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Rudolf Schuster: 'I just want to explain'

Half way through President Rudolf Schuster's interview with The Slovak Spectator on March 17, presidential spokesman Michal Stasz was getting nervous. The president would be late for a planned meeting with officials from the ruling SDK party, he said, plucking at Schuster's sleeve, and should wrap up the interview immediately. But Schuster, in full flight on the subject of NATO, shook him off. "So we'll be a bit late," he shrugged. "I just want to explain this."
Rudolf Schuster has done a lot of explaining over the past decade. A former top-ranking communist official, he has had to justify his current support for democratic and religious ideals; as former mayor of the eastern Slovak metropolis of Košice, he has been asked about the wisdom of a development plan that left the city 1.7 billion Slovak crowns ($40.5 million) in debt at the turn of the century; and as president, he has raised eyebrows with his active interest in foreign policy and readiness to lend support to the interests of the political opposition. Here are his answers to a few of those many questions.


Rudolf Schuster
photo: Peter Brenkus

Half way through President Rudolf Schuster's interview with The Slovak Spectator on March 17, presidential spokesman Michal Stasz was getting nervous. The president would be late for a planned meeting with officials from the ruling SDK party, he said, plucking at Schuster's sleeve, and should wrap up the interview immediately. But Schuster, in full flight on the subject of NATO, shook him off. "So we'll be a bit late," he shrugged. "I just want to explain this."

Rudolf Schuster has done a lot of explaining over the past decade. A former top-ranking communist official, he has had to justify his current support for democratic and religious ideals; as former mayor of the eastern Slovak metropolis of Košice, he has been asked about the wisdom of a development plan that left the city 1.7 billion Slovak crowns ($40.5 million) in debt at the turn of the century; and as president, he has raised eyebrows with his active interest in foreign policy and readiness to lend support to the interests of the political opposition. Here are his answers to a few of those many questions.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You are well known for your past with the Communist Party, where you served 25 years and rose to the highest ranks. Why did you join the party, and when?

Rudolf Schuster (RS): Quite late. I received an offer to join the party because I was a member of the working class. During my university studies, when I in fact received the first offer, I didn't join - after graduating I joined the Slovak Academy of Sciences. I got married, and was faced with the problem of finding accomodation. Then I got an offer from Košice, which said that if I joined [steelmaker] VSŽ, I would be given a flat within six months.

At VSŽ, I rose up the ladder every year. When I was supposed to have been made boss, they came to me and said that the job was dependent on my joining the Party. That was in 1964, when I was 30 years old. I tell you, at that time I still believed all the ideals that were promoted. So I joined.

In 1968 they almost threw me out of the party. During the era of [reformist Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander] Dubček, as the leader of the Communist Party at the company, I made several critical remarks of the conservative Communist wing. They gave me a condition that for two years I would serve with the Košice city government and try to mend the poor relations between the factory and the city. But once I joined the city government I never went back to VSŽ. The factory on the other hand told me that I couldn't return because I was going to be mayor [of Košice]. But it took from 1974 to 1983 until I finally became mayor. Until that time there were other party cadres in [control of] the post of mayor of Košice. I had to wait. When I was about to become mayor, the Party received an anonymous letter saying that I had family in then-West Germany. In the end the facts were distorted, and instead of a cousin it was said that I had a half-brother in Germany. It took them four months to approve me in the post. The counter-espionage unit had to check what the real situation was with my family in the West. You know, even though I had held posts at home, I had never been allowed abroad. Because of the fact that I had a cousin in Germany I had failed the official interview after applying for the diplomatic service in 1970.


TSS: So in the end would you say your decision to join the party was one of shared convictions or of necessity?

RS: At that time I truly believed. I joined in the 1960's, which were better [less repressive] than the 1950's. I don't say I was 100% convinced. But my desire to do my job at VSŽ dovetailed with the fact that I believed in some of the [Communist Party] ideals. Later, when I joined the Košice National Council and I saw all of these officials - how they acted, how they treated us as some kind of servants who were always criticising things - my relationship to the party slowly changed.


TSS: Despite the fact that you shared some communist ideals, you have said you were also religious. How did you manage to combine these two belief systems?

RS: I never stopped being religious. It's strange. But in the same way that some people were priests in secret, I was a believer in secret. I was raised in a religious environment, at least on my mother's side. My father was a worker and a Communist. But they lived side by side and got along. From their example I came to understand that it was possible to live in that way as well.


TSS: During the 1980's you moved up to the top levels of the Slovak Communist Party. Didn't your religious beliefs at all clash with your Party positions, causing you some kind of mental stress?

RS: If the Party had discovered that I was religious, or that my children were christened, they would have thrown me out. I was certainly a Communist, but I never lost my faith. My wife is also strongly religious, so it was unthinkable for us that our children wouldn't have been christened.

TSS: How did you respond to the events of November 1989?

RS: When the revolution was all but over, an enemy of mine tried to get me out of Košice and into a high position with the Central Committee of the Communist Party. But it was clear to me that they only wanted to give me this function because Communists were soon going to have a hard time. I rejected this Party position, and as an alternative they made me Chairman of the Slovak National Council [equivalent to Parliamentary Speaker - ed. Note]. But that was already after the revolution. My job was gradually to remove the conservative members of the Communist Party and replace them with representatives of the VPN (The Public Against Violence, the first post-communist era political party - ed. Note].


TSS: After serving as Ambassador to Canada in the early 1990's, you were once again elected Mayor of Košice from 1994 to 1998. What kind of relationship did you have with Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar during your tenure as mayor?

RS: When I returned from Canada in 1992, the Foreign Ministry made me another offer, this time to be Deputy Ambassador to Germany. I turned the offer down, because if I couldn't be ambassador I didn't want the post, even though I have very good contacts in Germany.

In 1994 I had an interview with Mečiar, organised by [future secret service boss Ivan] Lexa and [future Finance Minister Sergej] Kozlík. Mečiar offered me co-operation with [his then-ruling party] HZDS - I was supposed to become leader of the eastern Slovak wing of the HZDS, probably because they had done a survey and found that people trusted me. I turned it down, of course. Mečiar gave me time to reflect on my decision, but it was clear to me that the two of us couldn't work together - we had different natures and approaches to life. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I answered that I would run for mayor. He asked me what I would do if I weren't elected. I answered that if I wasn't elected I would consult my conscience - maybe I hadn't done good things for Košice in the past if people didn't want me.

But Mečiar tried to put a stick in my spokes even before I went to Košice to run for mayor. On the basis of the survey I mentioned above, the HZDS knew that I had a great chance of winning, so they supported me in local elections. I rejected this support and ran as an independent. But Czech television cost me several thousand votes when before the first round they broadcast a report that the HZDS, in other words Mečiar, was behind me. It had a reverse effect, because he doesn't have a strong position in Košice.


TSS: But what kind of relations did you have during your tenure as mayor?

RS: Look, I was aware that as mayor I was dependent also on financial support from the state. I didn't want to carry on a war with anyone, because I would be conducting a war at the expense of the interests of the city. I needed good relations with [cabinet] ministers to get the resources I needed to do what I wanted. Relations were businesslike but not friendly or supportive of the HZDS. At that time I had against me a three-fifths majority of [Košice City Council] deputies from the KDH [Christian Democrats], DS [Democratic Party] and DÚ [Democratic Union]. They all tried to have me recalled from the outset, because until then Košice had always had a mayor from the KDH. I was really in a tough position, but after a year and a half things turned around. They saw what I was doing and came over to my side.


TSS: When you launched your Party of Civic Understanding [SOP] in February 1998, did you already know that you wanted to become the country's next president?

RS: As far as the presidential job was concerned, you know, there were public opinion polls taken. For example, Pravda [a national Slovak daily paper] held a poll asking people who they wanted for president, and I won it. I won a poll as Man of the Year in 1995 for Slovenka [a weekly women's magazine] while I was still mayor. At that time, the [socialist] SDĽ invited me to accept the presidency, but I turned them down... I said I would only run in direct elections [instead of being elected by MPs, as was the law before parliament amended the constitution in 1999 to permit direct presidential elections - ed. note].

When I founded the SOP I had one objective - to help the opposition win elections with a 'constitutional' [three-fifths of seats in parliament] majority. We [Schuster and the entire then-opposition] had our first meeting in Zlaté Piesky [a district of Bratislava], before I had even launched the [SOP] party. It was there that [Christian Democrat leader and current Justice Minister Ján] Čarnogurský said to me, "Don't launch the party, we'll support you for president. Because you'll take votes away from us." [Current Democratic Party leader Ján] Langoš also told me "Now that we're about to win, if you launch a party you'll cost us votes." So I told him "If you're so good, sign here that you'll get a constitutional majority in elections, I'll give it to the papers tomorrow and I won't launch a party." No one there gave me that signature, so I said clearly "I guarantee that if I launch a party you'll get a constitutional majority." And that's what happened.


TSS: As president you have now met five times with HZDS Chairman Mečiar, and you've been criticised not only for seeming to offer him more of your time than he has claim to, but also for helping him out by seeking legal advice on his party's early election petition before it was officially submitted. What is your role as president vis a vis the country's political parties?

RS: Many people think that I am the president of the ruling coalition, that I should meet only with the coalition and that I should ignore the opposition. But those who think this think exactly like Mečiar - that when they hold power they no longer need anyone else. For starters, I was not elected by parliament, so I'm not a political president... I was elected by citizens, so I am president of everyone. I'll meet anyone who declares an interest in doing so. What comes out of those meetings, what I implement in real life, is another matter. It's still early, and life will show that these meetings were in Slovakia's interest and not against it. But if the coalition thinks this is wrong, that I should continue to fight Mečiar or the [nationalist opposition] SNS because they are in opposition - I'm not going to be that kind of president.

Why was the West constantly worried during [September 1998] elections what was going to happen in Slovakia, what direction we were going in? We have a state doctrine, a vision that I would like the opposition to support as well, so that nothing would change ever again. My meetings with Mečiar always led to this - "Mr. Mečiar, support me, support the EU, proclaim it [this support], it will help you." And these people were jealous, the coalition was jealous. Although during presidential elections Mečiar was on the other side, I promoted NATO and constantly repeated that our door to the EU led through NATO, and I didn't quit, even though I lost many votes [because NATO's bombing of Kosovo, which started shortly before Slovakia's presidential elections, was unpopular with a majority of Slovaks - ed. note], Mečiar at that time did an about-face and was against NATO. But today, when I summarise our meetings, I see that they had an effect [on the HZDS's current pro-NATO and EU policy], and I ask myself, when NATO representatives come here, what is public opinion like? If Mečiar supports NATO, with 1.2 million stable HZDS voters behind him, will public opinion change? Will it be a plus for Slovakia as a whole? I don't evaluate whether he [Mečiar] means what he says or not, but in terms of public opinion it's a plus. It's also a plus abroad. And he [Mečiar] realises that there is no other path, that this is our future - NATO and the EU.

History will eventually show that my meetings were not against Slovakia, but for Slovakia. Because he [Mečiar] had many demands that I didn't satisfy... But those are things that, if I made them public, would cause him not to return, and would make me look like I am only a coalition president... I know what I'm doing, I'm going to remain an independent president, a president for everyone, and I'm going to continue holding discussions with the opposition as well. The state doctrine, the vision, has to be approved here. Afterwards they can compete among themselves, opposition and coalition, as to how they want to reach this goal, but they can't change the goal.

That's my way of thinking, and I'm sure that many other people realise this, but don't want to admit it because it's an initiative that comes from me. And that's something that is hard to swallow for the gentlemen from these small parties which fielded candidates [against Schuster in April 1999 presidential elections]. If I hadn't run, and these others had been the [presidential] candidates, you would have seen what Mrs. [former Austrian Ambassador Magda] Vášáryová, for example, would have won against Mečiar. They should realise this. I really regretted it when people such as [Christian Democrat MPs] Mr. [František] Mikloško, Mr. [Vladimír] Palko attacked me and said I had demanded the presidency, and that's exactly why I distributed this book [Návrat k veľkej politike, 'A Return to High Politics', written by Schuster in 1999 but withdrawn from distribution in December after ruling coalition politicians objected to the president's detailed accounts of sensitive negotiations to form the government in October 1998 - ed. Note] and gave a reconstruction of coalition negotiations... I never demanded the presidency, that offer came from the SDĽ, the Hungarians agreed to me second and the SOP third; the problem was the SDK. And if the SDK didn't want to, they didn't have to [agree to a coalition deal giving Schuster the presidency]. But in the end they joined [the agreement], right, and still fielded their own candidates. Fine, I'm happy they tried, at least they saw what chances each person had.


TSS: As president you have had a few wrangles with the Foreign Ministry over the appointment of ambassadors. The ministry claimed some ambassadors appointed under Mečiar were unprofessional and had to be replaced, while you felt the switches were being done for political reasons. What should the president's foreign policy role be?

RS: I visited the Foreign Ministry [in February] to evaluate in a positive light the results of our foreign policy. Some people took the criticisms I made [in the speech] out of context. I in fact praised the good co-operation and co-ordination between the Foreign Ministry, the government, parliament and the president... But when I said that I don't receive [foreign policy] materials on time, that I actually signed a [diplomatic] appointment on an airplane to Stockholm - an important appointment which went down in history before my visit to Israel - then those are concrete observations. I also said that ambassadors who have only a few months to go before retirement should be left to serve out their terms. I also said it wasn't good to change ambassadors which had been nominated by the HZDS for political reasons, if they were good. And that tendency was here. I stopped it, I said no. And I convinced myself that even those who have something to do with it sided with me. Because we would be changing a good ambassador for a worse, and again it would be a political ambassador. So those are the things I agreed on with Mr. [Foreign Minister Eduard] Kukan. Because the government must consult with me when it approves such things.


TSS: This year you have put a lot of energy into Jewish affairs, apologising for Slovakia's role in the holocaust, visiting Israel and arranging an exchange programme for Israeli and Slovak teachers, addressing last week's Rabbi conference in Bratislava, offering Bratislava to the Israelis as an alternative embassy site to Vienna...what's behind it all?

RS: This [the holocaust] was one chapter in the history of Slovakia that haunted us, that wasn't closed, and it was high time to apologise to Israel and to those who suffered in the Slovak holocaust. No one had done it so far, not a single representative. I was the first president to feel the responsibility to do this, because it comes from within me, I don't do it just for effect... That's why I argued that the day on which the Jewish Codex [a harsh law approved in fascist Slovakia on September 9, 1941] was approved should be a day of remembrance, and I'm convinced that parliament will accept this. That's also why I was the first to respond strongly when the memorial plaque [to Jozef Tiso, the leader of Slovakia's World War II state] was being prepared [by the Žilina City Council this past February; the plaque was withdrawn earlier this month after heavy criticism from Slovak public officials and private citizens - ed Note]... But it's not only in this area that I'm working. I think that within the confines of the Visegrad Four, of co-operation with not only Germany but also the United States I'm developing a great deal of activity which isn't visible.


TSS: How do you want to be remembered as a president?

RS: It's premature to say. I would be happy if I was judged to have been a president who tried to put a stop to the tension which rules this society and which isn't healthy, that I strove for reconciliation, that I took the concrete actions I'm taking - the Vatican, the national pilgrimage, church dignitaries, ecumenical society, basically all steps towards reconciliation... The internal situation in states is very important for their entry to the EU, because tension or peace in different states can affect the entire atmosphere in Europe. I want to try and achieve this, and I want to be president of this state because of my deeds. History will show whether or not I was able to achieve this. But at the moment many people don't understand the steps I'm taking, or maybe don't want to understand them.

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