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15 October 2009

Privatisation on parole

Hungary is fighting the neoliberal model imposed after 1989

By Neil Clark

Twenty years ago, Hungary’s decision to open its border with Austria triggered the dramatic events that led to the fall of communism in eastern Europe. But today the country is fighting the neoliberal economic model imposed after 1989.

In Pécs, a historic city in the south, the local authority has reacted to public anger over soaring water bills by sending security guards to seize the local waterworks from the French company Suez Environment and to prevent its management from entering the building.

A 48.05 per cent stake in the city’s water company was sold to the French multinational, which supplies water to 76 million people worldwide, in 1995. The company also receives an annual “management fee” of 120 million forint (£419,000).

The mayor of Pécs, Zsolt Páva, has accused Suez of profiteering and a lack of transparency, and the town cancelled the contract with effect from the end of September. Suez is countering with legal proceedings. “If 20 commandos arrive at 3am and occupy somewhere, that is not a European solution, and is undoubtedly illegal,” a company manager said.

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But Suez, whose turnover last year was €12.4bn (£11.5bn), should not expect much sympathy from local people, struggling to make ends meet in an economy where real wages are forecast to fall by up to 3.5 per cent this year. In a poll, 94 per cent said they supported the local authority.

It’s not the first time the French company’s record has been challenged. The pressure group Food and Water Watch charges Suez with a “range of abusive practices that place profit before the human right to water”, including refusing to extend services to poorer areas, cutting off water if people are unable to pay, and “raising rates to unaffordable levels”.

Opposition to privatisation is high, so, with a spring election looming, even neoliberal politicians are having to change their tune: in June, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai said he would prevent privatisation of the water supply. Multinationals may not like it, but 20 years on from capital’s conquest of eastern Europe, public ownership, not privatisation, is the vote-winner.