SMK's Bugár: Voters were deceived

Béla Bugár, head of the ethnic-Hungarian SMK party, has for the last six weeks been urging his colleagues to take the SMK out of Slovakia's five-party ruling coalition. A formal meeting of the SMK's ruling body, its national council, was scheduled for August 25 and was expected to make a final decision on the matter when The Slovak Spectator went to print.
The SMK has seen many of its political objectives frustrated since joining the government in October 1998, but no reversal was more galling than that suffered July 4 when parliament overruled a cabinet proposal that 12 new self-governing regions be created in Slovakia.

Bugár says he is disappointed at a revival of anti-Hungarian politics.
photo: Ján Svrček

Béla Bugár, head of the ethnic-Hungarian SMK party, has for the last six weeks been urging his colleagues to take the SMK out of Slovakia's five-party ruling coalition. A formal meeting of the SMK's ruling body, its national council, was scheduled for August 25 and was expected to make a final decision on the matter when The Slovak Spectator went to print.

The SMK has seen many of its political objectives frustrated since joining the government in October 1998, but no reversal was more galling than that suffered July 4 when parliament overruled a cabinet proposal that 12 new self-governing regions be created in Slovakia. Members of the ruling coalition Democratic Left (SDĽ), Civic Understanding (SOP) and Democratic Christian Union (SDKÚ) parties ultimately sided with the political opposition in opting for an eight-region model, anathema to the Hungarians.

But when the Spectator met him in parliament August 21, Bugár was subdued on the matter of his political partners' bad faith, and would not betray the decision of the SMK's national council beyond hinting it might put off a final decision to give all sides time to cool off. "Don't ask me about it," he said. "I'm not going to tell you anything."

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): I know you've said you don't want to discuss it, but I have to ask - has the SMK national council already decided to leave or not?

Béla Bugár (BB): I can't say because it's not me who decides, it's the 94-member national council. There are voices in the SMK which want to leave the government but not immediately, to give more time for discussion to coalition parties, and I think these voices have the greatest chance to carry the day.

Drawing circles with his finger, SMK party leader Béla Bugár explains why 12 regions are better than eight.
photo: Ján Svrček

But it has to be recognised that the SMK is leaving the government because of the reform [of Slovakia's regional borders and government, known as 'public administration reform' - ed. note]. The party will only change its mind if all laws affecting this reform bring about true change. Take, for example, the law specifying which powers will be delegated [from central state ministries and offices to regional and municipal governments] - we don't want to see any more of this attitude, "We'll give away some powers, but we'd prefer not to give up any." If our coalition partners want us to remain in government, I think this could be a point of compromise - that all further laws concerning public administration reform should be such that true reform is launched.

TSS: If you leave, will the July 4 approval of the eight-region scheme in parliament be the only reason?

BB: The government in Banská Bystrica on June 27, 2000 decided that it would propose a 12-region model, meaning that the part of the government which voted with the opposition on July 4 for eight regions let the voters down. I feel that if we're going to be in government together, we are all responsible for the entire country, and that if our partners promised eastern Slovakia, for example, that new regions would be created, that's our responsibility as well. They weren't created, I feel people were lied to, and that's why I think that by remaining in government we would be helping just to white-wash over the whole matter. No way. We can put up with some things, but this is too much.

TSS: Did your path out of the government begin further back, with the 1999 Minority Languages Law, last year's constitutional reform, the fight over the land fund...

BB: You might say that this is the last and most important straw. Starting this reform was one of the government's key roles, because it involved building a true civil society, giving powers to the people and letting them decide without first having to do something for some parties or politicians above them. But this role was very badly, I don't want to say screwed up, but very fundamentally altered. We had warned before that if the eight-region model passed, which means the old [former Prime Minister Vladimír] Mečiar reform idea, that we would bring up the question of leaving the government. This is what we've done.

TSS: If you do leave, what will be the effect on domestic governance? On Slovakia's international integration aims?

BB: You have to realise that our decision is a reaction to a prior action - the choice of the SDĽ and SOP to vote with the opposition HZDS [Movement for a Democratic Slovakia] and SNS [Slovak National Party] against the reform programme, against the cabinet reform proposal. The SDĽ Chairman [Jozef Migaš] has even now said the Competence Law [assigning powers to regional governments] may go the same way. So it isn't we who are creating tensions.

The other question is how the SMK's possible departure from the government will affect Slovakia's political stability and thus international aims. But that's a question you have to ask our coalition partners, that if we leave, are these parties willing to continue co-operating with us or will they work with the opposition? This is the most important question. If they decide to work with us, of course they know we will support pro-integration, pro-reform goals, and we can continue to send good signals abroad. Maybe the SMK national council will give them one more chance, that as long as all reform laws are passed as they should be we would remain where we are. But right now I can't imagine that happening. You'll have to ask this question next Monday after the national council. Don't ask me any more questions about what will happen at the national council, or this interview is over.

TSS: Why do you think foreign institutions such as the European Commission regarded the passage of the eight-region model as a success for Slovakia? Do you think they look at your threat to leave as more of an action than a reaction, as you see it?

BB: It's interesting to note that the Council of Europe is still questioning whether this means true reform. At the beginning they lacked information and said "Hurrah! They've passed the reform!" It wasn't until later that people began saying "Oh-oh, watch out!"

TSS: Why were 12 regions considered so much better than eight?

BB: Look at a map of Slovakia, where now we have eight regions [opens magazine with map and points]. Draw rings with your finger around regional capitals and decision-making centres such as Trnava, Nitra, Banská Bystrica, Žilina, Prešov, and ask yourself how well they manage to look after, let's say, the economic growth and social security of citizens living in the north or south of Slovakia. With a model involving 12 regions, 12 capitals, those areas are covered, but not with eight. The northern and southern regions are left out in the cold.

TSS: US Embassy chargé d'affaires Douglas Hengel said it would send a very bad signal abroad if the SMK was seen to have been forced out of the government coalition. You had said before that your condition for staying was the amendment of the two regional reform laws passed July 4; now that Migaš has called regional elections for December 1, it seems unlikely there will be either time or readiness to change these laws. Has Migaš effectively done what Hengel warned against - pushed you out by giving you no room to negotiate?

BB: I'll put this very mildly - he has narrowed space for discussion and compromise.

TSS: I know you'll probably recommend I ask him myself, but why do you think Migaš took this step?

BB: Why? On the one hand to prevent the SMK national council from considering this option [amending the laws], and on the other hand because he is having problems in his own party.

TSS: What kind of problems?

BB: Because even within the SDĽ there are voices calling for compromise. Let's close this topic, shall we?

TSS: What pressure was put on the SMK to stay in the coalition?

BB: I hope you noticed that we took this decision within the SMK leadership on July 5, but scheduled the national council and the final verdict for August 25, giving lots of room for our district organisations and individual members to reflect. But the pressures were direct, among them warnings sent to SMK mayors that if the party left the coalition they wouldn't get state budget subsidies. Of course there were also more subtle pressures which asserted that the short-term effects of our departure could be very negative, and then diplomatic pressures saying the SMK's long-term position could be hurt if it left the coalition.

TSS: Slovak voters commonly believe that politicians here seek power in order to squeeze money from privatisations they organise or state firms their nominees rule. The SMK, on the other hand, whose nominee Štefan Czucz is the director of state pipelines firm Transpetrol, is packing its bags just before a 49% stake in Transpetrol is sold, and risking having its nominee yanked from Transpetrol by its coalition partners. Does this mean the SMK sees privatisations and state firm directorships in a different light than do other political parties?

BB: You've hit the nail on the head. Let me give you an application to join the SMK (laughs). There is a difference. There were indeed pressures [leading up to the August 25 vote] which said "Fine, go, but all your members and nominees will have to leave their posts, whether as head of Transpetrol or various state offices at the national, regional and district levels." But if anyone thinks he can get us to remain by threatening to take Transpetrol from us, he has to realise that this privatisation for us is simply a great challenge and invitation to show that wherever our people are, privatisations unfold as they should, without allegations of corruption, as 'textbook' cases.

TSS: How do you explain this different vision of privatisation?

BB: We have a great advantage in the fact that Hungary is now finishing reforms that we are just starting, meaning we can gain their experiences and knowledge for free. We who understand Hungarian can follow and understand events there and use this knowledge; as the saying goes, the wise man learns from the mistakes of fools, if you'll pardon the expression.

TSS: How loudly do you dare say that in Slovakia - "Look to Hungary for your examples"?

BB: Obviously, Slovak citizens can also learn from the Czechs or the Poles... but the Slovak nation unfortunately still suffers from this terrible trauma, this fear of Hungarians. Take a Slovak who has never seen a live Hungarian, and ask him what he thinks of Hungarians. He can handle living on a single potato day in and day out, but gets terribly passionate about the bad Hungarians. It's a terrible trauma whose mindset is this: "The Hungarians want something - aha, they want to separate [from the rest of Slovakia]... The Hungarians want more rights for municipalities? Hey, they want this for their own municipalities, regardless of the fact that what they are fighting for will also benefit the 1,800 out of 2,200 municipalities in this country dominated by ethnic Slovaks."

I have to tell you about the case of one Slovak who writes these [offensive] letters to Hungarians; once we tried correcting the grammar and spelling mistakes in his letter, and the paper was just covered in red ink. He can't even speak the Slovak language, but he's against Hungarians and considers himself a good Slovak.

You find such people on both the Hungarian and Slovak side. Hatred [among Slovaks] is always greater wherever Hungarians don't live. These people believe that Hungarians oppress Slovaks in southern Slovakia, that they force Slovaks to learn Hungarian, that Hungarian businessmen fire Slovak employees who don't speak Hungarian. They believe these things, possibly because some of them actually lived under the Hungarians [until 1918], while some experienced the Vienna Arbitrage [a decree by Germany and Italy on November 2, 1938 forcing Czechoslovakia to cede 10,390 square kilometres of land inhabited by 854,000 people to Hungary - ed. note], some survived the [Hungarian World War II] Horthy regime, meaning that older people have developed prejudices from personal experience. "Hungarians oppressed us for 150 years", they say. Hah! Hungarian wasn't the official language of Greater Hungary - Latin was. We can really only speak of nationalist oppression from the Apponyi Laws of 1887 [which took their name from nationalist Hungarian Education Minister Albert Apponyi and severely discriminated against Slovak schools - ed. note] until [Hungarian domination of Slovak territory ended in] 1918.

The worst thing is that some of the misinformation is contained in history books used in Slovak schools. Changing people's attitudes and prejudices will obviously have to include making sure that from a young age they have access to accurate historical information.

TSS: What have you achieved in your last three years in government?

BB: Neither everything nor nothing. Many things. Take just the [social] climate, it's no longer anti-Hungarian, anti-minority. We've corrected a lot of the things that Mečiar's people did in the minority field, for example forcing our coalition partners to rebuild the only bridge in Europe which was destroyed during World War II and then not rebuilt - the [Maria Valeria] bridge between Štúrovo and Eszstergom. This has a huge symbolic meaning - that Hungary and Slovakia, who in the past have been against each other, now have built a bridge together.

So when we start to think about it, there have been a lot of them [positive changes]. I remember when the ruling coalition was discussing how to fill posts for the heads of district state offices, and the feeling was "We can't put Hungarian [candidates] there because Slovaks won't accept them." Today they are accepted, meaning that in three years things have slowly begun to change and that we have launched the democratisation of society here as well. There is no longer such an aversion to Hungarians or minorities in general. Whether or not the country continues in this direction will be the main issue in 2002 elections.

TSS: When you look back, are you happy you joined the government in 1998?

BB: For the SMK and the rest of the coalition it was a huge challenge to show the country that the SMK can practice politics with the interests of all Slovak citizens in mind, not just those of ethnic Hungarians. On the other hand we have recently seen some anti-Hungarian steps taken by those of our coalition partners whose voter support has fallen - the SDĽ and SOP. Unfortunately these Slovak politicians still believe they lost support because they worked with Hungarians. And that just isn't true.

TSS: Have as many things changed as you had hoped under Dzurinda compared to the 1994 to 1998 Mečiar government?

BB: No, we expected far greater change at a far greater pace. Take reform of health care, the social net, the pension system and so on - if our friends had done what we urged and launched these reforms in the first year or 18 months in power, we would already be in the last period of the match. But we didn't do it, and now have no chance to get it done. This will hurt us, because people so far have seen only negatives, they haven't seen that the economy has been stabilised.

The other thing is that while we suggested [in 1998] the creation of an institution like a special investigating judge like they have in Italy, we were not understood by [former Interior Minister] Ladislav Pittner. This judge would have had responsibility for investigating organised crime and gross fraud, in other words privatisation cases. But our suggestion was not understood, and the result is that today we can't tell citizens "Look, there sits so-and-so who was punished by the state, not us politicians." It's a pity.

TSS: Some government politicians explain their low popularity by arguing Slovak voters expected too much in 1998, that they were naive and thus naturally disappointed with the pace and scope of change. Do you agree, or do you see the reason in the fact that politicians promised what they were never prepared or able to deliver?

BB: I agree with how you phrased it. I think politicians simply convinced voters that they would punish people who had privatised state property for their own gain, that they would punish those who kidnapped the former president's son, that they would launch reform, build 'n' thousands of flats, double wages and so on. Politicians simply have to make more realistic promises.

TSS: In a recent reader survey in the Sme daily paper, 43% of readers picked you as the most intelligent leader of a major political party...

BB: They obviously don't know me (laughs).

TSS: But it would seem to indicate a kind of confidence in you. Do you think we'll ever see an ethnic Hungarian as Prime Minister of Slovakia?

BB: Not in your lifetime or mine - for that, we would need as I mentioned these changes to the history books.

Take regional elections [where, in a late addition to the July 4 law, candidates for chairman of regional parliaments must go through two rounds of voting; the SMK fears that even if a Hungarian candidate wins the first round, Slovak parties will now be able to unite to block him in the second - ed. note]. The feeling [among Slovak parties] is that they can't afford to allow a Hungarian to become chairman of a regional parliament. Why not? Isn't the first priority that the candidate be a good one?

You wait and see - we may field candidates [for regional chairs] in Trnava and Nitra regions, because that's where we're strongest. Watch what happens then, how the Slovak parties unite, even at the cost of supporting a Mečiar candidate, in order that a Hungarian not win the seat. That I can guarantee you.

-With Kristína Havasová

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