Global Dialogues

In Hungary: The Politics of Toxic Sludge

I bumped into my colleague Virag Molnar the day before yesterday in our sociology department office, and asked her about the news coming out of Hungary.  To my shock, she revealed that she had a special connection to the disaster.  She also had telling insights about how the crisis is connected to major developments in the region and to particular struggles in Hungary.  I thought it would be important for her to share her observations with DC readers. -Jeff

Frankly, I would have never thought that my home town – a non-descript place of about 30,000 people in Western Hungary that was established as a socialist new town in Hungary’s postwar rush to build up heavy industries virtually from scratch – would become front page news in the New York Times and other international media outlets. But two weeks ago, during my early morning routine of drowsily surfing the Internet for my daily dosage of news I was confronted with surreal images of a rust-red landscape that looked like a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert or a sci-fi movie set on Mars but turned out to be pictures of the very region I come from.

My home town and the surrounding area became the site of Hungary’s worst environmental disaster when a reservoir containing toxic red sludge, the byproduct of aluminum production, burst and flooded several neighboring villages and small towns. The events are baffling and astonishing on multiple levels. The accident seemed unreal because in our quiet “Second-World” and EU-member complacency we have come to believe that this kind of environmental disaster occurs only in “less developed” regions where such disasters are enabled by a combination of cheap labor, lax regulations, disregard for the environment, outdated and dangerous technologies, complicit states and powerful multinationals.

The Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 in India, the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986, or most recently the Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania in 2000 that devastated the ecosystem of the River Tisza and parts of the Danube have all clearly exhibited most or all of these factors. But in the Hungarian case, the aluminum plant that uses the reservoir was owned and operated neither by greedy foreign multinationals nor a negligent Hungarian state. The plant was privatized in the mid-1990s, and after a few reshuffles, a group of Hungarian private entrepreneurs became its majority owners, among them a family of chemical engineers which has also been overseeing the plant’s day-to-day operations.

The disaster seemed unthinkable for the locals too. To me as a teenager growing up in the city, the reservoirs were seen not as a source of danger but of illicit adventure: we used to climb the massive artificial hills that were the reservoirs, which still harbored the red sludge but were no longer in use, to admire the moonlike landscape that was revealed on its plateau. And my parents have lived in this town for nearly fifty years, experiencing their share of the environmental degradation afflicted by socialist industrialization but never fathoming that a catastrophe of this magnitude awaited the region.

As a result of postsocialist restructuring most industrial activity (including coal mining) has also either ceased or been massively scaled back in the region after 1989. The aluminum plant is virtually the only company that is still open, as it was the most modern and viable of all the industries that existed here under socialism. In a region severely affected by deindustrialization, the plant remains the largest single employer in the town and surrounding areas. The reorganization that took place following privatization streamlined and modernized the company’s operations. Over 70% of its products are being exported to Western Europe and its facilities have been upgraded to bring them into compliance with comprehensive EU environmental regulations.

At the moment, there is still no obvious evidence that environmental and safety regulations were violated, though the pending investigation may prove otherwise…

The Seamy Side of Recovery

International media coverage has praised the swift and firm response of the Hungarian government which has done everything in its capacity to mitigate the effects of the disaster and provide relief to the victims, while promising ruthless punishment to all those responsible.  But the coverage has failed to illuminate that the stiff measures were also reinforced by political motivations, dovetailing with the populist statism that is quickly becoming the hallmark of the new conservative government. In fact the way in which the Hungarian parliament passed an extraordinary decree within a matter of a few days that allowed the immediate nationalization of the company and appointed a state commissioner to overtake its management smacks eerily of Putinism.

Namely, the Hungarian owners of the aluminum plant epitomize a key social type of postsocialist Eastern Europe: the socialist technocrat turned capitalist entrepreneur. The main owners were high level managers under socialism, trained mostly as industrial, mining and chemical engineers, who have built large fortunes in the “spontaneous” phase of privatization in the early 1990s while making good use of their former socialist political connections. (Both of the main owners of the plant are among the 50 richest Hungarians.) This group has been at the center of intense political and social criticism especially by conservatives in the past years, leading up to this year’s elections that the conservative FIDESZ has won by a landslide. The fact that the former socialist Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, had a similar social profile and was connected to the owners through various business dealings only intensified the resentment over the owners of the aluminum plant.

All in all, while the nationalization of the company that is responsible for Hungary’s worst ever environmental disaster may indeed have been necessary, it is also a powerful sign of a new political era in Hungary. A new era that will be marked by a strong leader (Viktor Orban) and a strong state: this time not with socialist but with a populist-nationalist face.