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Life after the red sludge disaster

On October 4th 2010, the wall of the waste reservoir of the MAL aluminium plant in western Hungary gave way. A million cubic metres of red sludge poured out over a number of settlements, with the town of Devecser and the village of Kolontar the worst hit. Nine people died, and whole districts had to be written off.

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Today, new houses have been built for those who lost their homes. But those whose houses survived say they still don't know what the real health risks are from the toxic mud and the red dust still blowing off the reservoir site. They also say they don't know exactly what happened to the millions of euros donated by Hungarians and foreigners to help them get back on their feet. With Hungary's government currently undergoing a barrage of criticism over its respect for democracy and its handling of the economic crisis, we take a closer look at how it has handled this other national crisis.

Viktor Orban's government actually won plaudits for its handling of the red sludge disaster. It reacted swiftly in initiating a clean-up operation, made plenty of cash available for the reconstruction effort, and built nice new houses for those whose homes had been destroyed. Even Benedek Jávor, parliamentary group leader of the smaller, newer opposition force, the Politics Can Be Different party (LMP), concedes that "they didn't do a bad job".

Tendencies to cronyism

Yet closer examination reveals that Fidesz, the ruling party, displayed in this operation many of the tendencies that have been worrying the European Union the most about Hungary lately: tendencies to cronyism, suppression of information, and economic control-freakery.

Firstly, most of the contracts for reconstruction work went to companies owned by government loyalists, notably former Fidesz financial chief Lajos Simicska. The LMP has been fighting to obtain disclosure on how these contracts were awarded, Jávor tells me, saying there were no competitive tenders. Moreover, rumour has it that Simicska may also be about to take a stake in MAL itself: the aluminium company faces a fine of half a billion euros, a sum it cannot possibly hope to pay. Though Fidesz denies it, suspicion is rife that this fine is deliberately designed to put a strategic industrial asset into government or government-crony hands. It would be in keeping with a policy of nationalisation which, according to Jávor, is partly ideology, partly clientelism: "Fidesz sees these big firms as cash cows".

Fear of harassment

What angers local people more, though, is the lack of information about health risks in the area. Dust from the sludge, which was highly alkaline and deemed toxic, continues to pollute the air. But studies that might have helped to show the real effects of that pollution on the human body, such as blood tests of the whole population, have not been done. Most alarmingly, one doctor I met in Devecser said he had test results that showed the dust was particularly harmful to infants, but he did not want to be named or discuss them on camera. He had already had his clinic demolished for reasons he believed spurious, and said he feared further harassment if he spoke out.

In a European Union democracy and at the scene of a major national crisis, that sort of fear seems out of place. But it is widespread in Hungary. Even at a recent demonstration in defence of independent talk radio Klub-radio, which is threatened with closure, I found participants who refused to speak into my microphone, for fear of losing their jobs.

Nevertheless, says Jávor, "Hungary is a democracy". Restrictions on freedom of speech are certainly bad for democracy, as are asset grabs and other new policies that have seen Viktor Orban's government targeted by EU legal proceedings. But despite all these worrying tendencies, Jávor does not think that the Prime Minister wants to be the "Viktator" some of his opponents have called him. He feels confident that in 2014, when the next elections are due, it will be possible to unseat Orban at the polls.

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