Environmentalists Decry Europe Dam Decision

World Court ruling last week was expected to be a benchmark for global water disputes.

The International Court of Justice at The Hague this week reprimanded both Hungary and Slovakia for breach of contract in building a massive, Soviet-inspired hydroelectric dam on the Danube River.

Yet spin doctors for both Central European rivals were able to declare victory as The Hague also ruled the billion-dollar Gabcikovo project a fait accompli.

There was one loser, however, say environmentalists.

Some have denounced the dam as the worst in Europe for its degradation of the Continent's only inland-sea delta.

Hungary illegally pulled out of the project in 1989, prompting a defiant Slovakia to divert much of the Danube from its original grassy riverbed into a 20-mile concrete channel to make the dam operable. The depleted riverbed threatens both nature reserves and Central Europe's largest drinking-water supply.

The decision had been touted beforehand as a landmark environmental case - the first-ever for The Hague - that would have far-reaching implications for border-river disputes. Now it's unclear what impact it will have. The judges' opinion that both sides "look afresh" at the ecological impact during future operations did little to cheer most opponents.

"The court decided for the status quo," said Jozsef Lajtmann, president of Hungarian Association for Environmental Protection. "To keep the project functioning means we'll never have enough water, and the damage it's caused is irreversible."

The two sides now have six months to negotiate a solution that will somehow generate enough hydroelectric power while replenishing the riverbed. Yet, given the history behind Gabcikovo, that may be wishful thinking.

The Soviet Union initially hatched the idea nearly three decades ago, primarily to improve navigation through the mighty waterway and provide needed energy to what was then Czechoslovakia.

Construction on Gabcikovo began in 1977. But Hungary, beset by mounting costs, environmental concerns, and general anti-Soviet sentiment, ultimately withdrew. Hungary arrogantly informed its northern partners the project was dead. That riled Slovakia, the successor state of the project, which forged ahead with a little-state-that-could spirit. It completed the $2.5 billion project, but not before diverting what had once been the border between the two countries.

Relations today between Hungarians and Slovaks are as strained as ever.

The Hungarians decry the Slovak failure to implement a 1995 basic treaty between the two, particularly concerning treatment of the 560,000 ethnic Hungarians living in southern Slovakia. A month ago, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar stoked the issue when he reportedly suggested to his Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, they swap ethnic populations. Roughly 100,000 ethnic Slovaks live in Hungary. The Hungarian leader expressed outrage.

Analysts and state officials therefore expect Gabcikovo negotiations to degenerate. Consequently, both sides will likely accept The Hague court's recommendation of a third-party mediator from the European community.

If the dispute is not resolved within the time allotted, the issue goes back before The Hague. Hungary, with an eye toward membership into first NATO, then the European Union, is admittedly on its best behavior. All six parties in Parliament voted Friday to arrive at a speedy settlement.

"This is a burden on the Hungarian government," says Laszlo Valki, an international lawyer who has advised the Hungarian side since 1989. "And it would like to put the issue behind it."

Slovakia's chances for Euro-Atlantic integration, as bleak as they look with Mr. Meciar at the helm, also depends on neighborliness. The premier's penchant for un-democratic rule and resistance to economic reform is well known in Western diplomatic circles.

Still, domestic critics hope he takes this opportunity to polish his image.

"These negotiations are vital to our national interests," said Slovak political scientist Martin Butora, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. "This could put Slovakia back on the scene."

Indeed, the nature of NATO and EU expansion now gives the Gabcikovo conflict an added Europe-wide, geopolitical dimension. Both alliances want gradual, even eastward expansion. In fact, the three-way dam negotiations may represent a last chance for the Slovaks.

To bring Meciar around, the EU may need to sweeten the deal with trade or energy concessions, says Simon Duke, an international-relations expert at Central European University in Budapest. "To have an isolated, pariah state in the heart of Europe is in no one's interests," says Mr. Duke. "Any lame-duck state can have a detrimental effect on the overall development of the region."

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