Mikuláš Huba said the environment suffered under Mečiar leadership.
photo: Chris Togneri
Wearing sandals and speaking in a low, soft voice, Huba bemoaned environmental policy under the administration of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, which he said caused the sector to take major steps backwards. Real funding levels for environmental protection are currently at one-third of what they were in 1992, he said. And while the current government is more open to supporting movements for environmental protection, it has other priorities and has not yet accomplished much in this area.
On April 28, The Slovak Spectator sat down with the activist at his office in the Academy of Sciences in Bratislava to discuss current environmental topics and concerns affecting the country and the region.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How does Slovakia rate against other European countries in terms of being an environmentally aware and pro-active country?
Mikuláš Huba (MH): Awareness creates pro-active behaviour of the government and awareness of the environmental situation here has been very much over-shadowed by other priorities. Directly after the revolution, environmental issues were a main priority due to the fact that a relatively powerful environmental movement existed even before the revolution. Then the new green party was created and they played a relatively pro-active role, especially towards the end of the revolution. So, during the early 90's the situation was OK.
Many new environmental acts were adapted during the first two years after the revolution. There were new structures like the Ministry of Environment, environmental committees were formed and the state fund for the environment were created. The creation and development of regional and local authorities responsible for the environment, in my opinion, were also quite successful. It was a very big victory and it was a unique structure, even in the international context.
But then everything was destroyed during the last Mečiar government in 1996. The system was again centralised under so-called "general regional local administration" to be subordinated by the politically-oriented administrations.
But, awareness is absolutely not enough in this field because the problem has been overshadowed. One reason why is a lack of interest from the side of the mass media. But it's also interrelated with financial questions because it's much more attractive for the media to cover more [consumer-friendly] subjects, which environmental issues are not. Also, there was the new orientation to visible 'things' like new cars, consumer services like McDonald's, new fashions, and so on. This has also overshadowed environmental concern.
Furthermore, there are new problems which didn't exist before the revolution. Unemployment, for example, was a phenomenon which had been unknown because it was restricted by the constitution before the revolution. But then there was a big increase in unemployment during the first one or two years after the revolution which successfully destroyed many social securities and even the whole way of thinking for our population.
Also, there has also been a general lack of free time for volunteer activities because people simply don't have enough time now. Before the revolution, practically all such [volunteer] activities were forbidden. All free volunteer activities had 'official structures', with very few 'unofficial structures' existing - they were forbidden.
Now, in principle, it is possible to engage in all fields of volunteer activity. Whereas these volunteers before the revolution were independence-seeking people, it was focused. Since the revolution, though, the focus has spread amongst several different activities which has had a negative impact on the environmental movement. Of course, it has also had a positive effect on the creation of civil society, so I don't want to evaluate it only in a negative way. But from the point of view of the environment it's a little bit negative.
There have been only two cases [where awareness was not lacking], and media and nationalistic parties used them for propaganda. For instance, with the Gabčikovo Dam it was said that those who support the dam are patriots and those who oppose it are enemies of the state or collaborators. Nuclear power plants also received attention.
TSS: You've written chapters on the environment in Global Report on Slovakia, a yearly analysis of the country. In these reports, as well as now, you have been highly critical of the environmental policies practiced by the former Mečiar government. Now, the government of Prime Minister Mikulaš Dzurinda has taken over. How do you compare the two governments in environmental terms?
MH: It is hard to even go back to the situation we had in '94 and '95 because many structures and activities were destroyed or marginalised during the last government. Now it is a hard job to revitalise or even continue the programs that had gained momentum in the early 90's.
Last year in Denmark, for example, Slovakia was at a convention on public participation and increasing available information [concerning the environment] and Slovakia was one of only four countries in Europe which didn't support it. This is a good example of anti-pro-active politics which haven't been changed yet and I don't know why.
I think that the new government is much more open to the general public for discussion, but there still haven't been enough concrete results. They have continued to support technological projects like nuclear power plants, dams, the winter Olympic games bid and change has only come under the pressure of a lack of finances. Another example is the formation of the Committee for Sustainable Development - it was created, which is fine, but it doesn't yet work . So, I am a little bit nervous because expectations were higher than what we've seen.
On the other hand, I don't like to ignore all the positive changes. We've been invited to meet with several members of the government and we have created a much more open communication. But the practical results have absolutely not been enough and I am not sure the situation will improve over the next year.
One problem is the continuous lack of money. The state budget for the environment this year is its lowest in history. We understand the government's situation but while a majority of budgeted allowances for ministries rose this year, the Ministry of the Environment was again in the minority as it received a reduction. Their funds have been reduced every year since 1992 and now the 'real' budget is about one-third of what it was in 1992. It's unbelievable, but it's true.
Many activities have been reduced or even stopped, like water purification stations and infiltration stations. In the nature protection field, including Tatra National Park, there is a stupid situation, the same as before, and now it is a question of political prestige because the ministry of soil management is under the power of the leftists, and the ministry of the environment is in the hands of the Hungarians, and those two are probably the biggest opponents in the coalition which means that the current situation will continue and it will be another frustration for us. We thought that these relatively simple problems would be solved relatively quickly after the creation of the new government.
In terms of progress, the new leadership of the Ministry for Environment is an example. We succeeded in creating discussions and involving NGO's, so we have achieved some things. But in reality, the ministry wasn't changed too much. Practically all of the old people, or Mečiar's people, are continuing in their functions, which is terrible. This means the positive change is related to only three or five people from the top management, but not in the ministry itself, not throughout.
TSS: In the upcoming presidential elections, are there any 'green' candidates ?
MH: No, there aren't. Vášáryová is the unofficial candidate of the third-sector and a majority of the environmental organisations are supporting her. She is really not very green-oriented, though. For instance her relations to nuclear power are very friendly and not critical enough. I have no illusions that any of these candidates are green-oriented. But, Vášáryová is the best, I think.
TSS: What about Slovak citizens? How concerned is the average Slovak with environmental issues?
MH: Maybe one-fifth of all Slovak cities are involved in different environmental programs which I monitored last year. There is a network of cities which is involved in activities like energy saving. In fact, Žilina and Spiška Nova Ves were involved in a program on sustainable cities and Spiška Nova Ves was even chosen as one of the most progressive cities in all of central and eastern Europe in a recent competition between hundreds of European cities.
So, on one hand there have been some interesting successes and I think that in the region Slovakia plays a relatively progressive role, even a leading role at times, but since the last elections, I am not sure that the situation in terms of local governments has been improved. There are some indicators that negative politics from top level politicians have been adopted by local governments, which has resulted in an even bigger polarisation now than before. In some cities, there is an almost total majority of ruling coalition parties, in some an almost total majority of opposition parties, and in some other regions, Hungarians. This all means that control is lacking, creating plenty of space for egoistic, partisan or individual interests.
TSS: How has the recent introduction of the 'car culture' affected Slovakia?
MH: It is absolutely clear that it has affected the Slovak environment and culture in very bad ways in terms of environmental protection, the process of reducing industrial pollution and the rapid increase of pollution from cars. The total amount of air pollution is growing rapidly not only due to the growth of the number of cars but also due to the fact that industrial pollution has, in effect, also increased.
It's also a question of space. As you can see in Bratislava practically all free places are occupied by cars, including sidewalks. There is pressure on greenery and trees because people want to change former parks into parking spaces. It's terrible. But, there is not enough money for building underground parking garages or huge garages like in the US so they are trying to find the cheapest way - which is to cut down the trees and create new places where the parks are.
TSS: Oil refinery Slovnaft recently ran an advertisement in The Slovak Spectator stating that it was their "common wish to live in a healthy community and a prosperous region which is in harmony with the surrounding environment." How effectively is Slovnaft pursuing and, if be the case, achieving their advertised goal? Are they friends of the environment?
MH: I will start with something positive about Slovnaft and that is that there's been a real improvement of practically all environmental indicators during the last decade; in some fields, even rapid improvement.
On the other hand, it is impossible to significantly reduce their effect. Slovnaft was and will always be one of the biggest polluters in Slovakia, it's absolutely clear. So, from this point of view, it is hard to say that Slovnaft can be friends of the environment.
All this petrol orientation is supporting the car culture and is related to the building of new gas pumps. We understand that it is necessary to have some kind of network built but it is stupid business in close neighbourhoods. For instance, in Bratislava there are several new pumps and car washes, a whole car infrastructure, in places where there had been green areas. There is such a lack of greenery in Bratislava that it is provoking a deep protest from the citizens.
The location of Slovnaft is absolutely terrible - not only because it is next door to [Bratislava], but also for the reason that it is located on top of the biggest reservoir of fresh water in central Europe. While the technology of Slovnaft has improved, it couldn't be enough for protecting the water or preventing the loss of oil into this ground water. They are a permanent risk for the reservoir. So, while you can say that it has improved, it is total nonsense to say that Slovnaft is a friend of the environment.
TSS: How could the Poprad-Tatra candidacy for the 2006 Winter Olympics affect the natural environment of the Tatra region?
MH: To organise the Olympic games [in the Tatra region] is impossible because of the national parks and the national nature reserves, which is the highest category of nature protection. It is hard to understand why they would try to organise this mass sport event in such a sensitive natural area. There are many real negative impacts, such as the construction of new structures, damage caused by visitors, and the technologies required for the creation of artificial snow which uses dangerous stabilising chemicals. There would be a negative impact on the forest because, for example, they want to cut down several hectares of trees for a downhill slope.
Basically, the scale of the mountains is too small to organise such an event without big negative results on the environment. The scenery of the landscape would be damaged because if you build new towers, hotels and other big structures in such a small scale country it will be very visible and have a negative impact on the scenery.
Another reason I oppose this is related to the sustainable development of the region. One of the promoter's ideas is to build three to five big centers, which would continue the negative way of centralising activities without concern for the rural landscape. Even with the existing buildings they have now in the region they are not used and there is a lack of economical activity in the Tatra region. To undergo such construction for one event is not promising a sustainable environment.