PREŠOV- Behind a veil of secrecy which has left many local people unaware of the changes, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) replaced virtually the entire party leadership in the Prešov region during the month of November. At a special regional session, under the close supervision of such prominent HZDS members as Tibor Cabaj, Chairman of the HZDS deputies club, and the party's Deputy Chairman Arpád Matejka, the former regional leadership submitted their resignations and replacements were elected.
Among those to resign were the regional board's chairman Igor Urban, deputy chairmen Anton Lamanec and Andrej Fedor, as well as regional and district office heads, respectively Peter Chudík and Jozef Gruška. All cited personal reasons for their decisions.
Held in the 1980s Communist Party headquarters in Prešov, the meeting lasted four and a half hours and led one local newspaper to write, "The ruling movement is meeting behind locked doors like a group of plotters. Do they have something to hide?"
It is unofficially acknowledged that the sweeping changes are due to HZDS's falling support in the Prešov region, which is already the lowest in the country at 19.7 percent. Jozef Kučma, Vice President of the opposition Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) in the region alleged that avoiding handing out parts of the privatization cake may have caused the personnel storm. "Everywhere SDK has a higher preference [than the HZDS], the HZDS has called off their regional managers because they cared more for their privatization projects than for HZDS policies."
Some party insiders claim that the replacements will not last long because the recently-sacked leadership has itself only been in office since 1995, when it replaced the founding members of HZDS in Prešov after accusing them of embezzlement.
"They made this orchestrated step in order to have unlimited power and control over privatization in the region," said Ľubomír Bilišňanský, one of the party managers sacked two years ago.
Ever since, the group of expelled members has been successfully operating under the name Regional Association Šariš and is increasingly haunting the HZDS in the region. Led by Igor Máthé, currently the National Property Fund's Supervisory Board Chairman, the group claims to be an alternative to the HZDS.
"We founded the Association on the principle of absolute democracy, in line with the rules of HZDS," claimed Bilišňanský, the Association's Secretary. "The goal was to stop the departure of HZDS members, intensify work in villages and secure an increase in membership, so that the HZDS in our district would no longer lose the position which we had achieved in the elections."
But in fact, the HZDS has only seven out of sixty representatives in the Prešov municipal council. Opponents of the HZDS claim that new state administration regions, in force since 1996, were simply a means to make up for the general lack of HZDS support in self-administrated municipalities. It is widely believed and documented that regional administration officials were told to join HZDS if they wanted to keep their jobs. The ones who resisted were replaced by people loyal to the current ruling coalition.
However, it seems that not much has changed in the way of HZDS officials' thinking. "I say, and always have said it openly," stated František Horal, the newly-appointed regional chairman of HZDS, "that the biggest trouble is when the movement appoints its own people and the people turn out to be buffoons. I prefer a person who is loyal to this government and a professional at the same time because I have him in my hands a little bit, in the good sense of the word."
Horal said the reasons for the replacements were that they wanted new blood and new ideas in the posts. "We'd like to revive and radicalize our work by this replacement. It's a constant which is not going to leave Prešov that here is high rate of unemployment, little development, a [high] proportion of the Romany population and other factors."
But local HZDS supporters who are aware of the changes doubt that appointing new regional party bosses will improve the party's image. "They are new people", said one female resident of Prešov. "Maybe they can make a difference, but I don't know them."
Bilišňanský agreed. "The new leadership is faced with a lot of blood and sweat if it wants to achieve the same results as we had before, i.e. if it wants to exceed the magic limit of 30 percent support. Unless they take the Regional Association Šariš seriously, I really doubt they have any chance to succeed."
18. Dec 1997 at 0:00 | Robin Rigg and