Pál Csáky: SMK not 'Byzantine swindlers'

Long the most stable element of Slovakia's sprawling coalition government, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) abruptly changed its tune last year to one of frustration over the failure of its partners to address Hungarian demands. Some SMK leaders even threatened to walk out on the coalition, and all refused to support vital reforms unless other coalition members kept past promises.
The SMK's principal demands include the creation of a Hungarian district in southern Slovakia as part of a government plan to redraw regional boundaries, and the transfer of land unclaimed in the post-communist restitution process from central to local government control.

Csáky says that a coalition collapse would be "a catastrophe".
photo: Ján Svrček

Long the most stable element of Slovakia's sprawling coalition government, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) abruptly changed its tune last year to one of frustration over the failure of its partners to address Hungarian demands. Some SMK leaders even threatened to walk out on the coalition, and all refused to support vital reforms unless other coalition members kept past promises.

The SMK's principal demands include the creation of a Hungarian district in southern Slovakia as part of a government plan to redraw regional boundaries, and the transfer of land unclaimed in the post-communist restitution process from central to local government control.

Throughout the ordeal, Deputy Prime Minister for Minority and Human Rights and SMK moderate Pál Csáky has maintained a conciliatory tone. The Slovak Spectator caught up with Csáky January 22 moments before he was due to attend a meeting on the unresolved question of land reform. "I am again going to look for a compromise," he said with a smile.

In the short time available, Csáky spoke of the demands of the Hungarian party, a recent controversy surrounding the use of the Roma language in the upcoming census, and dining with the Dalai Lama.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Two weeks ago you told our readers only a part of the census forms would be translated into the Roma language. Last week the Slovak media reported that the entire form would be translated. Can you explain?

Pál Csáky (PC): There has been a positive development since we last spoke [for the Spectator article on the census in which Csáky explained why the forms would not be in the Roma language]. Our dilemma is: to what extent is the Roma language codified? Can we use the language for official purposes, such as the census? The Roma language has expressions for everyday life, but for science and politics it doesn't have specific terms. And some expressions in the Roma language in eastern Slovakia mean something different than in western Slovakia.

Our original plan was to have only the explanation portion of the form in the Roma language, but now we will have the entire form. I spoke to my advisors, who said that the whole form could be translated. I proposed it to the government, and it agreed.

It will be a dual language form, with Slovak as well, so it shouldn't be a problem for a Roma citizen to understand what information we are seeking. The main goal isn't to use the Roma language, but to get the correct information.

"Objections [to public administration reform] are not based on fears about autonomy or separation."
photo: Ján Svrček

TSS: Complete forms have already been translated into Hungarian, Rusyn and Ukrainian. Why did you start addressing the question of a Roma census form so late?

PC: We didn't start late. The census is in May. The census comes only once every 10 years and costs several hundred million crowns. We had to make sure the form wouldn't have unsuitable terms.

TSS: Will a double language form actually help minorities understand the census form, or is it just a symbolic gesture?

PC: It's more a gesture. We want to approach citizens in the most positive way, the way that is most natural for them. When the state acts in a positive way, there is more chance that the person will give accurate information and declare his identity [while experts have estimated that as many as 500,000 Roma live in Slovakia, they say confusion over the aims and instructions of the 1991 census meant that fewer than 100,000 Roma declared their true ethnicity - ed. note].

TSS: How do you respond to complaints that the government is not taking concrete steps to solve Roma problems?

PC: That's a typical communist opinion, to expect the government to fix everything. It's a challenge for all of society - NGO's, municipalities, regional governments.

TSS: Do problems in effectively addressing the Roma question lie in a lack of money, or a lack of viable solutions?

PC: Of course there isn't enough money, but that kind of question reflects a poor understanding of the situation. The Roma problem arises from the absence of a model for mutual coexistence between completely different cultures. If you had an unimaginable amount of money, could you change India into a modern European country in four years? No. Roma mentality, culture, thinking, reactions do not stem from the classic Slovak culture. We have to look for mutual coexistence, and we need time to make changes inside ourselves - both Roma and non-Roma citizens.

TSS: Do you think the international media has a naive view of Slovakia's Roma problem?

PC: I would say yes. Everyone seems to be looking for a simple solution. But simple and quick solutions don't exist in some areas.

TSS: Why have the Roma never formed a single political party?

PC: They have. In Slovakia they have 18. The problem is they have too many (laughs).

TSS: How big a problem is their lack of political unity?

PC: I am not a professional in a position to judge, but a state official, so I can only tell you my personal opinion. There is a crisis of faith in the Roma community toward their leaders. The people who declare themselves Roma leaders don't always have the support of their community. And there exist [divisive] family loyalties.

It was announced recently that a Roma coalition would enter the next elections as a separate entity. I strongly support this, but not as deputy prime minister. It is not my role to solve their political problems.

TSS: Could you briefly explain the dispute over the Komárňanská župa [the new district proposed by the Hungarian coalition that would encompass the area where most of Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians live. - ed. note] within the reform of public administration?

PC: There are eight strong Hungarian communities dispersed throughout the south-west of the country. If you look at Slovakia's regional districts, the east of Slovakia is divided horizontally into two parts, as is the middle of Slovakia. But in the west the districts are divided vertically.

This vertical division divides the Hungarian community in the south into two parts. When public administration is reformed, important decisions will be made in regional parliaments, and we are afraid that citizens in the south - not only Hungarians, Slovaks that live there too - will be outvoted if these vertical divisions remain and Hungarians are no more than 20 or 30% of the population [in any one district].

We are demanding that these eight core communities with Hungarians - of course Slovaks live there as well - not be divided. It [this demand] was unfortunately labelled the Komárňanská župa. It was a mistake of some of my colleagues who didn't present it to the public in the most suitable way.

TSS: So the Hungarians would form a majority?

PC: It doesn't have to be that way. We have a compromise in which Hungarians would be a minority, around 40%. We propose only that the bottom part of the region remain whole. The upper part can be discussed.

TSS: How do you answer people who say that this is the first step to Hungarian autonomy and even separation?

PC: That's not possible. The proposed region and its parliament would have the same powers and rights as any other region. It would not be the genesis of separation, but the decentralisation of government, which is what we all want. The constitution and laws of this country do not allow any form of separation. But I don't think objections are founded on fears about autonomy or separation.

TSS: So why are Slovak politicians against your proposal?

PC: That's a good question [laughs].

TSS: What would you do if you were a Slovak politician?

PC: I would immediately agree to my compromise.

TSS: Wouldn't it be political suicide for a Slovak politician to support the župa?

PC: No, because we are offering a compromise by which Slovaks would be in the majority, 60% for example. That's a strong guarantee for them.

And we aren't speaking only on behalf of Hungarian interests, but for the whole region, which also includes Slovaks. Slovaks that live there don't support the nationalist parties. If you look at the election results for [the opposition parties] SNS or HZDS according to regions, support there is very weak.

TSS: Would the Hungarian coalition have brought up the župa question if its demands for land reform had been met?

PC: The questions are not related. First, I should explain to your readers a little about land reform. Slovakia has around 650,000 hectares of land that was unclaimed after the fall of communism. Some of the families in the region died, left the country during the war, or emigrated later, 1968, for example.

The state now manages and rents the land [through the Slovak Land Fund], unfortunately in an uncontrolled and non-transparent fashion. We have strong signals that there is deep corruption. We want that people who live in an area, the municipalities that is, make decisions concerning the [unclaimed] land [that lies within their boundaries], and that they be the ones who get any income from the land. The Slovak union of municipalities [ZMOS] supports this idea.

Land reform highlights several fundamental steps that must be made in Slovakia - decreasing corruption, increasing transparency and openness, and decentralising decision-making powers.

The reform of regional administration is a completely different matter, a matter of the future, of the way future governments will make decisions. We only want all regions to have the same chance.

TSS: Isn't land reform also a question of money? Most of the land, and most of the most valuable land, is in the southern [Hungarian] part of the country. With the central government managing the lands, profits are divided among the entire country.

PC: The basic problem is the old communist idea that the state is the best and the most fair manager. There is a group of people who now deal with the land, and I fear that the profit isn't going to the state budget, but into their own pockets.

TSS: According to you, corruption is greater with the state managing the land than it would be if municipalities had control?

PC: Not only according to me. Look at the report of the controlling body of the State Land Fund between 1994 and 1998. Those people took 14-day trips to places like Thailand, where they learned how to breed alligators. There is evidence of this. Is this good management?

Then there is the disparate value of land in the north and south of Slovakia. Towns receive a certain amount of support from the state budget. [Under our proposal] any profit the municipalities made from unclaimed land would be subtracted from their income from the government. So the state budget and taxpayers would save money. The two are connected.

Decentralisation is about giving power to municipalities and creating a regional tax base, and then telling them, "Now take care of yourselves." The more investments and the more business there are, the more taxes and other money they can raise on their own.

The closer government gets to the people, the more control citizens have. A central committee won't end corruption. This has to come from the public, the people and the media.

TSS: When did the Hungarian party become frustrated with the coalition's unwillingness to address these issues?

PC: We aren't frustrated. Some of my colleagues, who saw that the government was only selectively fulfilling its programme, whether something was written or not [in the government programme, such as a 1998 promise to return unclaimed land to municipalities - ed. note], expressed themselves in such a way, but I don't consider it a constructive approach.

TSS: When the government ignores your demands, does it strengthen the extremists in your party?

PC: The government caused unrest in my party. But we don't have extremists. We have people who have stronger opinions on some matters, but we know how to balance them. We have strong interest in approving the amendment to the constitution, which should be the best proof of our party's role in forming the state.

TSS: Do you think members within the coalition wanted to discredit the SMK among Slovaks by provoking SMK extremists into making bold statements?

PC: Certainly it's possible. But we refuse to be provoked, and we work as a stable party that has a unified opinion. All of our decisions are negotiated within our party and we achieve a mutual opinion. We won't let ourselves be provoked.

TSS: What will happen if your demands aren't met?

PC: We will analyse the situation and look for a democratic solution. We have never demanded privatisation for ourselves or any other advantages. We only demand the principles of a democratic country and entry as soon as possible into the EU. There is still willingness to make an agreement, because there is nowhere to go from this coalition.

TSS: So you have never considered leaving the coalition?

PC: No. That would be a catastrophe. If the stability of the coalition was in doubt, it would cast doubt on democratic development. The problem with Slovakia is that the political alternative is not democratic. We can't let ourselves endanger the future of the country. That's why we've been flexible.

TSS: Do you think that this is the last chance for Hungarians to be part of a government in Slovakia?

PC: Absolutely not. The political scene is so divided that it needs a stabiliser, and we would like to play that role. But we don't know the details of how everything will look in two years.

TSS: Does the coalition need a stronger leader?

PC: I don't think it's a personality problem. The coalition is very divided, and the SDK, which was supposed to be the strongest party, is also divided. The prime minister has to balance the interests of the SDK and then in the coalition between the right and left wing - it is very demanding. But I still think the coalition is headed in the right direction. A strong leader can also be dangerous (laughs).

TSS: The SMK seems to be solid and united within the coalition, while other coalition partners are more fragmented. Do you have a different way of doing things?

PC: I can only tell you why we do things the way we do. We are Europeans and we try to conduct ourselves according to European customs and traditions. European culture is based on Christian-Judaic foundations, which say a man should be transparent and correct, and that he shouldn't cheat his partners. Byzantine swindling is foreign to us.

Slovakia will be a real European country when these values become embedded in politics, in public life, and in the economy. It is not by chance that the phrase 'gentlemen's agreement' didn't enter the consciousness of people speaking the Russian language, that it originated in an Anglo-Saxon language. If I give my hand like a gentlemen and keep my word, that reflects a certain political and cultural approach, an approach we try to take.

TSS: You were one of the only government leaders to meet the Dalai Lama when he came in October. What was he like?

PC: We ate together and had a very good conversation, which lasted about two hours - it was very nice. I took it upon myself to take that step. Some of my colleagues in the government were more careful, probably because of reactions from the Chinese Republic. But I believe what I did, and what the [Bratislava's Comenius] university did, which was award him an honorary doctorate, were the right steps. He is a very kind man. He surprised me by saying in one interview that he and I were very close inside because we were both members of minorities.

TSS: Did he give you any good advice?

PC: (Laughs) We spoke about very interesting things.

TSS: What did the Lama eat? Is he a vegetarian?

PC: It was interesting. The details of his visit were negotiated in advance, and for some reason it was decided that he would receive vegetarian food. I was sitting across from him. I had meat and he didn't. He looked at me and said, "What's that?" I said, "That's duck meat." He asked why he didn't get any? I said that someone must have requested a vegetarian meal for him.

A monk sitting next to him had meat. The Dalai Lama turned to him and said, "Today you are going to fast." And he reached over and switched their plates.

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