An underreported aspect of Viktor Orbán’s rule is the harm Fidesz is doing to the environment. Due to urban development projects all over Budapest, thousands of healthy trees are in danger of being cut down. Civic organisations and environmental groups are protesting, but the government does not care.
The mischief which the Hungarian government is causing has been covered extensively in the international press during the last few years, but Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s notoriety is mainly due the government’s anti-humanitarian behaviour during the refugee crisis, inability to compromise on the issue of refugee quotas – regardless the political disruption it brings to the integrity of the EU – and shameless attempts to repress the free media.
One aspect has been overlooked, however: The governing Fidesz party also treats the environment in a ruthless way.
In the past few years, Orbán and his party have spent large amounts of EU funds on ideologically ambiguous, megalomaniacal and, with respect to the environment, explicitly harmful architectural projects.
The axe is already laid at the root of the trees (Matthew 3:10)
One of the most grandiose architectural endeavours of the second Orbán government after 2010 was the redevelopment of Kossuth Square, the area surrounding the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.
The project was problematic in many respects. The Fidesz party wanted to reimagine the area in such a way so as to evoke the era before 1945, which is already eerie enough in the sense that such an objective aims to simply wipe out the memory of the 40 years of Soviet influence that followed World War II without providing an opportunity to critically process the past. Moreover, using the period before 1945 as an example amounts to glorifying a period that led to the extermination of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews. Finally, numerous trees that had been planted around the Parliament Building during the last few decades now had to be cut down as part of the new architectural vision.
Regardless of criticism from newspapers, environmental groups and civil society, the rearrangement of Kossuth Square began in 2012, and has involved the removal of a large number of trees. Although the Hungarian administration is famously slow, the National Assembly Office’s request to start the new development was quickly approved, and a licence was immediately granted to start cutting down the trees.
The ombudsman’s investigation later found that these actions had been illegal, and that numerous irregularities had preceded the felling of dozens of healthy trees. In addition, the government’s approach – failing to consult civil society or to afford environmental organisations an opportunity to come into line with the plans – already foreshadowed how Orbán and his government would treat the environment and environmental activists. And after their re-election in 2014, they expanded their deforestation efforts.
Back in 2013, Hungary’s National Assembly introduced a large-scale city development plan called the Liget Project, under which the recreational area of Budapest’s second-largest public park, Varosliget, would be totally rearranged by 2019.
The plan called for the park to be turned into a new cultural centre that would mainly house cultural institutions and museums, giving the area a new sense of vitality. The original plan promised not only an impressive exhibition space, but also an expansion of the green area. Two years later, however, when the gigantic project was about to break ground, it came to light that these promises were completely absent from the government’s agenda. It turned out that the park’s green area would in fact be significantly reduced under recent changes to the plan. To make room for new buildings, hundreds of trees would need to be cut down. The project has attracted heavy civic and environmentalist-led protests.
It should be noted that Varosliget is in poor condition and has been neglected by the city administration in the past decade. Despite this, it has nevertheless been a favourite recreational locale for the capital’s residents. It thus comes as no surprise that the Ligetvédő (“Park Protector”) civic group is trying to prevent the planned environmental destruction, and many of its activists are living in tents close to the endangered trees and protecting them with their own bodies. As the government’s real plans have become more clear, many internationally renowned scientists are backing out of the Liget Project. Fidesz is not afraid to use violence against the protesters to realise its new cultural plans: many demonstrators have been physically harmed while attempting to obstruct the work of public officials, and the opinions of environmental experts are not being taken into consideration by the government.
For now, the official plan is to proceed with cutting down the trees, while protesters wait in the park to fight back once the work begins. Despite public opinion polls showing that a majority of Hungarians oppose the government’s megalomaniacal project, the government and its followers seem to be stronger at the moment, and the protesters will not stand a chance once development begins in earnest.
Nothing will be left after us but bricks
The case of Varosliget was nowhere near resolved when it came to light that hundreds of trees were slated to be cut down in another of the capital’s parks, namely the Orczy Garden. The reason was once again Fidesz; the party is planning to erect a new building for the National Civil Service University, which is now located in the park’s Ludovika building. The expansion would remove a large amount of green land from what used to be the country’s largest English garden.
Civil society organisations estimate that another 1,500 trees are in danger of being cut down as part of yet another project – the Roman Beach rampart project in Budapest’s northern end. The structure, designed to provide protection during flooding, has been deemed completely useless by environmental experts, and would totally destroy one of Budapest’s most intimate and romantic natural sights by the Danube River.
It was not long ago that yet another rearrangement began in the capital, that of a Turkish memorial – the Tomb of Gül Baba. The works started, as usual, with large-scale deforestation, and while the people were promised the complete restoration of the green land, current visualisations suggest a different outcome.
In addition, the 2017 World Cup in water sports requires a new swimming facility, and construction of the complex at the Dagaly beach started with the cutting down of some one hundred 40–50 year old sycamore trees that were in the way. Yet again, this government action transpired in secret without any previous agreement or solicitation of opinions.
The administration of the capital, in cooperation with the government, is also conducting its own deforestation action, as the extension of one of Budapest’s tram lines will require another 150 trees to be cut down. While the actual purpose of the investment remains unclear, the project would further reduce the capital’s green zone, which runs counter to international trends. Knowing the government, the Olympics tender, if successful, will likely result in the loss of another significant expanse of green land in Budapest.
Not just in the capital
The cutting down of large numbers of trees is not limited to Budapest. In the southern Hungarian city of Szigetvár, the government recently annihilated a dozen trees as part of plans to restore the castle – again, illegally. Before that, the 120-year-old lime trees planted for Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Csurgó, Somogy county, stood in the way of the town-centre’s renovation, so they had to be removed quickly.
In Hungary today, almost every public redevelopment starts with cutting down trees and the mutilation of green land, and ends with bricks. In defence of the government’s penchant for deforestation, Zoltan Illes, a former Fidesz secretary for environmental protection until 2014 (when he fell out of favour over his opposition to the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant) gave a rather logical explanation to the Magyar Nemzet newspaper: “The political authorisation ends in 2018, and it’s quite certain that they [Fidesz] will try to tie down all EU budgets in different types of developments by then.” The former Fidesz politician added that the government needs space for this, and is not afraid to break rules or to bully scientists if necessary in order to secure more EU funds.
It should be noted that development projects are crucially important to Fidesz, as they are the main source of government-orchestrated corruption. These EU funds would thus go in part to overpriced poor-quality buildings of questionable purpose. And in the end most of the money spent on these projects will go into the pockets of those contractors who are in Fidesz’s good graces, and ultimately back into those ruling politicians’ bank accounts as kickbacks.
Unfortunately, those in power in today’s Hungary can do whatever they want to trees as well as activists trying to save the environment, and it seems that only a handful of people are standing in the way of their corrupt and destructive practices.