THE Hungarian government May 11 canceled a treaty with Czechoslovakia to divert the Danube River to hydroelectric power stations, formalizing a dispute that has churned strong sentiments on both sides.
Both nations voiced hopes for reconciliation. But the Czechoslovaks have vowed by year's end to finish their part of the project - an 880-megawatt dam near the Austrian border - whether Hungary builds its promised twin or not. The Hungarians say the work will wreak ecological havoc; the Czechoslovaks, with $715 million invested in the project, say it will not. Each side insists the other is breaking international law.
The controversy is rooted in a 1977 agreement between the then-East-bloc partners to shift the Danube through 16 miles of canals, first to a Czechoslovak dam at Gabcikovo, and to a Hungarian one downstream at Nagymaros, 15 miles north of Budapest. The plan was to generate badly needed electricity and make the river, their common border, navigable by large freighters through a series of locks.
But in 1989 popular pressure on the waning Hungarian communist regime forced it to suspend work. A 1991 study by the Hungarian Academy of Science says the dam would harm the water table and contaminate water supplies.
Budapest's misgivings have continued to the point where this winter officials openly mulled annuling the treaty.
But the Czechoslovaks have proceeded apace at the Gabcikovo. Slovak officials cited an already heavy cash outlay and the area's pressing energy needs.
On March 18 the Hungarian government said it would quit the treaty if work at Gabcikovo was not halted by April 30. That deadline passed, and another was set for May 15.
Legal disputes linger. Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall says that shifting the river - and hence, the border - is illegal. Slovak Prime Minister Jan Carnogoursky counters that Hungary's treaty breach is also illegal.
On May 11, the Hungarian parliament quashed the treaty. Hungarian Cabinet minister Ferenc Madl said that "the government has already humiliated itself trying to understand its [Czechoslovak] partner."
A European Community spokesman has said that the EC would eventually hold talks between the two sides.