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Danube Dam Spurs Hungary's Ire

Slovak diversion of the river defies Prague's directives and fans ethnic rivalry

HUNGARY is placing slim hopes on appeals to the international community to reverse the diversion of the Danube River by the renegade Slovak government - a move some say could develop into the region's next ethnic conflict.

Tension has been growing since spring over a hydroelectric dam on the 90-mile section of the Danube which forms the border between the two countries.

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On Oct. 19, Prague promised Budapest that the Danube would not be diverted before Nov. 2. But in what senior Hungarian Foreign Ministry official Janos Nartonui has called "a fait accompli," Slovakia went ahead with the diversion on Oct. 24, dumping quarry stones and later 2.5-ton concrete blocks to push the river into a 15- mile canal which feeds the power station at Gabcikovo.

Prague's attempt to enforce its directive Tuesday ended in a deadlock. Five representatives of the Czech Republic in the federal Cabinet voted to stop work immediately, but the five Slovak representatives voted against them. Environmental protests

Communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia agreed to dam the river in 1977, but, in response to widespread environmental protests, Hungary's first post-communist government suspended its participation in 1989 and formally annulled the treaty in May.

But Czechoslovakia, citing the funds already sunk into the project - now estimated at $3.5 billion - and the alleged benefits of flood control and navigability, forged ahead unilaterally with the project, which channels the river along a 20-mile canal to a hydroelectric station in Slovakia. With the pending breakup of Czechoslovakia, the government in Prague has been left virtually powerless as Slovakia defies federal directives. Unilateral move

"Dealing with any country in this case would be difficult enough," says Laszlo Valki, the Hungarian government's chief legal adviser on the dam dispute. "But here, the federal government is not in existence anymore, except legally, and what's going on is determined by the Slovak government."

That fact has been made vivid by Wednesday's record low level of the Danube below the point of diversion - 16 inches, down almost 5 feet from Sunday. Some small branches in the area have already dried up.

Hungary alerted Western capitals to its objections, and last week the Hungarian government petitioned the World Court to hear the case. Budapest claims the diversion of the river violates international law because it moves the frontier. After talks between the European Community, Budapest, and Prague broke down Oct. 22, the EC brokered a proposal Wednesday whereby Czechoslovakia would consider accepting EC mediation and the World Court's jurisdiction.

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But that raises few hopes here.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry official Janos Martonyi charged on Monday that the dam had become "a symbol of Slovak national determination" and added: "We cannot develop relations with countries which violate our territorial integrity."

The dispute involves more than environmental, legal, and personal stakes; some see regional stability at risk as well.

Hungary's concern over the fate of the 600,000 ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia was echoed in a statement Monday by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel. He warned all parties that the gravity of "the new and completely unnecessary dispute ... is even increased by the fact that there is also a strong connection to the minority problems in this region, which are complicated enough already."

Mr. Kinkel also hinted that a lack of a resolution could hinder the nascent Slovak republic's eventual membership in the EC.

"Very few Western countries have been clear in telling the Slovaks they are absolutely wrong," Mr. Valki says. "If someone is diverting an international river and they say, `We don't want to get involved,' this is only encouraging a violation of the law."

Hungarian domestic support is flagging as well. Early opposition to the project swelled under the reform communists in the late 1980s. Approximately 30,000 marched in an anti-dam demonstration in Budapest in September 1988, and the next year a petition calling for a referendum on the project elicited some 180,000 signatures.

Only around 200 protesters, however, showed up for the Danube's diversion last Saturday, and other organized events have had thin attendance. Leading environmentalist Janos Vargha, a biologist who helped found the Budapest-based Danube Circle, blames a new political mentality and economic hard times.

"In the last few years of the dictatorship, many people joined the movement as a way to express their opposition to the political system," he says. "Now most of them, almost all of them, have left the movement. These people are tired. There are serious economic problems here day by day to eat, survive, and so on."

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