BUDAPEST — ALL over Central Europe, city planners and souvenir sellers are dispensing with the old symbols of the Communist era: red stars, street signs commemorating Soviet anniversaries, and ever-rarer shards from the Berlin Wall. Hungary's government is having more difficulty determining the fate of two costly legacies of the old regime: the dam system spanning the Danube River and the world exhibition planned to be held jointly with Vienna in 1995.
Recent talks on the dam project between Slovakia's then-prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, and the Hungarian minister without portfolio, Ferenc Madl, ended with the two sides as far away from agreement as ever. Mr. Meciar's replacement by Christian Democratic leader Jan Carnogursky is unlikely to change the Slovak position of approval for the dam. Hungary's parliament has firmly called for an end to the project.
The parliament must decide this month whether to participate in the exhibition. The government has endorsed the Expo, but parliamentarians differ on its size, location, and sources of funding.
Hungary's previous leaders had initiated the two projects in a simpler time, when decisions were made behind closed doors, environmental considerations carried little weight, and a project's success was more often determined by symbolism than by economic rationality.
``The decisionmaking mechanisms at work for the dam and the Expo were similarly bad,'' says historian Mihaly Raday, a member of parliament (MP) and of Budapest's City Council. He recalls that unfavorable expert studies were blocked, public opinion was discounted, and city governments did not have a say in their own development.
``Yet the consequences of the two projects could be quite different,'' Mr. Raday suggests. He considers the dam a danger and the Expo a possible magnet for foreign investment.
Janos Vargha, a father of Hungary's environmental movement, disagrees. Both the decisions and their results will be uniformly disastrous, he says. (See story below.)
High costs cited
``In the beginning, proponents of the Expo said it would cost one and a half billion forints to provide adequate infrastructure, and now the government alone has pledged 30 billion [$417 million] for this aim,'' he says. ``As with the dam, the costs will increase exponentially as the project moves along.''
Construction of the dam system began in 1978 at Gabcikovo, Czechoslovakia; Dunakiliti, Hungary; and Nagymaros, north of Budapest.
Hungarian public opinion firmly opposes the dam project. Environmentalists say the dam system threatens fish and wildlife, and could dry out the fertile agricultural land on both sides of the river. Most alarming, they say, is the damage it could do to the water table, which supplies clean drinking water to 5 million people. The pressure of the huge reservoir at the head of the dam system could force pesticides into the groundwater.
Facing strong public protest, the Hungarian government abandoned the dam at Nagymaros in May 1989. Now it hopes to withdraw from the project altogether, but insists that Slovakia agree to terminate it.
Slovaks support dam
``We still have to convince the Slovak government that the dam is not in Slovakia's interest, either,'' says Raday. Slovak leaders have said repeatedly they will not consent to put the dam to rest, after each side has spent the equivalent of more than $500 million on the Gabcikovo-Dunakiliti portion alone. They are counting on the dam to provide a reliable source of energy at a time when Slovakia is trying to win as much economic autonomy as possible from the Czech Republic.
They also hope that the dam will improve navigability on the Danube, attracting more traffic to Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
While the dam controversy has increased tensions between Bratislava and Budapest, Vienna is taking Hungarian hesitation over the Expo in stride. The Austrian capital intends to put on the Expo alone if necessary.
When first conceived in 1981, the Expo symbolized Hungary's aspiration to be a bridge between East and West.
``A few years ago, this would have been the bridge between an occupied country and a free one,'' says Aladar Kard, chairman of the Budapest City Council's Expo Committee. ``Now we're talking about a bridge between a rich country and a poor one.''
With an estimated budget of about $1.9 billion at current prices, the six-month Expo could in the end not only be unprofitable - like many recent world's fairs - but it could even be a financial disaster for Budapest.
More than half the budget would go to developing the capital's public works and communications. How the capital could raise the funds remains unclear.
Expo seen as `huge risk'
``This is a huge risk to be taking in a time of great economic uncertainty,'' says MP and Budapest City Council member Klara Ungar.
And, she adds, the Expo concept runs counter to the government's economic program, which is meant to encourage exports, liberalize imports in order to increase competition, further economic development in the regions that need it most (Hungary's poor south and east), and decrease the nation's debt of more than $21 billion.
Hungarian Expo Commissioner Etele Barath denies that the exhibition will be a drain on the state budget. He envisions that entrepreneurs, including chiefly foreign participants, will bear the costs of the investments.
``The Expo itself can be placed purely on entrepreneurial shoulders,'' he says. ``What will cost the state budget is the public works - pipes, water works - and the communications network. But Budapest will need these even if there isn't an exhibition.''
Where Ms. Ungar sees the Expo's possible pitfalls, Mr. Barath sees its potential for reinvigorating Hungary's economy. In addition to providing a deadline for improving the capital's lagging infrastructure, Barath says the Expo could provide jobs and boost privatization.
Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky would prefer a one-year postponement. He is demanding that the national government provide financial guarantees to the capital.
On May 9, the City Council will take a formal stand on the Expo.
Last weekend, the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats, the party that enjoys a majority in the Budapest city council and almost one-quarter of parliamentary seats, called on the government and parliament to withdraw Hungary's bid to co-host the Expo.