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Flower Power versus NATO

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A recent case from Hungary shows how civil organizations and local governments can have an influence even on a mighty intergovernmental security alliance like the NATO: a vital democracy can sometimes be stronger than vested military interests.

In recent years the Tubes hill in southern Hungary have become a symbol for the vexed issue of whether environmental protection should have priority over international obligations? What is more important: the will of citizens or national security?

The long plot in which many actors were involved started in 1999 when Hungary joined NATO, a political and military alliance based on the principle of collective defence. In return for protection by the alliance from outside attacks, each country has to take part in and contribute something to the security community. For Hungary this means, among other moves, that it has to deploy (with financial assistance from NATO) three radars in the southern part of the country to fill in a gap in the common air defence system.

The first two radars were installed in Bánkút and Békéscsaba, but problems emerged with the location of the third one.

First act: Zengő Peak

The original site was planned for Zengő peak in the Mecsek hills of southern Hungary. But protests were started by local, national, and international environmental organizations who formed what is known as the ‘Zengő coalition’ – an ad hoc alliance consisting of Greenpeace together with the local level Civilek a Zengőért Mozgalom and Pécsi Zöld Kör, and the national organizations Magyar Természetvédők Szövetsége and Védegylet. All these various bodies worked together in their resolutions and protests and also received support from the Hungarian intelligenstia, including from László Sólyom, now former president of the republic who was born in the nearby city of Pécs.

The goal of the ‘Zengo coalition’ was to prevent the Ministry of Defence from building the radar in an effort to safeguard the unique fauna to be found on the hill.

The 'bánáti bazsarózsa' (Paeonia officinalis subsp. Banatica ), an endangered flower species, which would have come to the brink of extension if the radar had been built on Zengő, became a symbol of the issue.

The 'bánáti bazsarózsa' (Paeonia officinalis subsp. Banatica ), an endangered species of flower which would have been practically wiped out if the radar had been built on Zengő peak, became the symbol of the protests.

On February 13, 2004, the “battle of Zengő” was waged as protesters successfully prevented construction crews from moving in. After a long series of continual protests and much media interest, in February 2005 the decision finally taken: no radar on Zengő.

Second act: Tubes Hill

In November 2005, in contingency plan B the nearby Tubes hill was chosen as a compromise. Although from a professional perspective Zengő was the only real choice (all the other solutions were more complicated and more expensive), in May 2006 NATO accepted the Tubes hill location.

Here too, however, protests were quick in coming. The reasons were similar to those that motivated the protests at  Zengő: environmental aspects (the planned site here neighbors a national park) and lack of consultation with the general public. Moreover, as Tubes hill is located close to the city of Pécs, other arguments were also invoked: the danger of becoming the target of a possible air strike, danger to the water supply, the bad influence it would have on tourism, and even the higher level of radiation produced by the radar.

The biggest difference is that while the ‘Zengő battle’ was won by spectacular protest actions, here legal issues moved to the forefront. And it wasn’t just civil organizations that were involved. The city of Pécs pushed through changes in its by-laws on construction and traffic which effectively stopped any work on the radar at Tubes hill.  These changes were subsequently deemed anti-constitutional by the Constitutional Court but it is worth mentioning that the city of Pécs had no means of legal recourse because as the radar at Tubes hill was a special investment of the government, Pécs had no possibility of lodging an appeal to postpone construction.

In March 2007, a local referendum was even held which failed due to low turnout. The Minister of Defence accepted the construction plan in June 2007, but legal bodies like the city of Pécs contested it at the Budapest Metropolitan Court. In November 2009, the Court dismissed their action and gave the go-ahead to construction on the radar.

In December 2009, a few days before construction would have started, the city of Pécs closed the road going up to the hill. Zsolt Páva, the major of the city, even spent a night in a military tent blocking the road.

Yet civil organizations and Pécs did not abandon legal channels: they went to the Supreme Court which in March 2010 reversed the previous decisions and stopped the planned construction, obliging the Ministry to find yet another site for the radar.

In July 2010, the Ministry officially gave up its plans for Tubes hill, and accepted to find another solution. The road was reopened in September 2010.

One can see that in the case of Tubes hill, it was the city of Pécs that was the most high-profile protagonist against the radar. Civil organisations were also actively present, but the issue became highly political. In fall 2010, there were local elections in Pécs. In the campaign both leading candidates voted “for Tubes, against the radar” – so the question was who was the most vigorous protester against the radar? Later, the re-elected mayor Zsolt Páva stuck to his guns against the government’s construction plans – against the very government which is mostly formed by the party to which Páva belongs. But one thing is for sure: he would not have acted so enthusiastically for the cause had it not already been a “cause célèbre” taken up by civil organisations.

And act three?

After dropping Tubes as a possible site, some other proposals were put forward. One of them is for Hármas-hegy of Mecsek, between Zengő and Tubes, but this also forms part of the Natura 2000 ecological network … another option is to move the radar to Slovenia and solve the problem in cooperation with that country. In March 2011 it seemed that Medina, a small village in western Hungary would get the honors. It already hosts a military base and the radar would be built on land already owned by the Ministry. The people of Medina haven’t objected to the plans, either. However, nothing final has been decided up to now.

In short, we can see how environmental issues, represented by civil organizations, can confront security issues which represent the vested interests and obligations of a whole nation. We can also see the huge cast of actors involved in this plot – private individuals, NGOs, various local governments, the Hungarian Ministry of Defence, the President of the Republic (as a private individual it is true, only he can never be fully independent from his office), and an intergovernmental alliance, NATO. The main actors were definitely the NGOs along with local authorities and the Ministry, as they even went to court to defend their interests.

Now we can only hope after long years that the case will soon be over and that the third radar can be built – at a higher cost, certainly, but with respect shown for the natural heritage and with the consent of all citizens involved.

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Anikó Mészáros Twitter: @dusmii

International Relations expert, in love with Central and Northern Europe, security studies and regional cooperation.