Some people on this blog noted that although the disaster occurred in the early afternoon on Monday, it took Viktor Orbán three days to visit the site. The commenter noted that a really savvy politician would have been on the spot immediately. I assume we all remember the disaster in New Orleans and the tardiness of President George W. Bush. Politically this seeming lack of interest cost him dearly.
It is true that Orbán happened to be in Brussels, but in cases like that a president or prime minister interrupts whatever he is doing and immediately returns home. Of course, such a move has only political advantages because in fact he himself cannot do much. Except perhaps calm nerves.
Well, in any case, Viktor Orbán showed up in the village most affected only on Thursday. I gave a brief description of his messsage earlier. The most striking aspect of the speech was his insistence that no "foreign" help was necessary. Hungary is strong, Hungarians are quite capable of handling the situation by themselves, and rich Hungarians abroad can give money to the capable but obviously poor Hungarians at home. He will not ask for help from the European Union because it is its duty to assist a member nation.
And indeed, Hungary didn't turn to Brussels for expert help. The villages were under the red sludge by about 2 p.m. on Monday, but on Tuesday MTI learned from the spokesman of Kristalina Georgieva, Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, that Hungary up to that point had asked for no help. A day later, on Wednesday, Joe Hennon, spokesman for the Commissioner for the Environment, reported that the Hungarian authorities had expressed their confidence that they could handle the disaster on their own. But the officials of the European Union were not that convinced. They were worried about Hungary itself as well as the possibility that the pollution would cross Hungary's borders via the Danube. They kept phoning the Hungarian government authorities inquiring whether after all they might change their minds.
Thursday morning Viktor Orbán, by that time in Kolontár, repeated his resolve not to ask for foreign help. Rich Hungarians will contribute. As it turned out, he got in touch with George Pataki, former Republican governor of New York, whose father's family emigrated to the United States about a hundred years ago and who speaks not a word of Hungarian, and asked him to organize the relief effort, presumably among Hungarian-Americans. One rich Hungarian-American, George Soros, immediately offered $1 million.
By Thursday, European Union officials were so worried that Kristalina Georgieva herself phoned Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, around 8 p.m. in order "to inquire about the situation." She informed Pintér that the European Union was ready to step in whenever the Hungarian authorities deemed it necessary. Two hours later the Hungarian government asked for "urgent help from the European Union." They suddenly discovered that they need three to five experts who are familiar with the handling of toxic waste.
On Thursday evening I watched National Public Television's Newshour during which Margaret Warner had an interview with Joe Hennon who at this point could report that "a couple of hours ago, the Hungarian government has asked for assistance. So, we will be looking at providing that." The whole interview is available on the internet. From the interview it is clear that Brussels knew very little about the details and what they knew was from the media.
Critics of Viktor Orbán have a few harsh words to say about the government's response to the disaster. First of all, about the nationalistic overtones of Orbán's first utterances. As an American friend of mine rightly pointed out when she heard what Orbán had to say: "At least the Hungarian prime minister is consistent. He keeps emphasizing strength and self-reliance. He doesn't want the help of the IMF and he doesn't want the assistance of the European Union." Yes, he is consistent, but is he doing the right thing? In a disaster like that one needs all the expertise and financial assistance the world can offer.
Another problem with Orbán's attitude was bringing up the "ethnic issue," as Zsófia Mihancsik pointed out in Galamus. It doesn't sound too good that only Hungarians the world over should assist Hungarians at home. National solidarity that turns inward in a country that belongs to the European Union sounds strange in today's world. Others criticize him for making pronouncements lacking any scientific underpinning. For example, he looked around in Kolontár and announced that this village should be leveled and remain a monument to the disaster. However, we have no idea how and when the soil and vegetation can regenerate.
On the other hand, there are observers who find Orbán's handling of the case "exemplary." For example, Gábor Török, the political scientist, who has a blog. Török claims that he is not one of the supporters of Viktor Orbán. He often finds his statements unfortunate and outright wrong, but the prime minister's response in this crisis was perfect. He looked "resolute, compassionate, and reassuring." He was the "winner" in this tragedy. His few words bought him more political capital than all his fancy speeches in the last few months. You see, two people can watch the same interview and draw entirely different conclusions.
Bauxite was discovered in Hungary in the 1920s and ever since there has been aluminum production in the country. With nationalization in the late 1940s the large operation at Ajka became a state-owned company. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Hungarian state tried to attract foreign investors, who came and went after looking around. They came to the conclusion that the bauxite that was left was not of very good quality and the storing of the sludge was not safe. At this point a number of Hungarians came forth who were ready to take over the operation. I assume that they paid mighty little for it after it became clear that no foreign investor was interested.
But their real cost may be high. Viktor Orbán addressed a threatening sentence to the owners: "This affair will not end up the way that was customary in past years…. A new era started a few months ago in Hungary." We don't know how responsible the present owners are. One has the distinct feeling that they are not the only ones who should bear the burden. According to them they operated the factory and handled the sludge strictly according to the laws governing such a facility. If that is the case, the government is also guilty for allowing the current practice of storing the sludge. Moreover, if it is true that two weeks ago there were signs of leakage, surely the Central Transdanubian Inspectorate for the Environment, Conservancy, and Waterways under Zoltán Illés, undersecretary for the environment, is also responsible. After all, it was only a few days ago that they inspected the facility and found everything in order. It also turned out that the company had an insurance policy with ridiculously low coverage. In the media there were outraged comments about the irresponsibility of the owners. But, as it turned out, Hungarian law didn't demand a level of insurance commensurate with the dangers of storing such toxic material. And we haven't even mentioned those who were responsible for building the storage area in the mid-80s. The current owners are madly looking for the plans and cannot find them.
In the meantime, a new crack has appeared in the walls of the storage area. This time on the north side. The crack is not small: 7 centimeters wide. A wall 4-5 meters high is being erected that is about 20 meters wide at the bottom and 5-6 meters wide on the top. This wall/levee is supposed to save the village of Kolontár in case a new spillage occurs. Building the wall will take at least two days. The inhabitants of Kolontár have been ordered to leave the village, and in the nearby Devecser people were told to be ready for possible evacuation. They can pack no more than 20 kg of their most important belongings.