SMK's Béla Bugár: "We have to give people hope"

Béla Bugár's nerves seem shot these days. Locked in yet another power struggle with Agriculture Minister Pavel Koncoš, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader is fighting the impression that the other three parties in Slovakia's ruling coalition would rather govern the country alone.
The latest squabble again has to do with land - 458,000 hectares of fields and forests confiscated by the communists in 1948, but which cannot be returned because the original owners cannot be identified. Koncoš says the land should remain under the control of the national Land Fund - which his former communist SDĽ party runs - while Bugár says it should be distributed among the municipalities, who would then be able to collect rent on the properties.

Bugár says he has even received mafia threats in parliament.
photo: Courtesy of Béla Bugár

Béla Bugár's nerves seem shot these days. Locked in yet another power struggle with Agriculture Minister Pavel Koncoš, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) leader is fighting the impression that the other three parties in Slovakia's ruling coalition would rather govern the country alone.

The latest squabble again has to do with land - 458,000 hectares of fields and forests confiscated by the communists in 1948, but which cannot be returned because the original owners cannot be identified. Koncoš says the land should remain under the control of the national Land Fund - which his former communist SDĽ party runs - while Bugár says it should be distributed among the municipalities, who would then be able to collect rent on the properties.

The dispute arises partially from the different views each man holds on how power should be distributed in the country. Koncoš insists on a strong state, much as the communists did before him; Bugár, a more modern politician, favours the decentralisation of state power along the 'subsidiarity' principle endorsed by the European Union.

But the fight is equally about cabinet politics, and the long-standing desire of the SDĽ to govern Slovakia without the Hungarians. Even though a senior governing coalition body agreed on January 5 to make land transfers from the Land Fund to municipalities one of the government's priorities for 2000, and even though the process is included in the government's four-year programme scripted in 1998, Koncoš now says the move is against the constitution, and has refused to comply with the cabinet doctrine. His SDĽ party stands four-square behind him.

Cabinet must now decide whether to support the Hungarians - and its own government programme - or to back Koncoš. Bugár has said the SMK may leave the ruling coalition if the party doesn't get what it wants, while Koncoš has encouraged them to go. "In any other ruling coalition, they would not have a representative," he said on January 25.

Bugár managed to squeeze an hour for The Slovak Spectator into his schedule on February 1, but was unable to hide his exasperation with his colleagues. "Tell her to get lost," was his respone to one inquiry. "What am I, an information booth?"

Dzurinda (right) congratulated Bugár on running the most stable party.
photo: TASR

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You and Agriculture Minister Pavel Koncoš have been at loggerheads since the government was formed in October 1998. What's this latest argument about?

Béla Bugár (BB): The source of this dispute is the fact that Minister Koncoš has completely different goals in the field of agriculture. He is the former chairman of a co-operative farm, which means he supports the interests of co-operatives, and uses subsidies to support the needs of land which lies at higher altitude in central Slovakia [as opposed to lower-lying land in southern Slovakia where Hungarians live].

One problem concerns the return of lands which should have been given back under restitution, and which were taken mainly from Hungarians even before the communists took over in February 1948 [as punishment for Hungary's role in the Second World War]. A law was passed in 1991 and was applied then in Slovakia under the successive Mečiar governments, by which land (up to 150 hectares in farmland and 250 hectares in forest land) was returned to owners from whom it had been taken simply because they were from another ethnic group - in other words, because they were Hungarian.

Last year, without our knowing about it, Minister Koncoš tried to devise a way to prevent these lands from being given back to their former owners. Letters went out from the Agriculture Ministry on January 13, 1999, saying that matters would no longer be conducted as they had been, and that land would no longer be returned. These letters were co-signed by Deputy Agriculture Minister Viktor Mészáros, from our own SMK party. We have asked him to resign, for not keeping us informed and not looking after our interests, and he has promised to do so by the end of February. These letters contained instructions to individual municipal governments not to return the confiscated land, even though neither the minister nor his ministry has the power to change the 1991 law. So for the entire year, he was trying to achieve a goal that not even Mečiar or [former far-right SNS party leader Ján Slota] before him had attempted to do.

The other problem is land confiscated by the communists which now cannot be returned because it has no identifiable owner - either the person can't be found, or has died, or the land was taken from a count or some such aristocrat. There are about 458,000 hectares of such land which are owned by the state and administered by the Slovak Land Fund. Our position is that experience shows that the Land Fund often gives this land to people who 'suck it dry', so to speak, and return the devastated property after five years or so. So why don't we give it to the municipalities, and let them administer it and collect the profits? But this is against the wishes of the Agriculture Minister. Koncoš is the kind of official we saw a lot before 1989, people who believed that the state should behave in a paternalistic way towards citizens - you know, the kind state-father which distributes money to citizens but which controls all the levers of power.

By the way, of the 458,000 hectares of this 'unidentifiable' land to be given back, only about 130,000 is in mixed-ethnic areas, meaning that 72% of this land would be given to municipalities where Hungarians don't live. So in this matter, we represent the interests of all Slovaks.

TSS: You've said that Koncoš is not only defying the government's own programme in keeping the land with the Land Fund, but is also going against the spirit of the government's reform of public administration, which says power and financing should be decentralised to the municipalities...

BB: Exactly. That's why I can't understand why Minister Koncoš, if he feels returning the land would be against the constitution, doesn't present a reasonable argument to the coalition council rather than fighting this battle through the media.

TSS: You told the Pravda daily paper that if you can't work this out with Koncoš, and if you don't get support from the rest of the government, than you couldn't rule out the possibility that the SMK might leave the government...

BB: I never said we would leave the government. That would be an extreme solution. Basically, if the government is willing to fulfill its programme even against the will of the Agriculture Minister, then there's no problem. But if the government isn't able to do this, because of the refusal of the SDĽ to go against Koncoš, we have other possibilities. For example, we might start voting in cabinet according to the interests of our party rather than according to the government's programme, just like ministers for the SDĽ have been doing so far. But if we begin acting as our government partners have been, I ask who will look after the stability of this government?

TSS: So would you or would you not leave the government over this problem?

BB: Look, you can never rule out such a possibility when you are in a government. But I can say that as difficult as it is to decide whether or not to join a government, it is much tougher to leave it, because everyone would say that you were responsible for bringing the government down and allowing the past to return. It's an extreme tactic that we would only use if the government did not support its own programme.

TSS: What kind of support do you have in cabinet?

BB: Mr. [Pavol] Hamžik, leader of the SOP coalition party, is with us, while Prime Minister Dzurinda has stated clearly that no one can say the government programme is against the constitution.

TSS: If you left the government, the ruling coalition would no longer have the two-thirds support in parliament it needs to make changes to the constitution - one of the government's main goals. Will you use this fact to force Koncoš to agree to your views?

BB: For a long time I have been saying that this isn't a fight between the SMK and Minister Koncoš, but between the entire government coalition and one of its ministers. It's as if one of the ministers from the SMK party received money from the budget but announced he was going to use the money for goals the government had not approved - and as if the SMK then said we stand united behind him. What kind of behaviour is that?

TSS: In late December, President Rudolf Schuster withdrew from publication a book he had written about the formation of the government in 1998, but not before the public learned that all three of the SMK's current coalition partners had held secret negotiations on forming a government without the Hungarians during October 1998. Did the attempt of the SMK's current partners to exclude them from government leave any bad taste and mistrust within the cabinet?

BB: We knew very well at the time that the other three parties would not have asked us to sign the coalition agreement if they hadn't needed us. The SDĽ came out very openly against us, and suggested that at most they would allow a coalition of three parties with the occasional support of the Hungarians. But in the end the important thing is we signed the agreement, and that the four-party coalition works.

TSS: Why didn't they want you? Especially the ruling SDK, which actually signed a pre-election agreement with you in late 1997?

BB: The SDĽ's problem was that they had several nationalists within their ranks, people now in cabinet like Koncoš, and that they thought if there were only three parties in the government, the SDĽ would get more ministerial posts. As far as the SDK goes, all I can say is that such things sometimes happen in politics. But it came as a huge shock, and as long as we live we will never understand it. Unfortunately, in this government there are people who sign agreements with smiles on their faces but then do their best not to keep their promises. It [the near failure of the SDK signatories to keep their 1997 agreement with the Hungarians] was a bad precedent, and a warning to us not to take certain promises seriously.

TSS: Do you sense anti-Hungarian feeling returning within the government coalition?

BB: Certainly. The SDĽ's voter preferences are falling, and they are looking for ways to halt this fall - what they are doing is at least nationalist, if not something else. Then take the Christian Democrats' attempt to prevent us from gaining membership in the European Democratic Union - that's a clearly nationalist move, and Vladimír Palko, the vice-chairman of the Christian Democrats, has even said he wants to appeal to voters who support the [far-right] Slovak National Party.

TSS: Róbert Fico, an MP and leader of the newly-formed Smer party, has recently made several statements regarding the Roma that have been criticised as racist. Do you think racism is on the rise in Slovak society, or only in politics?

BB: The problem lies in the fact that many social problems remain unsolved. With the Roma, there of course are some people who abuse the social benefits system. On the other hand, we have some politicians who propose laws and use demagoguery and populism to make people think they are the only ones willing to "solve" the Romany question.

Our economic problems are large. Unemployment is increasing, and people who are having a tough time enjoy hearing that the Roma, or a political party like the SMK, are responsible for their hardships.

TSS: When you were in opposition, you used to get a lot of letters threatening you and your family with violence. After such experiences, would you characterise Slovak society as xenophobic or racist?

BB: Every society shows such symptoms, but since the formation of this government, the mass media have stopped stirring up nationalist sentiments and are no longer used against ethnic groups. On the public STV channel, for example, there used to be an anti-Hungarian programme during the Mečiar government called "Bloody Christmas." Under the current government this has stopped, and STV now carries things like Roma roundtable discussions which attempt to promote rather than reduce tolerance. I don't think there is any way you could describe Slovakia as racist or xenophobic.

TSS: Does that mean you are now receiving fewer threatening letters?

BB: When I began as deputy speaker of parliament it got worse, and I was threatened with physical violence and kidnapping, with the kidnapping of my daughter. But it has slowly improved, and the letters have slowed down. The main problem now is coalition partners who give society messages like "you can't work with Hungarians."

TSS: You've said in the past one of the benefits of being in government for the SMK is that you can show ethnic Slovaks that you serve the interests of the country first, and those of your ethnic brethren second. Are Slovaks getting the message?

BB: Most of the letters we get now are letters of encouragement, with even ethnic Slovaks saying they stand behind us and thanking us for being a stabilising factor in the government. We even have Slovaks asking if they can join our party.

TSS: Prime Minister Dzurinda said last December that the SMK was the most stable member of the governing coalition. How would you, in turn, rate your three coalition partners?

BB: The SDĽ is a party which is trying to transform itself, but unfortunately it is made up of various factions, some of which use populism to slow down economic reforms. The SOP as a party still hasn't crystallized, and various efforts are being made [by supporters of former SOP leader and current President Schuster] to force SOP Chairman Hamžik out. But the biggest problems are with the SDK, where some factions are putting too much emphasis on their own identities. It is very difficult for Dzurinda to govern when he doesn't have a united party behind him, which is why he appears not to be firm enough, and why doubts have arisen whether the government will last the full four-year term.

TSS: Do you really believe it will last four years?

BB: Yes.

TSS: Politics has recently been dominated by party financing scandals. How is the SMK financed?

BB: We have one big advantage [over our coalition partners] - because we were never in government, no big lobby groups stand behind us. That's why we had to finance our [1998] pre-election campaign through loans amounting to 4.5 million Slovak crowns. We had some money saved up, and we had some small sponsors, but no one who gave us half a million crowns, for example, and then came and demanded the favour be repaid in some way.

Other political parties seem to have this problem, because each one has at least sniffed power, either close to or actually in a former government. After over a year in power, we still feel this pressure [from expectant lobby groups]. People have even personally threatened me that if I don't help them win some tender, I'll have problems. Even the mafia has tried things on me, but since I don't listen to threats I threw them out so quickly they didn't know how they came to find themselves outside parliament.

Even though we never had anything to do with such groups, they still come here and say they own a certain amount of shares in particular daily newspapers, and will attack us through these newspapers. So I can imagine very vividly what the situation must be like if a party has actually accepted the help of some financial interest groups. Of course, I can't prove any of this because we don't have these experiences, but I think the number of scandals we've had shows how much we need a new party financing law.

TSS: Which tenders have you been asked to influence?

BB: I don't think it makes any sense now to reveal the names. I dealt with it myself, and said that if any attacks are launched against me in the newspapers, I will immediately go public with the information I have. That's the best weapon.

TSS: Are you worried at all that scandal and poor economic results will help former Prime Minister Mečiar to return to power in 2002?

BB: If you look at opinion polls, Mečiar still has basically the same support he got in 1998 elections. This is natural, because the people who supported him are now furious with the current government for raising prices and so on.

On the other hand, it will be crucial that the people who voted for the current government turn out again in 2002 and don't vote for Mečiar. In order to ensure this, we have to take more radical steps in the next six to twelve months that for once don't hit citizens in their pocketbooks. We have to give them hope that things will get better.

TSS: That takes care of the electorate. But isn't there a chance that politicians like Smer's Róbert Fico or Ivan Mjartan [head of the new Party of the Democratic Centre] might help Mečiar back to office no matter what the current government achieves economically?

BB: Actually, I wouldn't even put it past the SDĽ to co-operate with the HZDS [Mečiar-led opposition party].

When he was young, he wanted to be a vet. He received a Catholic education, and refused to enter the Communist Party because he didn't believe in their "idiotic ideology." He's a stubborn man who has been accused of turning off the microphones of opposition MP's who insult Hungarians. He's Deputy Speaker of Parliament Béla Bugár.

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