When I first met Zoltan Illes in 1990, he was 29 years old and in his first month as the youngest state secretary in modern Hungarian history, working in the ministry of environment. He granted me quite a long interview and was unusually frank not only about the environmental situation in the country but also about the challenges he faced in his own position. At the end of the interview, he gave himself a 70-80 percent chance of making it through his first year without being fired.
As I learned when I met up with Illes again in May 2013, he only survived in that initial position for six months. “I had a very challenging half a year in 1990,” he told me in an interview in his office at the Central European University in Budapest. “I did my best for the environment. And finally they fired me. Officially, in written form, the minister wrote that ‘you are dedicated to the environment.’ Well, come on, I was sworn in to do that! Then he wrote, ‘But we have to consider other interests, and you are not capable of doing that. You are for the environment and that is why we are firing you.’”
After that short tenure in government, Illes occupied a number of different positions, including as an advisor to the EU’s ambassador in Hungary. He joined Fidesz in the 1990s and served in parliament. In 2010, he returned to government once again as state secretary of rural development, which includes the portfolios for environmental protection, nature conservation, and water management. This time, he has held the position for several years.
He was eager to return to government. “I understood that if I didn’t accept the position, then I would destroy my past and what I introduced into the field of environmental protection over the last 20-30 years,” he explained. “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to prove myself not only as an outsider but as an insider in power to make change. For several decades, everyday I went to sleep understanding what I didn’t do that day and what was still remaining to do.”
He has certainly learned a thing or two since he first worked in government. “You have to accept the hierarchy of administration,” he told me. “If someone doesn’t accept hierarchy, they should be, like I was previously, a street fighter — which is an excellent opportunity for high-level performance in the field of environmental protection. And maybe I will return to that after my time as a ‘general’ in this position.”
In his first two years in the position, he focused a lot on job creation. “The government was also very actively trying to organize work opportunities for laid-off people, particularly those without education who could offer only their physical strength,” Illes told me. “It doesn’t matter whether they are poor Gypsies or poor Hungarians, there are few workplaces for them. Actually water management is one of the best places for such work. You can clean the channels with heavy machinery. But in some places you can’t manage it except by physical work by hand.” Before this aspect of water management was passed over to the interior ministry, Illes hired 11,000 employees for this kind of work.
In 1990, he told me that we “have to find somehow a third way. Western countries are showing that environmental protection was also pushed aside. On the other hand, the Communist regime showed that it could not solve these problems.”
Today, he is more a believer in one way: a set of global standards for addressing environmental issues. “We became part of the globalized world,” he concluded. “According to my experiences and my beliefs, the same standards and policies should be introduced around the world. Even if we push out ecocolonialism from our country, it will go to Ukraine or Romania. If you push out from there, it will go to the Caucasus. I hope we don’t have to wait 100 years for it to go all the way around the world and back again before we remove those comparative advantages of the different laws and regulations in different countries.”
We talked about what drew him into doing work on environmental issues, the difficulty of enforcing standards however good they might be, and the rise and fall of the Hungary’s notorious water lobby.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I’m trying to recall. In April 1990, we had our first free elections in this country. I came back from the United States in June or July 1989. I’d been working at the World Bank as a consultant and previously at Yale as a postdoctoral associate. I was looking for a job at the end of July/August 1989. Thanks to the almighty God, I got a job at the backup institution for the ministry of environment, which was the institute for environmental protection. That was September 1, 1989. In October, the Hungarian republic was announced from the balcony of the parliament. There is a main road that runs into the main entrance of the parliament with Kossuth Square in front of it. A huge crowd was gathered there on October 23. That day I was walking on that street over to the Parliament, and I joined the crowd. I was listening to Mátyás Szűrös announcing the republic from the balcony. After that, the Berlin Wall fell.
But before the fall of the Wall, there was an action on behalf of Hungarians who gave a helping hand to East Germans who arrived in Hungary on “vacation.” The East Germans managed to cross the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria with the full acceptance of the Hungarian authorities. Customs, police, and the different authorities helped out. There was no bloodshed at all. It was the happiest day for several East German citizens, who joined up with their relatives when they crossed the border into Austria.
On the day of the fall of the Wall, I’m sure I watched it on TV, and I have some memory of feeling happy, seeing the pictures of people, with their hands and with different tools, demolishing the Wall. Or maybe it was later on that I saw those photos and documentary films.
When did you first become interested in doing environmental work? You had been in chemical engineering. Was it at that time or earlier?
I’m Hungarian, but a Hungarian minority from former Yugoslavia. Hungary, after World War II, lost two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its population. I was born and raised in a family that had always lived in my hometown. They never moved. Only the borders moved north and south. Sometimes it was part of Hungary, in other cases it was Yugoslavia or the predecessor of Yugoslavia. Although my parents, grandparents, and relatives never moved, from one night to another they found themselves citizens of different countries. I’m the perfect Central European. In my family, we have Croatians, Serbians, Poles, French from Napoleon’s time, Germans, Swabians. My mother is Croatian, and I was raised as a Hungarian, because my father is Hungarian.
There were no Croatian schools in my hometown, only Serbian and Hungarian. I attended Hungarian schools. There was an agreement between Hungry and the former Yugoslav government. Hungarian minorities could apply for scholarships to come to Hungary for studies. Minority Serbians and Croatians in Hungary could go to Belgrade, the former Yugoslav capital, or to Zagreb, in Croatia. In this way, minorities were able to come to their motherland for studies. After graduation from high school, I applied for a scholarship and got one as well as a stipend. That’s how I started to study in Budapest.
I was asking myself the same question, why and how and when did I get into environmental work. My grandmother on my father’s side always emphasized the beauty of nature and our role as mankind to keep and to preserve and fight for the environment. Maybe first of all, it was a moral-ethical question for me, and that’s how I became dedicated. But according to the requirements of the agreement between former Yugoslavia and Hungary, you could only apply to study a subject in Hungary that could not be studied in former Yugoslavia. The subject of environmental protection or policy didn’t exist in former Yugoslavia. So that’s how I got the opportunity. It was not the only requirement. I had excellent grades from elementary school to high school. I’m not supercilious, don’t misunderstand me – but that’s why I could also apply with great chances.
At the technical university in Budapest you could study the field of environmental management and policy — in the school of chemistry. I was studying at a high level in high school physics, but I was not very happy with chemistry. I always snuck out of anything related to the subject. But it turned out that the first three years of the five years of study was chemical engineering, not just chemistry. And I spent the last two years in a joint program between the biology department and the school of chemical engineering where I studied environmental protection, management, and science. That’s how I got my MSc. Later I got my Ph.D. in analytical chemistry related to environmental issues.
Definitely during those years at university I had an idea that I would like to deal with environmental protection. I understood very quickly that the knowledge I could gain would be very useful to support my ideas. I learned everything about chemical engineering. But I also learned about the problems with these processes, with the contamination and destruction of nature and environment, and what could be the solution, technically speaking. Later in those years, I joined the recently formed grassroots organizations. They were not forbidden at the time, but they were in the narrow margin between legally acceptable and unacceptable. There were no laws at that time about NGOs and bottom-up initiatives and grassroots organizations. They just developed on the basis of the individual enthusiasm of young people organizing at different universities. At the technical university, a couple of us in 1984-1985 organized the Green Circle, which dealt with environmental issues. I was also a member of the Danube Circle, which was previously organized by Janos Vargha and other people. I was also one of those who organized the Clean Air Action Group at the end of the 1980s, which is a powerful organization even nowadays with Andras Lukacs still the leader. It has lots of sub-organizations that are still very active on rural development, air pollution, and transportation, not only in this country but across Europe.
I had a solid technical background, but I wanted to deal with the social, economic, and political aspects of environmental protection. All the time I was trying to combine these elements with my solid technical background. I found it very useful to have graduated from the chemical engineering school at the technical university, gotten my Ph.D., and worked as a scientist at Yale University as well as back here in Hungary. But I knew that I didn’t want to work as a scientist in the field of analytical chemistry. I wanted to deal with the social, political, and economic dimensions of environmental policy, so I directed my life intentionally in that direction.
At the end of our last interview, I asked you what your expectations were for your job. You said that you had a 70-80 percent of not being fired after a year.
After half a year actually!
So, how long did you stay that first time as state secretary in 1990, and what did you accomplish?
The newly formed government and the prime minister nominated me for that position on June 10, 1990. I learned much later the reason why I got that position. I was the member of the Danube Circle. Two colleagues from the same Danube Circle became advisors to the prime minister — not because they were members of the Danube Circle fighting against that hydroelectric dam development, but because they were dealing with foreign affairs and security issues. When they started to work around the prime minister and his cabinet, the question came up: who should be the minister of the new ministry of environment in this new government?
At that time in the government there was a coalition of parties including the Democratic Forum, the Smallholders, and the Christian Democratic Party. The president of the Christian Democrats wanted to become deputy prime minister, but Jozsef Antall, the prime minister at that time, did not accept his request. Much later on, it turned out that this president of the Christian Democrats had been forced by the secret police to report about different people. The police had threatened him and his family (he had 9 or 10 kids). Finally he signed up and started reporting. Mr. Antall got a list of secret police collaborators, and this man’s name was on it. That’s why Antall didn’t want to give him the position of deputy prime minister. At the same time, one of his kids, an older guy, was a member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum. The agreement was that his son would become minister of environment as a member of the same party as the prime minister. By education, this minister had some background in rural development, but he had nothing to do with environmental protection or water management or nature conservation. Since rural development was part of the portfolio of the ministry of environment, this chap got the ministerial position. And his father became the ambassador to the Vatican, which was a perfect solution for the head of the Christian Democrats.
Then, because these advisors around Mr. Antall knew that the new minister of environment didn’t have any background in or knowledge of or links to NGOs and had never dealt with environmental issues, they proposed me to the prime minister and that is how I got the nomination for that position when I was 29. In the modern history of Hungary and maybe the history of the last 100 years, I was the youngest state secretary.
The current government formed in 2010. This is the second Orban government. The first one was in power from 1998 to 2002. We now have a British system, which means that we have eight cabinet ministers along with junior ministers, which we call state secretaries, which is misleading. Sometimes people ask me about the government standpoint on the crisis in Syria or our strategy toward Far East countries like Vietnam. In the end, I have to admit that I don’t deal with foreign affairs as a state secretary. In English, our title is state minister. We also have to conduct the business of 27 EU member state ministers, which is what I was doing from January 1, 2011 to July 1, 2011, when Hungary was the president of the EU.
Our ministry is called the ministry of rural development. But this ministry was a merger of two different ministries. Before 2010, there was an independent ministry of agriculture and one of environmental protection, nature conservation, and water management. The first action of Prime Minister Orban was to decrease the number of ministries. That was a political gesture to the public that we are cutting down the bureaucracy and trying to save money. It’s a political action. There are four state ministers: one is responsible for food chain protection and forestry; the second is responsible for rural development; the third for agriculture; and I am responsible for three elements — environmental protection, nature conservation, and water management. We are three times bigger than other state ministers. I have 138 employees and they have 40-50. It’s three times larger because we have these three responsibilities.
Several people, including me, wanted to have a ministry of natural resources that would oversee all renewable and nonrenewable resources, and would include control over, for example, mining. It didn’t happen. The government was also very actively trying to organize work opportunities for laid-off people, particularly those without education who could offer only their physical strength. It doesn’t matter whether they are poor Gypsies or poor Hungarians, there are few workplaces for them. Actually water management is one of the best places for such work. You can clean the channels with heavy machinery. But in some places you can’t manage it except by physical work by hand. Before the political changes in 1989-90, brigades were sent to remote areas to do manual labor during the week. Transportation was organized to bring them home at the end of work on Friday, and on Monday they came back to start work again. That was a tradition in water management even as times changed and we acquired powerful machinery.
From 2010 to 2012, I organized 11,000 people to work as physical employees. Then the government made the decision that the minister of interior should be responsible for this type of work around the country — because the municipalities belong to the ministry of they interior. Flood prevention and flood control all went to the ministry of interior, and they are now responsible for organizing that type of physical work, for instance, to save the country from floods or to do catastrophe relief. That ministry handles the prevention-type physical work on the river embankments, in the watersheds, and cleaning the channels. Aside from that, 95 percent of water management is still under the control of rural development.
When we talked 23 years ago, one of the challenges you faced was what you called the “water lobby,” which was responsible in part for pushing the construction of the Nagymaros dam. You identified other strong lobbies, such as producers of solid waste and heavy industry.
The energy sector. The transportation sector.
At the time, you felt that you would have to go up against these forces in order to see any improvement in air and water quality. What happened?
First of all, I didn’t answer your earlier question. I was fired after half a year. From June 10, 1990, I worked at the ministry as a deputy state secretary until December 31, 1990. It was a serious fight. I was very much dedicated for a number of reasons. I was raised in a minority family and my father always told me that as a responsible individual and intellectual I should always try to do my best for my people, my country — in this case Hungary – and for humanity. Having this position when I was 29 years old, I used all my capacities and energies. I sacrificed my family life. It was like in the Flintstones cartoon — I was shouting and hitting the door of my home saying, “Let me in!” and my wife was saying, “You bastard, go back to your ministry because you are in love with your ministry!” And this was when we had a small child, who’d been born in the United States and whom we brought back here at the age of three months. I had a very challenging half a year in 1990. I did my best for the environment. And finally they fired me. Officially, in written form, the minister wrote that “you are dedicated to the environment.” Well, come on, I was sworn in to do that! Then he wrote, “But we have to consider other interests, and you are not capable of doing that. You are for the environment and that is why we are firing you.”
Actually it became a big scandal in this country. All the published articles, all the news about the environment in that half year were related to me — either I was making announcements or I made a decision and the media wrote about it or there was a press conference and I was talking about the problems. So I became a real advocate for the environment at the government level. I’ve kept that credibility until now. It doesn’t matter the political affiliation, they still recognize me in this country. I’m not only proud of this credibility but I treasure it like a very important jewel. I don’t form my standpoint based on party politics. It doesn’t matter if a person is from the opposition — from the Socialist Party or different entities. It only increases my credibility if I say, “Yes, you are right, that is a problem” or “Your solution is the perfect one.”
When I accepted this position, I knew what I should expect. I knew what the workload would be. But I understood that if I didn’t accept the position, then I would destroy my past and what I introduced into the field of environmental protection over the last 20-30 years. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to prove myself not only as an outsider but as an insider in power to make change. For several decades, everyday I went to sleep understanding what I didn’t do that day and what was still remaining to do. The next morning, I woke up thinking about what I should do for the benefit of people and environmental protection. That was the motivation, and that is still is the motivation. It doesn’t matter whether I am in this position or not. I told my colleagues, from the very beginning, that sleeping only four hours every night is not a pleasant situation, so I’d be very happy when the prime minister fires me or I resign. That gives me strength. I am dedicated, I am fighting, I am working all the time. I’m not a street fighter as I was. I’m not Don Quixote. But that will likely happen in my life if I have additional years to deal with environmental issues. In politics, you’re sometimes up and sometimes down.
I also understood that when I was critiquing my predecessors I was right in several cases. In other cases, I was right but I didn’t pay enough attention to the factors that were not related to their personalities or their activities: administration, laws and regulations, processes, stakeholders, interests. It’s not just the failure of that person: that minister or that state secretary. In several cases there are outside factors. There should be a higher appreciation of the person who is in charge of things. But in some other cases, watching the situation from inside the ministry, I understand what my predecessors didn’t do.
For instance, human resource management wasn’t taking place for the last decade. There wasn’t any education or post-education of bureaucrats in the administration. In several cases, there wasn’t enforcement of different laws or regulations. Or there wasn’t a fight against corruption or mismanagement within the structure.
Let me give you one example. We have 10 inspectorates, each with 150 people, and one high inspectorate. When you ask for a permit, the inspectorate checks the laws and you get or don’t get the permit. If you don’t get it, you can make a statement against the decision, and it goes to the high inspectorate. If the high inspectorate says you get the permit, that’s fine. But if you don’t get it, you can go to the court, and that decision will be the final stage. It’s a democratic system, like in any other country. There is an inspectorate in Szombathely, a mid-sized city with 120,000 inhabitants. In this case, in Szombathely, one company with three trucks ready to collect municipal solid waste got a permit to collect and transport 65 million tons of municipal solid waste. Just so you know, approximately 6 million tons of municipal tons are produced annually in Hungary.
So, it was ten times the amount for the whole country?
Right, so what the hell was happening? According to an internal inspection, it turned out that the permit had been issued several months earlier. I ordered the inspectorate to investigate. And this is what had happened. The department chief responsible for waste issues at that inspectorate was dying of cancer in the hospital. Those bastards, his colleagues from the department, were using his absence and his imminent death to issue this permit to the company under his name and without his signature.
I have some suspicions that this is corrupt, but I can’t prove it. So, I won’t make any statement. I’m just telling you what I found — a permit with a date from the time that the department chief was dying in the hospital. I immediately fired those 6-8 people from the inspectorate. That kind of fight never took place previously within the administration. My predecessors were sitting in this nice high position, but nothing was in the right order.
In the countryside, there are 3-4000 people working in the inspectorates, the national parks, and the directorates. In addition I have 138 employees working in the ministry of rural development. When they are criticizing me or the activities of the ministry, I am very punctual and I can say, “Yes, you are right.” This even happened openly in the parliament, when the opposition liberal-green party raised a question about our ministry. I admitted that they were right, and I immediately went back to the ministry and gave an order to improve that element of the law on nature protection. Since that time we are setting up blueprints for developing highly protected zones within each national park. This was a must in the law, but since the mid-1980s nobody did this.
These are the Natura 2000 areas?
No. Protection-wise, we have three categories — seed protection zone, which is the most important protected area; protected area; and Natura 2000, which is protected on the European level. Here I’m speaking of a paragraph in the Hungarian law from the mid-1980s spelling out what should be done, but since that time, no one did it.
During that half a year in 1990 I launched a project designating a certain area of southern Hungary as a nature protection area. Across the border in Serbia, in what was former Yugoslavia, there was also a nature protection area. When I was first in government in 1990 I launched a project to combine those two protected areas. Since I left, nothing happened, even though we had a fully prepared plan. When I returned to the ministry after 23 years, I asked what had happened. It turned out that everything was still there, left in the drawer like we had in 1990. It took us one-and-a-half years to negotiate with different ministries until finally, a couple months ago, our cabinet ministry held a very big celebration with our Serbian counterpart. There was an opening ceremony with a ribbon cutting and some nice speeches, and finally after 23 years, this has become a protected zone combined with the Serbian protected area.
One of the concerns you had 23 years ago was foreign companies exploiting the difference between the environmental regulations in Hungary and the EC — for instance, the recycling of metals that release arsenic and the sale of a French nuclear power plant that didn’t meet French levels. Was that extensive? Did it continue to happen?
Again this question reminds me that I didn’t answer the previous question. You were asking me about Hungarian lobbies, like the water lobby. The political changes, but mainly the economic changes, that took place in Hungary after 1990 helped to destroy these big lobbies. You will not believe the reason. Money! The water lobby, for instance, fell into millions of parts. Before 1990, 95 percent of the Hungarian public had access to fresh potable water from the tap. Nowadays, it’s 97 percent — those last couple percentages are very difficult to reach. During the Communist time, 95 percent of public got that water and 33 companies managed and provided that water. How many of those company nowadays exist? You would be shocked: 400!
We don’t need 400 companies, but each director and division chief from those 33 companies became a director of a smaller private company, which provides water maybe only to 22 settlements. As a result of those political and economic changes, there was a new interest to destroy the water lobby system. Every individual was pulling apart as much as he or she could manage, so the structure fell completely into parts. The efficiency dropped enormously. At the same time, there has been often useless investment into the technical system that produces and distributes the fresh potable water.
It wasn’t only individuals. It was also the municipalities that were charging people more for their water. You could see the corruption in the money that went into the renovation of a municipality-owned theater or the financing of the municipality basketball team. Basketball is a very important sport, but what’s its relationship with potable water? It was financed from the potable water fee because the municipality didn’t have enough money to support that sport. That was one outcome of that privatization process.
Second, the privatization of monopolies was a great mistake. It was an urban legend that private was always efficient and environment-friendly and only the government could destroy the environment. According to a Harvard University report on privatization processes in Central and Eastern Europe, the outcome was detrimental to the entire region because the living standard fell when we relied on only the market.
Then, answering your question about eco-colonization, yes, I’m still fighting the phenomenon that I faced at that time. There’s a German company, for instance, that didn’t fulfill the requirements and started to argue that if it had to pay a fine according to Hungarian laws, which are in accordance to EU regulations, then it would move to another country. I told them, “Come on, give me a break. Please, go!” That was my same suggestion for several years to several companies, and they never moved away. The comparative advantages keep them here: good workforce, highly educated, wages comparatively smaller than in the United States or Western Europe. And also natural resources like limestone — you cannot go to Romania or Ukraine because there’s no limestone.
In several cases, we are very strict in enforcing the laws and regulations and that is why these companies are not very happy. They are losing profit and that is why they are heavily attacking us in the political arena. They won’t say to their respective governments that they were robbing Hungarians or realizing huge extra profits. They’ll say that Hungary changed the law, and we are pushing them out because they are foreigners.
Actually, in the field of waste management, the Hungarian government made a decision that waste management – the collection and transportation of municipal solid waste – must be a public service, as in Germany and Austria. Public service in EU regulations means that there is no room for competition: only state- and municipality-owned companies can do it. But German and Austrian firms have gained a strategic position in this country. Out of 3,200 municipalities, one-third of them have been “occupied” by these German and Austrian companies collecting and transporting municipal solid waste. They can only do this now if they have 49 percent of the ownership, maximum. The company doing this service must be, at minimum, 51 percent owned by the municipality or the national government. It turned out that in several cases, what these German and Austrian companies gained in revenue, only 1/3 covered the cost of their activity. They were skimming off 2/3 through overcharging collection fees and transportation costs.
This current government would like to remain popular with the public and, if possible, win elections. And the government will remain popular if Hungarian citizens perceive its actions as benefiting them. If you compare the monthly costs versus revenue of Hungarian and Western European families, you see huge differences. From the salary of a Hungarian couple with two kids, a big chunk will go to these services, mainly utilities. That is why the current Hungarian government decided to decrease the cost of utilities by 10 percent. Of course the companies are screaming that it’s no longer profitable and they’ll stop providing these public services. And the prime minister says, “Yes, we don’t want public services that are profitable. We want zero sum — no profit.” Of course it’s acceptable to have a certain margin for new investments in that field. But these companies have been providing these services for extra profit, not just a little profit. Of course now they’re running back to Paris or Berlin to tell the prime minister and chancellor that those bad Hungarians are pushing us out of the Hungarian market and they don’t let anyone talk about the problems. They are making it a political issue. But this is not a political issue. It’s a question of money and profits, like always.
When we talked 23 years ago, you said that the Communist system produced an enormous environmental legacy. But you had been in the West and you knew that capitalist systems also produced an enormous amount of pollution.
The difference was that in the Western part of the world you could speak about it but there was no enforcement. You could speak, speak, speak, and nothing would happen. In the Eastern part, you didn’t have the freedom to speak about it, which was really stupid. I remember when we, from the NGO Clean Air Action Group, were asking for data on air pollution in Budapest, and the local municipality and the national government didn’t want to give the data. It turned out that in many cases they didn’t have the data. They didn’t want to admit that a powerful government didn’t know the situation! It was a prestige question for them. After the changes in 1989-90, in several squares in Budapest — Nyugati Square, Deak Square — there were monitor stations that were measuring and providing the data on a screen. After a certain period of time, no one was interested in it. Previously, there were demonstrations that they should tell us the truth. Finally, after several years, we got the data, and no one really cared any more.
And the data showed that the air quality was bad.
There should have been protests about the air quality!
But the protest was because there was no data. Now we have the data, and there are no protests and no public pressure. Every day they could see the concentration of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and so forth. They got used to it. Finally, after certain years, the monitors didn’t work any more, and they were removed. This year is the Year of Air at the European level. So, I launched a new project — and the Hungarian government approved it — that will use EU resources from 2013 to 2020 to build 35-40 stations, rather than just 14 in Budapest, and double the monitoring stations in the countryside form 70 to 150. If we have accurate data, it will help us set up models to determine which activities should be forbidden for certain times There are three main polluting sectors — energy, transportation, and households. It’s very difficult to reduce pollution from households since there are millions of individual sources. The power sector is open to new investments to decrease pollution, but that costs an enormous amount of money. The transportation section is growing and has lots of stakeholders. There’s a powerful transportation lobby, and they are unhappy with any new policy or legislation or requirements. Now I face the transportation sector as the biggest lobby in the field of environmental protection.
In 1990, you said that you had hoped that you could find a path between the Communist legacy of pollution and capitalist-style pollution — between the ability to talk about it and ignore it in the West and the impossibility of talking about it or doing anything about it in the East. Have you found any way to balance economic growth and environmental protection?
We became part of the globalized world. According to my experiences and my beliefs, the same standards and policies should be introduced around the world. Even if we push out ecocolonialism from our country, it will go to Ukraine or Romania. If you push out from there, it will go to the Caucasus. I hope we don’t have to wait 100 years for it to go all the way around the world and back again before we remove those comparative advantages of the different laws and regulations in different countries. That’s why I’m emphasizing the importance of the same standards, policies, and regulations. Maybe even, as in Europe, we’ll have a minimum requirement but then the option for stricter national rules.
I am watching the global world, but I act locally — not only in my personal life but locally in my country. I haven’t found any new way to balance economic interests and environmental protection. This fight is going on and will continue maybe forever because there will always be people who are very keen about money and nothing else. And there will be people who are enthusiasts for other values. This is a value question. That difference will always exist because even if there are only two of us, there will be differences. But thank God for these different ways of thinking.
Sometimes I see economic interest and environmental protection going hand in hand, for example in the field of renewable energies. On the other hand, I strongly believe that in the field of environmental protection, you will never find good solutions. You will always have either bad or worse solutions. If you’re smart, you choose the bad one. Also you have to deal on an individual case basis. There is no recipe. Even if there’s a success story in one country at one time, it doesn’t mean that it’s applicable everywhere else. You have to find new solutions for each particular place. That’s time-consuming, energy-consuming, and intellectual capacity-consuming.
When you look back to 1990, have you changed in any way the way you look at the world? Or do you look at the world pretty much the same way?
First of all, I am the same person with my title in the restroom and outside the restroom. I am not proud simply because I have the title of state secretary. So there is no change in that sense over the last 23 years. Maybe I have more understanding and more patience — not because I am older but because I have experienced more and seen more. But I am the same person and have the same enthusiasm as I had when I was 29. I am thankful to almighty God to have had that opportunity at 29 to be up and down, to be fired and to start again. That was a great experience — it was “great schooling.” I wish that everyone could have the same possibility.
I always tell my students that they should organize their own political party, it doesn’t matter which type (though of course there are some unacceptable political parties and ideologies). They should be fighting. Fighting doesn’t mean destruction. It doesn’t mean that you kill, that you try to destroy or conquer. I am not using “fight” in this sense. You must stand up again and again, and do your best for mankind, for environment, for your family, for yourself. That’s what I mean by “fight”: in that milder, more universal sense.
I’ve told my colleagues and subordinates that if someone would like to work in administration, they must have two characteristics. They must have a high level of patience and practice that everyday. Otherwise, they will destroy themselves or get fired. That doesn’t mean being ineffective or not working at all. It means doing your best but understanding that you have to wait for the window of opportunity.
Second, you have to accept the hierarchy of administration. If someone doesn’t accept hierarchy, they should be, like I was previously, a street fighter — which is an excellent opportunity for high-level performance in the field of environmental protection. And maybe I will return to that after my time as a “general” in this position.
May 8, 2013
Twenty-nine-years old, Zoltan Illes is a state secretary in the Ministry of the Environment. He has worked for the World Bank and in the environmental movement in Hungary. I had gotten mixed reports about him: a) he was the best Green in the Ministry or b) he was an opportunist. Of the people I’ve interviewed in government in this part of the world, I must say that I found him quite refreshing: lively and articulate. As for his effectiveness, he’s only been in office for a month.
Could you describe the work you have been doing?
Previously I had been working as a senior scientific advisor at the institute for managing natural resources and protecting the environment. Before that, I worked in D.C. as a consultant for Eastern European affairs. Before that, at Yale University as a research scientist. Before that, at the Technical University at Hungary, I studied chemical engineering and ecology and worked among NGOs in Hungary.
Could you describe the circumstances under which you decided to work here in government?
When I came back from the U.S., I was looking for a job in Hungary and I did not work in the Ministry at the time, this was the end of the summer last year. The previous ministry did not serve environmental protection. So I tried to find a job here in Hungary and I found this senior scientific position at the institute. And I accepted only because I found that the institute is under the control of the Ministry but only 30 percent of finances and projects come from the ministry and the institute tried to be as independent as possible from the ministry. I had the opportunity to work there independently and also to attack the Ministry several times and also to work for environmental protection. At the same time, I did not want to change the style of my working. I’m talking about a style that was acceptable in the NGO community. It was interesting that after dealing with the Bush Center [see Independent Ecological Center below] and after elections here in Hungary, a new regime was developed. Because I met the minister–who didn’t know himself that he would be minister–we were speaking with him about the Bush Center with my American colleagues. I got an offer from him. Later I heard why. He heard about me, asked NGOs about me, then asked several people in his party, the Democratic Forum (I am not a member of any party–that is also part of the story). The third: I was organizing with three other people, trying to be a catalyzer of Earth Day. I was highly spotted in the media.
Now, why did I accept? I call it the Vaclav Havel effect. It is very nice to be in the opposition and say why things are not good. Much harder and difficult is to try to lead, to deal with the question and try to solve the problem. I wanted to have here other Greens from NGO society, for example, I asked Ms. Vasarhelyi, I thought she would accept the position of department chief of international affairs. I thought that several people from NGO society would come to help and support me. But it didn’t happen. For several people, it is easier to be outside the events and saying, “that is not good.” I am not happy with it: not only because my work is going very hard here. People from the old regime and old structures are still here. I almost completely changed the structures under my control. I fired several people from the previous regime: not because they are good experts but because they are not experts and came from the nomenklatura. I tried to find my own people. I’m 29 years old but my colleagues are older: some young people are working here but some people are highly acceptable experts. Either they were out of the government or they were pushed aside or their ideas were not acceptable to the previous regime.
Could you give some examples of some administrative problems you have encountered? And then talk a little about the environmental problems you will be tackling.
First of all, the Minister comes from the MDF. Before the Minister accepted his position, I told on TV that from my point of view, an independent person must get this position: if for no other reason then just to show that environmental protection is not part of party politics. It is on a higher stage: it has to be done acceptably for every party. On the other hand, you have to know that after the minister there is: the political state secretary for environmental protection, the administrative state secretary for environmental protection, then two deputies: one for environmental protection and nature conservation (that is my task) and one for regional development and physical planning. The political state secretary is also a member of the Smallholders party and they found somebody who in the previous regime was responsible for environmental protection in one region, doing nothing, just inviting comrades and giving nice dinners. We call them watermelons. Then, the administrative state secretary was a very close co-worker of Nemeth: do I have to tell you more? They have a style from the previous regime. Also the administrative state secretary tried to get under his control financial questions, law and policy, international affairs, public relations and education. He is the department chief: he has the right to hire and fire. In my hands are only environmental protection or nature conservation as a task. But money or decision-making is not in my hands. I am part of the decision-making process of course, I put pressure on them. But I was facing during this one month direct conflicts. I was trying to manage, considering who would be my counterparts. Finally, I discovered that I could rely only on the minister– fortunately I have a good connection with him. Otherwise, I cannot imagine how I could deal with these questions. I tried to play a political game with them but finally, always I had to have direct conflicts. They didn’t want to fire, for example, someone who was a person from the nomenklatura, from the Politburo, and who one and a half years ago came to lead one department here. They said: we cannot fire someone who is an expert. When I explained that he is not an expert, they said “you don’t know about the “A” and the “B” lists. After WWII, we had two lists: who was from the previous regime–on the B list. The communists were on the A list and we got jobs and apartments. The B list was sent to the camps or to the countryside.” They were now saying that we could not make a B list against the Communists.
Environmental issues are really serious here. Air pollution. All breathing in Budapest is a health hazard: also in the big cities. Why? Everybody feels it. What else? We produce every year 100 million tons of waste, 5-6 million tons of hazardous waste. We have only one municipal incinerator and only one for hazardous waste which is being set up now. We have only one precisely developed standardized landfill. Otherwise we know of 2000 illegal landfills: can you imagine how many there are that we don’t know about? The first problem is a waste problem. But people don’t see it and therefore air pollution is a priority. Water pollution is the third, mainly caused by agricultural production because we were using fertilizers, potassium and nitrates. You know that plants cannot absorb potassium. Nitrates is also a main problem: we were poisoning our water just to force higher production. Of course, I know that they wanted to sell abroad to get dollars. But it is a circle. Now, our earth and water are contaminated and we cannot sell this food abroad. In 1992, the EEC will not accept our products because they have a high rate of nitrates and other chemicals. It is the same story with pesticides, herbicides as well.
Haven’t several Western organizations come to Hungary to identify specific projects to fund?
The World Bank came a few months ago to have a fact-finding mission. I was working there and I set up a first draft for them and then they came to factfind. Now they are considering a loan for Hungary, I’m not sure.
Loans to the ministry?
To the government. World Bank gives to the government or to banks. Then, the EEC has the PHARE project for Poland and Hungary for development of bank system, industrial projects and also environmental protection. Hungary got 27 million dollars for this year. It was set up by the previous Ministry and the new Minister was forced to sign the contract. The projects were accepted by the EEC who were short of time and wanted to show results. From the Hungarian side, the water lobby chose the projects.
Are they not the most important projects?
Some of them are not that important. And I don’t think that they are set up. There were no feasibility studies. We didn’t have time: I accept that. And the EEC, of course, had to show that they spent the money within the fiscal year. The water lobby also used the opportunity. For example, the way of gathering information or setting up the projects: it was not announced to the public or to companies. Only the Ministry of water lobby from the previous regime asked bureaus from the countryside–their own organizations to give projects. There was also a lot of pressure from the NGOs on PHARE: so they also had to accept nature conservation project, monitoring of air pollution as well.
There will also be installation of catalytic converters and introduction of lead-free gasoline?
This was not included in the PHARE project. You heard about what has to be done. My colleagues and I wrote a letter to the Ministry of Finance asking him not to raise the price of unleaded fuel. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Do you know why? Unleaded is the same price as “super fuel” [a type of leaded fuel]. At the ministry of transportation, the deputy state secretary (who was also part of the previous regime) was emphasizing: we don’t have enough producing capacity. But the alcohols necessary for the production of unleaded fuels–ethanols necessary for increasing octane–we are selling abroad. That is the reason why we don’t have production capacity. You might say: if Hungary doesn’t sell abroad, you will lose convertible currency. Then I will say: how much will the deterioration of health caused by lead pollution cost?
So, I don’t think that changes have taken place. I know, it has only been one month. Environmental protection was announced as a priority–but it hasn’t happened yet. And also, what is unfortunate, during the previous regime NGOs were all together against the government. Also the opposition was using the issues very nicely against the previous regime. But later on, during the transition time, people from NGOs went to different parties. They are still speaking one common language, these Greens from several parties, but they are separate; they are not very strong as their own party. On the other hand, several people started to develop a Green Party here in Hungary; unfortunately watermelons were using this issue as a way to get into parliament. And NGOs didn’t accept the Green party and the leadership of the Green party. The second part of the story: NGOs are different from parties. It shocked me: perhaps you heard about the Young Democrats [FIDESZ]? They wanted to hire me before I accepted this position as a consultant. And I told them “I will be your consultant without any charge. I will accept your offer only if I can give my information not only to you but to everyone dealing in this field of environmental protection, it doesn’t matter party or NGO.” And they didn’t want to accept it. I am not against parties and it is much better to have several parties than only one but party structures are party structures.
How many resources are provided for your particular section of the Ministry?
A good question. I don’t know. I know that we are very poor. I don’t have money to hire an executive department chief. I would like to fire those people from the previous regime, but they will have their salaries for six months, though they will not be working here: this is Hungarian law. Until that time, we don’t have money to hire other people. And I cannot start with the work. In the previous ministry, before we got power, 95 per cent of budget was already allocated.
It seems as though the West is dying to give money for the environment in this part of the world. None of it for your ministry?
They are giving for projects. But they are not familiar with Hungarian circumstances. They think their money will go to the right places, into the right hands. But they will face difficulties. Maybe at the high level there are some changes. But at the low level, at the level of municipalities, changes haven’t occurred. Municipal elections will occur in September.
What will be the relationship between the various ecological institutes and the Ministry?
If you have new people, a new style will emerge. A few minutes before you arrived, an American expert arrived and we started to set up a project to have a hypermedia and decision support system, not only for the Ministry but also for the Parliament which will be connected to the Bush Center.
A computer network?
Not only. For example, air pollution trends: you will be able to see in colors. Then politicians who are not experts will be able to see the trend and why they will have to deal with this question, why they will have to change policies. This will be set up with the help of the EPA and perhaps the Bush Center. You mentioned the Independent Ecological Center. I am now really fighting to have a close link–compatibility–between the Ministry and the Center. Direct lines, direct computer links: I would like to see us send all of the information we gather here to the Center.
During this last month, I was highly covered in the media. Not only because I know the journalists. But because it is a completely new style. Openness has been and is still missing. You heard me speaking on the phone before. There is one big issue in Budapest now. One ministry–Foreign Trade–wanted to sell and then rent a kindergarten to a French school for French kids of diplomats. This kindergarten is located in a nice area in the Buda hills. You know that 50 per cent of Budapest is covered with highly polluted air. So kids are going to kindergartens that are polluted. We have analyses of lead content in their blood, for instance. You can ask: why does the Ministry want to rent out for French children and throw out Hungarian kids? 40 per cent of the Hungarian kids are asthmatic. This is not a question of French or Hungarian: this is not patriotism. I supported the parents who were fighting against that Ministry and I spoke out in public that I’m against selling or renting out. We must bring all kids, as much as possible, to nice areas. Already the minister of Foreign Trade wanted to ask the Prime Minister to fire me. This is only one part of the story. Then, Russian generals aren’t happy with me. They are withdrawing troops from Hungary and they are leaving highly contaminated sites. And I am dealing with the question now. We will ask them to pay, and we will not pay for them.
The third thing. The West, you mentioned, is eager to give Hungary aid and loans. They are also keen to see that we buy from them technology which is not clean: and we cannot accept that. Now, they finally find out who is their enemy. And that is another reason why they want to fire me from this position.
Is part of your job developing new government regulations?
Unfortunately not. The Administrative State Secretary has the department where lawyers are and they are setting the policy. Now they are working on the law. Now the question is: you have to enforce your ideas and on the other side are sitting lawyers who are not experts in the field. It’s a strange situation: experts are not setting up the law on environment. Of course, you have to involve lawyers. But it is the opposite: lawyers are setting up the law and we give them ideas. I heard that in September a new law for environmental protection and nature conservation has to be announced. The end of December it will be accepted by the government. We have only a few months for this–it is quite unbelievable.
Do you have any idea how the planned Hungarian law compares with EEC regulations?
You know that in Hungary, regulations were very strict. Enforcement simply didn’t happen. And also, control was missing. For example, you are an authorized expert [for inspection] but you had to call up a company for an appointment, and they will give you an appointment one month later. Then they will clean everything in that time. Or barrels with hazardous waste will be put on trucks and those trucks will be sent all around the country. When you arrive to the company you will not find anything. In the U.S., you don’t have to announce that you’re coming: you can go in directly. We don’t have the law. And we don’t have the economic incentives that can help enforce those regulations.
So we had very strict regulations. Let me give you an example. On air pollution, we had strict regulations on exhaust from cars. Only in the footnote you could read: this is not valid for Eastern European cars! [the overwhelming majority of cars in Hungary are made in Eastern Europe]
I think we will try to harmonize our regulations with the EEC–but this is a long, long process.
The EPA had a lot of problems with enforcement in the 1980s–it wasn’t given enough money by the government. How will the laws be enforced here?
The same problem here. They forget that if the government doesn’t say that environmental protection is a priority and doesn’t set up policies accordingly, then economic development can not really take place here in Hungary. On the other hand, they say that we don’t have enough time: and therefore we must push aside environmental questions. But often, it is not a question of money. Rather, it is a question of how you are educated: it is not a question of attitude but of knowledge.
I hear that many companies in the EEC who have to deal with strict regulations in their own countries are looking for countries such as Hungary where the regulations are not as strict or are not being enforced. Could you give some examples?
The French company that would like to sell a very nice nuclear power plant to us–much better than Chernobyl but one that is not acceptable in the EEC. The French government will give the loan, then Hungary will buy the plant. Another example: you know in computers there are several gold and silver parts. A French company decided to set up a company to recycle these elements and take out the gold and silver. Our institute checked the technology and found out that 10 per cent cyanide will go into the air. Also, the hazardous waste lobby in this country is very strong. I heard a few days ago that an Austrian company wanted to buy hazardous waste from the Soviet Union and use it as material for processing. Now standards are stricter in Austria so they can’t bring the waste into the country. So they’ve started to develop joint ventures on the eastern border of Hungary that will bring into the country those hazardous materials.
I understand that the regional councils are selling a lot of land under their control.
They wanted to keep their power. Someone was the head of that municipality and now he is the executive director of a joint venture and they brought the land into the deal as equity.
Has any of the land been in environmental preserves?
Here in Budapest, for example, where air pollution is a serious problem. In the hilly Buda area, they started to bring land equity into joint ventures to build up hotels or houses to be sold to foreigners. Also, in a town not far from Budapest, they will like to develop a shopping center. And here the capacity of sewage treatment is limited and they didn’t give the opportunity for households to bring sewage to the cleaning facility because they wanted the shopping center which will send its own waste.
What’s your opinion of the EXPO scheduled for Budapest in 1995?
Let me tell you a story. An American firm wanted to be part of it. But they were told that there was no feasibility study. This company called me because they were frightened that there was no feasibility study: I told them that if we have a feasibility study, there will not be an EXPO. There are several plans. A smaller EXPO costing 90 billion forints would not be profitable (and the government only has 20 billion). The bigger version is somewhere around 360 billion and then we are thinking about all the people coming and the waste problem.
Can you stop the plan?
I don’t think so.
This brings up the conflict between economic development and environmental protection.
We have to find somehow a third way. Western countries are showing that environmental protection was also pushed aside. On the other hand, the Communist regime showed that it could not solve these problems. If we follow your way, we will have to go through the same. But we already have bigger pollution. Then if we follow your way, we will face vast problems. On the other hand, we would like to have nice big Western cars, higher living standard, much more consumption.
Have you talked with your counterparts in the ministries of neighboring countries?
Not yet. I didn’t talk with people from other Hungarian ministries until today. I don’t have any kind of contact with other officials.
You’ve mentioned many obstacles you’ve faced in your first month. Are you in any sense optimistic about your job here?
Maybe they will fire me. But I am 70-80 per cent optimistic.