It's a blustery winter day outside the Slovak parliament, but parliamentary vice-chairman Béla Bugár says the weather suits him fine. "I have a sun allergy," he says, stretching his long legs out in front of him. "But that doesn't stop me from sunbathing, of course."
Bugár's stubbornness is legendary among his political colleagues, and is the principal reason that Slovakia's Hungarian minority is represented in government for the first time. In 1998, Bugár presided over the transformation of the three-party Hungarian Coalition into a single party, the SMK, of which he was named chairman. He also survived a challenge to his leadership by outspoken Hungarian MP Mikloš Duray, and managed to guide the SMK to three cabinet berths and roles in state firms and administration.
In their reactions to the formation of the new government, both EU and US diplomats have repeatedly stressed the importance that they attach to the participation of Hungarians in the Slovak government. Weak legislation to protect the rights of the country's Hungarian minority, which makes up 11% of the population, has been a key feature of international criticisms of Slovakia in the past.
Father and daughter.
Compliments of Béla Bugár
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What was your childhood like, and how did it influence your life?
Béla Bugár (BB): I was raised in Šamorín [in eastern Slovakia] and I've lived there for forty years so far. My parents are and always were religious, and that's why I got a Christian education. The environment in which I grew up was Hungarian - 71% of Šamorín's population claim to be of Hungarian nationality. We speak Hungarian at home, and people in Šamorín speak Hungarian, but if necessary, people speak Slovak. I attended kindergarten, primary school and high school with Hungarian as the teaching language. My childhood brought me my wife as well, because we have been schoolmates since kindergarten. Maybe it was fate, and maybe I was just too lazy to look for another girl. I knew her very well, so there was no point in looking for someone else.
TSS: What did you think of the Slovak language as a kid?
BB: The problem has always been that Hungarians [living in Slovakia] had to learn one extra language [compared to Slovak children]. Under communism, you were forced to learn Russian, which I successfully refused, and one more 'foreign' [western] language. So, Hungarian kids would end up with four languages, which was not bearable. That's why the Slovak language was not the focus of their interest and their mastery of it was not so good. However, to me, the problem has always rested with the method of instruction - it wasn't good at all and still isn't.
TSS: Do you think that Hungarian children living in Slovakia see the Slovak language as a foreign tongue, or do they take it as a second language?
BB: It's all a matter of how you phrase it. I never knew the difference, until I once said on a live radio show that the Slovak language is a foreign language for Hungarians living in Slovakia. They slammed me - "You live here in Slovakia and say that this language is a foreign one for you!?" So since then, I call it a second language which we - people of Hungarian nationality - use for communicating with Slovaks.
TSS: How about your child? How is her Slovak?
Those beady eyes. Béla Bugár in parliament.
Compliments of Béla Bugár
TSS: Do you think that the approach of Hungarians towards learning the Slovak language has changed since your childhood?
BB: That totally depends on the political situation in the country. If the political climate is calm, if people aren't bitching at Hungarians and don't see them as enemies, then there is no problem [for Hungarians to learn Slovak]. However, if these kinds of problems appear, then people learn Slovak very reluctantly and with disgust.
TSS: Did you always want to be a politician or an engineer?
BB: I wanted to become a vet and work somewhere in a Safari Park. But because my uncle emigrated to Italy in 1952, I was denounced as an unreliable person [by the communists]. So I went from a humanities-oriented high school to a technical university. I had some initial problems with technical drawing, but finally I became a designer.
TSS: What did you do in the period between leaving university and entering politics?
BB: I was a designer at an engineering company called ZŤS Martin [north-central Slovakia], and I must say that I always said what was on my mind. Maybe that's why my boss always sent me to meetings where he wanted something to be solved between workers and the management. And I was successful in these negotiations. Then there came a turning point in my professional life in 1987, when my boss called me and offered me a better position under one condition - I had to enter the communist party. I refused, saying that I didn't believe in his idiotic ideology since I was a Christian. Surprisingly, he didn't fire me, and that's why I respect him. He proved my conviction that not all communists are the same, and that each of them should be treated individually.
TSS: When did you first start talking about minority problems?
Béla Bugár with future wife.
Compliments of Béla Bugár
TSS: How did you enter politics?
BB: It was a coincidence. When I heard in 1989 about the Velvet Revolution in Prague, I went there and took part in the rallies. Then the same thing started happening in Slovakia, and some people offered me a chance to organise clubs of the MKDH [Hungarian political party] in the villages and cities, so I did it. After that, I took a part in the founding meeting of this party and as usual, I opened my mouth there as well, so they elected me to the MKDH leadership.
TSS: What does your family feel about your political career?
BB: My wife and my whole family support me a lot. There was a period of time in 1989, before elections, when I travelled around Slovakia at my own expense and nobody would pay me back. I drew money from our family account and my wife didn't say a word. And it became even worse when I became a member of the former Czechoslovak federal government. I almost didn't see my family at all. But my wife understood all that. During the Mečiar era [1992 to 1998], I started to receive threatening calls and letters, which still hasn't stopped. But she's used to that as well.
TSS: You are in a coalition government with the SDĽ reformed communist party, a party which does not recognise the existence of political parties based on minority or ethnic lines. They also say that they will do anything to prevent such parties form contesting the next elections in 2002. How do you feel about that?
Deceptively cute. The future Hungarian Slovak leader.
Compliments of Béla Bugár
TSS: The far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) is one of your strongest opponents, being essentially a single-issue [anti-Hungarian] party. After your slanging matches in parliament, do you ever sit together in the cafeteria and have a cup of coffee?
BB: No. Over the last four years, the behaviour and manners of deputies have worsened. I had a recent run-in with [SNS deputy Víťazoslav] Móric, whose microphone suddenly became disconnected in the middle of his speech in parliament, while I was leading the session. He started to shout at me "Where are we when a Hungarian disconnects a Slovak in the parliament!" But I couldn't have done it, because I don't control his mike. It was just a coincidence. Right after that, I received some threatening letters [see example, this page]. I don't mind that, but what if my wife gets them? It would just add another drop into the cup of her worries. So, I went and told Móric "If you open your mouth and say something like that again in parliament, I'll read the letters out in public." It's been two weeks since that incident, and he's still quiet.
TSS: Do you think that hatred against Hungarians is on the rise now that the Hungarian Coalition Party is a member of the government?
BB: I can't say. It's a long process. We inherited the hatred from the time of Mečiar. Now, however, we have a historical chance to show citizens that what we do is for the good of the Slovak Republic. If we prove it, the hatred will quickly disappear.
The Price Of Fame
Béla Bugár, leader of the Hungarian Coalition Party, has received hate mail for years, but a recent run-in with nationalist deputy Víťazoslav Móric brought a fresh batch of letters like the one pictured above. Here is a translation: "You f...ing Hungarian whore. You will be soon thrown into the sewer for what you did to Móric in parliament. The same will happen to your buddies from the SMK [Hungarian Coalition]. We are watching your every step, and we will pass sentence on you during your first journey to your f...ing Budapest. You don't stand a single chance! [Signed] The group MOR HO. [The remainder of the letter, a vicious attack on Bugár's wife, has been omitted from both the re-print of the Slovak version and the English translation].