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Bratislava Mayor Moravčík: The soft-sell politician

Arriving two minutes late to an important Monday morning meeting, Bratislava Mayor Jozef Moravčík creeps through the entrance hall at the Úrad vlády (Office of Government) and leans over one of the vacant security desks, a humbly quizzical look on his face. The former Prime Minister of Slovakia is unsure where to go, but is reluctant to interrupt the guards by asking directions.
When they notice the mayor, one smiles confidently and mumbles a few words. "Oh, the new building," replies Moravčík. A polite thank you, and he strides off. A group of ornery representatives from Bratislava's 17 districts await, but Moravčík - tall, slightly hunched, a touch ungainly - doesn't seem like a politician girded for battle. His manner is more suggestive of a man looking for a Coke machine.


A former university professor and Slovak Prime Minister, Bratislava Mayor Jozef Moravčík says he is leaving politics.
photo: Spectator Archives

Arriving two minutes late to an important Monday morning meeting, Bratislava Mayor Jozef Moravčík creeps through the entrance hall at the Úrad vlády (Office of Government) and leans over one of the vacant security desks, a humbly quizzical look on his face. The former Prime Minister of Slovakia is unsure where to go, but is reluctant to interrupt the guards by asking directions.

When they notice the mayor, one smiles confidently and mumbles a few words. "Oh, the new building," replies Moravčík. A polite thank you, and he strides off. A group of ornery representatives from Bratislava's 17 districts await, but Moravčík - tall, slightly hunched, a touch ungainly - doesn't seem like a politician girded for battle. His manner is more suggestive of a man looking for a Coke machine.

The mayor's quiet manners and humble demeanour shroud the fact that he is currently trying to push through a controversial blueprint to rearrange Bratislava's municipal structure in light of plans to institute 12 new regional governments across the country sometime next year. As it stands, Bratislava and Košice are the only cities in Slovakia which are subdivided into self-governing districts each with their own mayor, presenting a unique problem of who calls the shots.

"If left unchanged, this system would mean three levels of [local] government [regional, municipal and sub-municipal, or district] when the new plans are introduced," said Moravčík.

The mayor favours a plan that would see the districts of Bratislava consolidated under a central city authority, while the new regional Bratislava government would administer the affairs of an area including towns like Malacky, Senec and Pezinok.

The 17 district mayors of Bratislava, on the other hand, unanimously support a plan that would have Bratislava remain outside the regional government system, a similar status to that of the US capital Washington DC, which does not belong to any of the fifty states. Under this arrangement, they would retain the level of self-government they currently enjoy.

Objections to Moravčík's plan are at least in part based on worries that a centralised Bratislava city government would spend a disproportionate fraction of tax revenues from the entire city on the Old Town. "That is simply not true," says Moravčík, arguing that the development of the city as a whole is currently being held back by turf wars with the district mayors.

He pauses and shrugs his shoulders. "It's obvious that for the development of Bratislava as a city, attention cannot be focused just on the Old Town. It's not my vision and it's not realistic. My model complies with the development of all [potential] districts."

While critics of the mayor's plan have also argued that it is a move to bolster his own power, Moravčík again demurs, saying that as he doesn't plan to run for office again after his current term ends in two years, the theory does not hold water. "I'm not in politics for my personal gain," he retorts. "I'm stepping down in a few years anyway. It is time for a new generation of Slovak politicians. After my term, I am going to move into the private sector."

In a country rocked by scandal so frequently that the shock waves are often not even noticed, the most remarkable aspect of Jozef Moravčík's political life may be how little attention he draws, how rarely his name is mentioned - in papers, on TV, in conversations at local pubs. "I have no personal interests," he says, smiling. "Also, I have clean hands."

"His reputation for honesty is probably his biggest strength," agrees Miroslav Kusý, professor of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava. "Aside from that, he is rather irresolute as a politician, not one for taking tough stands."

If the self-effacing, pragmatic, sometimes hesitant leadership style of Jozef Moravčík seems more professorial than political, it is not without reason - he has spent the majority of his professional life inside the groves of academia. From 1972 to 1991 he was a professor at the Comenius University Law Faculty, serving his final two years as Dean.

When asked about his accomplishments as mayor, for example, Moravčík does little in the way of trumpet blowing. "Two years is too small a time to make decisive changes," he says. "But we have done some things. The preparation of a new bridge [over the Danube River] is underway, and might be finished in the next two years. A project for a new subway is also underway."

Moravčík first entered public life in 1991 when he was appointed to parliament by the political organisation Public Against Violence. A year later he was elected to parliament as a member of Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS party. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from June 1992 until December of that same year, when he resigned over disputes with the former Prime Minister. When Mečiar lost a no-confidence vote in 1994, Moravčík was chosen by the coalition to be Prime Minister of Slovakia.

"Moravčík becoming Prime Minister was more a coincidence than anything else," said Kusý. "It was a situation where there were only a couple of guys available. His government was succesful, but only for a limited time. He had a chance to rule with a stronger hand, and to have better results, but he was not decisive."

According to Moravčík, life as a mayor differs from life as a prime minister in that the former requires solving concrete problems while the latter involves developing a vision for the future.

In his office in the town centre at 17:30, Moravčík still has a few loose ends to tie up before going home. It seems odd that he is all alone in the building, that there is no security - no entourage, no guards, not even a buzzer to screen guests. "All that's not necessary," says Moravčík in a voice just audible. "No, not necessary at all. We are providing a service here."


Additional reporting by Zuzana Habšudová

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