The controversial referendum on NATO membership and direct Presidential elections will be held after all, albeit only in one small town on the Slovak-Hungarian border. The City Council of Štúrovo has decided to run on April 19 the referendum called for that day by former President Michal Kováč.
"We decided to enable a few thousand people of this country to exercise their fundamental rights, which have been violated," said Tibor Nagy, the Deputy Mayor of Štúrovo. The Štúrovo City Council took the decision to hold a referendum on its own on March 3, the very day the national referendum was canceled by Premier Vladimír Mečiar's government.
Štúrovo's aldermen argue that while the state administration can do only what the law prescribes, a self-governing body (such as a municipal government) can do anything that is not banned by law. And holding a referendum called by the President, they maintain, is not illegal.
Defied by Štúrovo City Council, Mečiar's government decided to act. The Interior Ministry issued a resolution in which it "warns" Ján Oravec, Štúrovo Mayor, against violating the law, claiming that a city council has no right to hold a referendum on something it has no power to decide over.
"We [are empowered to] practice governmental politics," said Peter Ondera, the ministry's spokesman, explaining his position that city councils have no right to hold the referendum. He did not exclude the possibility of initiating criminal proceedings against Oravec for abuse of competence.
In the meantime, the ministry ordered Ervín Erdélyi, District Prosecutor of Nové Zámky, to register an official protest against the Council's decision. "The [prosecutor's] protest requested the City Council to reconsider the issue," said Nagy, adding that the council did so on March 31 and decided to stick to its original decision. "Let's have citizens decide about the [referendum] questions, not someone else," he said.
At first, Štúrovo City Council's stance was supported by two other councils, one in the village of Svätý Jur in southwest Slovakia, and one in the Old Town District of Košice. But after the General Attorney's office got involved, Košice and Svätý Jur shied away, leaving Štúrovo alone in its quest for justice.
Svätý Jur City Council on March 18 changed the vote's format from that of a referendum to a public opinion poll. "After receiving materials from the Interior Ministry, we decided not to act agaist the law," said Stanislav Fronc, the Mayor of Svätý Jur, adding that the council turned to a safer alternative. "We hope that [the ministry] will not find this illegal."
But Ladislav Čilík, the Pezinok District Prosecutor who has also been deployed in the case, said that "renaming the referendum as an opinion poll is not a way to get out of the problem," and added that he would file a protest against the council's decision on April 6.
The third mutinous city council, that of Košice's Old Town District, buckled completely under pressure from the ministry and revoked its decision at an April 3 plenary session. "I don't find it appropriate to throw away a huge amount of money just to make some kind of impression," said Štefan Adrejko, Košice's Deputy Mayor, adding that a referendum at the municipal level "is not the way to solve problems, and could only be abused for politilcal propaganda."
Reacting to Košice's decision to give in to the Interior Ministry's show of power, Nagy said "we are where we did not want to be. City mayors are scared to stand up for their rights." Nagy added that he was reminded of a time when public opinion was dictated to the people by the governing regime.