impartial experts counter that now-dehydrated areas of Hungarian and Slovak wetland were in trouble before the dam's construction. Those experts say natural riverbed erosion had lowered the water level, preventing moisture from reaching vegetation.

Aside from ecological questions, however, there are powerful economic interests at stake in the Gabcikovo dispute. Germany recently finished building the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, linking the North Sea with the Black Sea. A key factor in persuading Bonn to spend $2.5 billion on the project was that Gabcikovo, with its system of shipping locks, would render the often turbulent Hungarian-Slovak stretch of the Danube navigable all year.

In the end, the judges found in Slovakia's favor. While chiding the government in Bratislava for going ahead with its plans, the judges ruled that Hungary acted unlawfully by pulling out of the venture. The judges gave the two sides until May 15 to settle their differences.

Months of talks followed that decision. Now Hungary, which is anxious to demonstrate its respect for international law and is a candidate for early NATO and European Union membership, has announced that it is willing to keep its side of the bargain. But there's a catch. Slovakia must reroute two-thirds of the feeder channel's flow back into the original riverbed.

To many Hungarians, the current government's proposal seems like spitting in the face of history. In the spring of 1989, mass demonstrations against the dam quickly became all-out, anti-communist protests.

"The 'Stop the Dam' thing did as much as Mikhail Gorbachev to pull down the Iron Curtain," recalls Janos Vargha, head of Danube Circle, a Budapest pressure group. "But nobody wants him back and no one wants the dam back either."

HTC Others oppose building a dam at Nagymaros on purely practical grounds.

At Gabcikovo "they don't have enough water," muses Zoltan Nagy, who farms in the low-lying area 20 miles upstream. "Our problem is different: It'll flood us out. Maybe I should start growing rice."

The Hungarian proposal also outraged the Slovaks, who immediately broke off talks and asked The Hague to reopen the case.

"How can we produce electricity from a tiny stream? What kind of a suggestion is that?" says Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. "They've been dealing in bad faith all along. They've been that way throughout history."

It could be that history, rather than electricity, is the real cause of the present impasse. About 560,000 ethnic Hungarians live on the Slovak side of the Danube, where they make up 11 percent of the country's population. Once, they ruled these parts, first under the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later, during World War II, Budapest was awarded the North Bank as an inducement to side with the Germans.

Today, the Bratislava regime is openly contemptuous of the land along its southern flank. The government arts minister dismisses the Gabcikovo region as "culturally contaminated." The Foreign Ministry refuses to allow extra road crossings to relieve congestion along the frontier for fear of "paving the way for Magyar militarist aggression."

With unneighborly rhetoric like that swirling around, many suspect the Hungarians have deliberately forced the Slovaks back to arbitration, confident the judges will see things differently next time.

They may be right: Slovakia was passed over for fast-track membership of both NATO and the European Union last fall, largely because of concerns over its human-rights record. Last month, a new law apparently designed to gerrymander racial minorities out of fair representation in the next parliamentary elections provoked international protest. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently called the regime "a black hole in the heart of Europe."

One thing is certain along the Danube: The Hague Court, if forced to reconvene this year, will need the wisdom of Solomon to keep everyone happy.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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