Radar and roses

Earlier I wrote briefly about the controversy over the proposed radar station in Hungary. Let me flesh that out a bit today.

Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and as a result was obliged to build a radar station in its territory because, as it stands, the country’s airspace is not completely covered. Hungary is located in the basin of the Carpathian mountains and therefore for the most part resembles a pancake. In northern Hungary there are a few mountains, the lower ranges of the Carpathians (3,300 feet), but it is the southern part of the country that needs coverage. In southern Hungary there is only one mountain range, the Mecsek, whose highest peak, the Zengő (Echoing) is 2,237 feet high.

Hungary’s accession to NATO took place during the Orbán government (1998-2002). All was decided, all permissions obtained and in theory the government could have started the installation of the radar tower on the Zengő. The problem was that by the time the construction could have begun, Orbán and the Fidesz had lost the elections and a socialist-liberal coalition had come into power. As soon as the project was announced, environmentalist began a forceful campaign against it. Interestingly, the Hungarian greens lean to the right rather than to the left. (In Hungary everything is upside down, inside out, backwards–pick your metaphor!) The greens claimed that a rare and therefore protected wild rose grew profusely in the very area where the road to the radar tower was supposed to be built. I have never heard of such a rose. I have never seen any such rose although I was a frequent visitor in the picturesque village at the foot of the Zengő. A cousin of mine lived there with her husband and children in a lovely old watermill converted into a house. Much more significantly, I heard people who know the area very well claim that the once profusely blooming wild rose is practically gone and that the few areas where it can still be found are nowhere near the road to be built. Nonetheless, to make a long story short, the government gave up.

They started looking for a new location in the Mecsek range and found another peak, the Tubes. While the Zengő is situated in the eastern Mecsek, the Tubes (only 2000 feet) is the highest peak of the central Mecsek. That is right above the city of Pécs (population 160,000). However, there didn’t seem to be any environmental problem because there was an unused military installation on the site, left over from the Warsaw Pact days. The government thought that although the Tubes was not as high as the Zengő at least there couldn’t be any environmental objections here. Well, there were no environmental objections, but the civil, mostly right-wing groups in Pécs began organizing a protest, claiming first that the "radiation" of the radar would do terrible harm to the city’s population and, when this turned out to be patently false, they frightened the populace by arguing that in case of war Pécs would be a military target. They forced the local government to hold a referendum on the question. (Are we starting to see a pattern here?) The referendum was not valid because not enough people bothered to vote. However, those who went to the polls voted overwhelmingly against building the radar station on the Tubes. Although the referendum was not legally binding, its sponsors argued that the "no" votes were in such a majority that the wishes of the people could not be ignored. This legal nonsense didn’t hold water. The minister of defense announced that construction would soon begin.

But soon is never soon enough. Re-enter the environmentalists. They announced that the Tubes is a watershed area and since diesel oil would have to be stored on the premises, an oil leak could ruin Pécs’s drinking water. Engineers announced that this is total nonsense since there are all sorts of precautions that would be taken to prevent such an eventuality. As one expert said, a motorcyclist spilling some oil while driving through the mountain ranges is more likely than a leak from an oil tank sitting inside a cement construction. This is where we stand now.

To make it more interesting, one of the Fidesz representatives in the European parliament came up with the idea that perhaps it would be still better to build the radar station on the Zengő. You can imagine what the environmentalists say to that. I might add that the radar tower was supposed to be built entirely or in large part from NATO funds. However, there is a deadline. I am not sure what the deadline is, but considering that this has been going on now for eight years, I have the feeling that NATO’s patience is running out.