Who's afraid of Róbert Fico?

He grew up the son of a labourer and a shoe store clerk, wanting to be either a politician, a sports reporter or an archaelogist. He has a fondness for political biographies. He has a doctorate in law, and served as Slovakia's agent to the European Human Rights Commission from 1994 until being recalled early this year. At the age of 35, he is Slovakia's most popular politician.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Many of our readers, having seen recent polls giving your new Smer party around 23% electoral support, have asked us "Who is Róbert Fico?" Perhaps it would be best if we let you answer them...

Róbert Fico
photo: Ján Kuchta

He grew up the son of a labourer and a shoe store clerk, wanting to be either a politician, a sports reporter or an archaelogist. He has a fondness for political biographies. He has a doctorate in law, and served as Slovakia's agent to the European Human Rights Commission from 1994 until being recalled early this year. At the age of 35, he is Slovakia's most popular politician.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Many of our readers, having seen recent polls giving your new Smer party around 23% electoral support, have asked us "Who is Róbert Fico?" Perhaps it would be best if we let you answer them...

Robert Fico (RF): Róbert Fico is one of those politicians who belongs to the younger generation who is very disappointed with what happened after [parliamentary elections in] 1998. Róbert Fico is a politician who worked very hard to bring about the end of the Mečiar era, but who finds the current behaviour of the government hard to understand. I am a politician who decided rather to go his own way than to follow the path of conflict chosen by the ruling coalition, a politician who has a legitimate ambition in the coming elections to bring a completely new generation of politicians into government.

TSS: You say you're part of the new generation, but haven't you yourself been in politics for almost a decade?

RF: I got my start in politics in 1992 [when elected to the Slovak parliament - Ed. note]. It gave me a certain advantage, because I wasn't one of those who got into politics after the 1989 revolution, but instead was attending high professional matters. When we started Smer we said clearly that besides me, no other person who had a political past would be allowed to hold a high function in the party. If we look at our section chiefs and shadow ministers, they are all my age or older, and none of them have been MPs or functionaries of any other political party. That's a big advantage for this political party.

TSS: You have said recently that there is as much corruption under the present government as under the previous one. Is the profit motive truly the reason most Slovak politicians get into politics?

RF: I don't want to accuse anyone without having some proof in my hands, but I stand by my statement that in the area of corruption and criminality nothing has changed. The same atmosphere is present now as existed before the year 1998. At the same time I want to say that the possibility of privatising strategic companies, and mainly the possibility of influencing how these sales will occur, is one of the strongest 'fetters' keeping the government coalition together. That's a very tough statement, but I stand by it, because if not for the privatisation of state companies, this coalition would have broken up five times by now. Nothing else is keeping it together.

TSS: If this is true, how do you expect an intelligent voter to believe that the people who started Smer are any different?

RF: Because I left [the SDĽ ruling coalition party in 1999, in which he had been vice-chairman - Ed. note]. If I had had an interest in the privatisation of any strategic companies [eg. state-owned utilities and banks], today I would be happily sitting in the SDĽ ranks, where I would certainly be among their most popular politicians, and I would be very critical of relations within the coalition, but I would be doing everything to hold onto that contact with government power which is decisive in privatisation.

TSS: What in fact is the difference between some members of Smer and MPs already sitting in parliament - between, for example, Smer's general manager Monika Beňová and Diana Dubovská of the [ruling coalition] SOP party? Both young, successful women...

RF: The difference is that Monika Beňová got a different start in politics than Diana Dubovská. Dubovská got into the SOP more or less by nomination, not through her prior work. I don't think she did anything in the outside world that would automatically make her a candidate for parliament. She was nominated through certain personal connections.

Monika Beňová, on the other hand, is the diametrical opposite. She said she wanted to work hard for maybe two or three years, and at the end of this period be part of a successful political party that gets into parliament. There is legitimate ambition there.

TSS: You have also drawn a line between your politicians and those of the Mečiar era. However, one of your first decisions after founding the party this spring was to hire Fedor Flašík as your media advisor. Given Flašík's colourful political past - as the owner of the Donar advertising agency that designed the pre-election campaign of Mečiar's HZDS party, and as a member of the supervisory board of the Jánošik company that is under suspicion of misusing public funds - why would you as an intelligent politician like you get involved with him at all?

RF: Fedor Flašík is a businessman. Any other firm that had been in Donar's place would have done the same things in political marketing. To be honest, today we can find exactly the same firms which have lucrative contracts with large state firms, and I don't think any major change has occured here.

So I look at Flašík as a businessman and not as a politician, which he has never been. He did business as a political marketer. From the time I have been in contact with him I have never received any information that he committed a crime. Rumours circulate, that's normal, and people talk about me too. But I operate on the assumption that these people are professionals, and the results that Smer has achieved in five months prove this. This is his [Flašík's] success as well.

Let's be honest, the billboards he did for the HZDS [during the 1998 pre-election campaign] were the best. The fact that the HZDS later bungled its election campaign by inviting Claudia Schiffer and Gerard Depardieu is not Flašík's problem.

TSS: One of the main planks in your campaign has been a 'clean hands,' anti-corruption approach. You have even invited journalists to examine your financial records...

RF: That offer still stands. From September I am going to put Smer's complete financing on the Internet - our income and expenditures.

TSS: How big is your budget?

RF: Our budget for 2000 is 13.5 million crowns. The advantage of our party is that we finance it from the bottom up rather than the top down. We have said that whoever is working for Smer in the regions has to look after their own financing. The role of the party's central body is simply to make sure that the money coming up from the bottom is clean. We invite journalists to look at our gift contracts, sponsorship contracts, and we just ask them for discretion in using the names. Slovakia is a very small country, and publication of the names could have a very unfavourable impact.

TSS: Financier Jozef Majský [who has admitted to financing several parties in the 1998 elections - Ed. note] told me on the phone today that your party was "very attractive" for him, and that he would welcome it if you made it into parliament in 2002. Is Majský among your donors?

RF: No. No.

TSS: Majský also suggested the generous press coverage you have received was a result of his influence. Is that true?

RF: Since Smer began I have met Mr. Majský once, at a ball arranged by the Slovo newspaper. We have never communicated on the questions of media support. Everything Smer has accomplished here is the result of our everyday hard work with individual media channels. We have had no media campaign like the one that accompanied the founding of the SOP party [by current President Rudolf Schuster in February, 1998, and for whom Majský's wife, Diana Dubovská, is an MP - Ed. note].

TSS: Political professionals say that one reason behind your success is that you are attracting young voters who supported the current coalition parties in 1998, but who are now disappointed with events since then. They also note that a key characteristic of this group is its political naivete, its inability to distinguish between empty political promises and those that can be realised in practice. Will your voters be similarly disappointed with Smer after 2002?

RF: If you have noticed our politics, you will have seen that it is not based on any promises. We call things by their exact names, and now we are trying to offer concrete solutions. We will enter our pre-election campaign under the slogan "No More Promises." Our political programme is based on stability, order and justice - those are values that are very attractive for young people.

TSS: But isn't your idea of giving the power to make decisions on privatisation to parliament simply an example of an unrealisable solution? It's certainly attractive to voters, since it promises transparency, but it would slow the privatisation process to a crawl, something that would be poorly received by markets...

RF: I don't agree, because the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament themselves have said that we have to tighten controls on privatisation. Maybe it [giving control to parliament] wasn't the best idea, but we have agreed that by the end of June we will bring forward something that will make controls more strict, and will use resources better. We aren't against privatisation - let's sell what we have to, gain something and help this country, but not this way [uncontrolled and non-transparent].

TSS: You might have a bit tougher time finding sympathy abroad for what you have said about taking social benefits away from Slovakia's Romanies who applied for asylum abroad, or about not having Hungarians in government...

RF: Again, I've been asked this question many times. The only statement I made about relations with the Hungarian Coalition Party was when I presented journalists with the official position of the SDĽ as its vice chairman, that the SDĽ does not incline towards the participation of the Hungarians in the government. Since then I have made no other statements, although I did write an article in which I said the SMK had brought only its own agenda to the government and was sticking to it like a dog to a hedgehog. I used exactly that metaphor, and I stick by it, because I don't feel the Hungarians brought something to government that concerns the entire country.

As far as the Roma go, the only statement I made was that those who are deliberately damaging the image of Slovakia are not poor people whose rights are being violated. Finnish MPs said at the time [early this year] that this [the exodus of Slovak Romanies to EU nations] was economic tourism and had nothing to do with human rights.

I think it's our responsibility to find a solution, and not stick our heads in the sand. If we do the latter, all countries will slap a visa regime on us, and I think a country has a right to protect itself from this with economic measures [such as suspending social benefits].

TSS: Can I ask you a couple of speculative questions?

RF: If you don't mind speculative answers.

TSS: If early elections were held this year, which you have said is a 50-50 likelihood, you might win a large share of the vote. Is your party, with no experienced politicians, ready to take on the job of forming a government and running the country?

RF: We wouldn't have started the party if we weren't.

TSS: If, following the next elections, you were asked by both Mečiar's HZDS and the parties of the current government to join them in coalition, who would you go with?

RF: I think I was the first to say that the HZDS has great election potential but zero coalition potential. Everything depends on Mr. Mečiar and how he behaves. As far as the SDKÚ goes, they will have to come up with something new, something different than these same people they've been offering for the last decade. But we would not join a government coalition of more than two or three parties.

TSS: So you would not rule out post-electoral co-operation with any party?

RF: I can only rule out one thing, and that is the person of Mr. Mečiar, who tends to drag the entire HZDS into isolation. As I have already said, the HZDS with Mr. Mečiar has zero coalition potential.

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