Robert Fico: If speaking the truth is populism, then I want to be a populist

IT'S APPROACHING midnight, but Slovakia's most trusted politician, Robert Fico, seems wired to a more powerful energy source than his opponents on a political talk show. The 37-year-old lawyer has been going since early morning, campaigning for his second-running Smer party with a national vote less than two months away, but repeats his mantra crisply - order, security and justice.
A dangerous populist or a fresh political force? Observers have being trying to 'read' Fico since he left his Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) three years ago and launched the non-parliamentary Smer. The Slovak Spectator spoke to him July 17 after his late-night appearance on Markíza TV's Sito programme.

ROBERT FICO is more accustomed to speaking with a microphone than a napkin in front of his mouth.
photo: TASR

IT'S APPROACHING midnight, but Slovakia's most trusted politician, Robert Fico, seems wired to a more powerful energy source than his opponents on a political talk show. The 37-year-old lawyer has been going since early morning, campaigning for his second-running Smer party with a national vote less than two months away, but repeats his mantra crisply - order, security and justice.

A dangerous populist or a fresh political force? Observers have being trying to 'read' Fico since he left his Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) three years ago and launched the non-parliamentary Smer. The Slovak Spectator spoke to him July 17 after his late-night appearance on Markíza TV's Sito programme.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You are seen as potentially the country's next prime minister. Are you prepared for the job?

Robert Fico (RF): I've been prepared by the work I've done in politics for the last 10 years. For the past two years I've done nothing in our party's shadow cabinet but talk about what needs to be done immediately after entering cabinet. As for myself, I'm very careful about my health. My wife understands that she will not see me for the next 80 days. I sweat through three shirts a day, I'm taking things step by step and doing everything I can so that on September 17 [the end of the pre-election campaign - ed. note] I can have a glass of wine and say to myself I did everything I had to do.

TSS: You've been on a number of international visits to western countries. What reactions have you encountered?

RF: This is probably the first time in the history of Slovakia that an opposition politician has been accepted by the highest officials of other countries. I met the Polish president, the head of the Israeli parliament, Russian cabinet ministers, top representatives in the US, Britain, Germany. I understand that they were curious to find out who I am, how I behave.

I think these meetings were interesting for foreign officials because I'm not one of those politicians who put napkins in front of their mouths [i.e. don't speak frankly - ed. note]. I always say what I want to say, whether it's [Nato General Secretary George] Robertson or whoever. They had a chance to see Slovakia through the eyes of a politician who is different than [PM Mikuláš] Dzurinda or [Deputy PM for Economy Ivan] Mikloš, who are only compliant to the West. I have my own idea of how Slovakia should look. I basically only got into some crossfire with foreign officials over the Roma question. This is the only theme where I have a different opinion than western representatives.

TSS: The western press has painted you as a populist, with a German daily even calling you "Mečiar-light". Is your party basically a vehicle to put Robert Fico in power?

RF: Every party is basically a tool to gain power. That's legitimate and normal, and I make no bones about it. We want to gain state power. If we don't have state power, we can't change things.

These charges of populism came from Slovak politicians, and the foreign media have just copied them. If someone wants to call a law requiring people to prove the origins of their property populism, then I want to be a populist [passing such a law is one of Smer's conditions for entering government - ed. note]. If somebody says it is populism to take tough measures in the social sphere, where seven per cent of people are abusing unemployment benefits, I want to be a populist.

My advantage over other politicians is that while others are lying on beaches and resting, I go to the people. When you hear the same things from people at hundreds of political meetings, you're obliged to repeat them on TV. Today I said on a TV show that only people who have money get justice. People who don't have money in Slovakia get no justice. All Slovakia believes this. All Slovakia. If these statements, which correspond to reality in Slovakia, are populism, then I want to be a populist.

TSS: You were among those politicians in 1998 who opposed the entry of the ethnic Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) into the ruling coalition. During regional parliament elections in 2001 you said that the southern Slovak Nitra and Trnava regions, which are dominated by ethnic Hungarian residents, are strategic areas of the country that should not be in the hands of politicians from an ethnic based party. Do you still feel Hungarian Slovaks shouldn't have been allowed to be part of the government?

RF: I stand behind my statements. In 1998 this was the official position of the SDĽ [Democratic Left Party, of which Fico was vice-chairman - ed. note], so I presented it. Peter Weiss, Jozef Migaš and other SDĽ members should also be asked this question. We rejected the idea of having the SMK in cabinet because we feared the impact of having a large number of parties in government, and these fears were later confirmed. This cabinet has been unsuccessful, ineffective, and 80 per cent of Slovaks simply don't want it.

As far as the regions go, I still believe that Nitra and Trnava regions are vitally important for Slovakia and I think that in regional parliament organs Slovak political forces should be dominant. My problem with the SMK is that the party in the past behaved as if Slovakia ended on the northern border of the Nitra region. They weren't interested in anything else. If the SMK wants to take part in state power, it has to show that it cares about Slovakia and not just about ethnic Hungarian citizens. This is the only condition I have. I haven't excluded and never will exclude co-operation with any political party. Just like I haven't excluded co-operation with [opposition Vladimír Mečiar led Movement for a Democratic Slovakia] HZDS, I don't exclude the SMK. The only thing we want from them is, for God's sake, to put new people in cabinet positions.

TSS: Your political programme, which promises 100 decisions in 100 days, says little about minorities. What rights should minorities in Slovakia have to protect their own cultures?

RF: Look, Slovakia has signed and ratified everything that there was to be ratified. The rights of minorities in Slovakia are above-standard. We don't see why we should now discuss what our minority programme is. The programme is given. They have above-standard rights, and we want to respect these rights, but we don't see a reason to go any further.

TSS: What in your view would 'going further' involve?

RF: We can't go any further.

TSS: The SMK might take a different view, such as over a Hungarian-language university they were promised and never received.

RF: I'm sorry, Hungarian university. I'm sorry.

TSS: You've also had a lot to say about the Roma, mostly in terms of repression, for example to stop them getting state benefits for families with more children. Or that people who claim asylum abroad, and thus in your view injure Slovakia's name, should have their social benefits cut off...

RF: You only read the first part of what I said on the topic. You should also read the second part.

TSS: You didn't let me finish my question. It's one thing to punish what you see as abuses of the system, and another thing altogether to fix the causes of the behaviour. Do you have any solutions for the situation the Roma find themselves in?

RF: First, I really think that Roma families shouldn't be allowed to make a living by having 12 or 13 children [and collecting child benefits - ed. note]. Why are we hiding our heads in the sand? That's how it is. Our proposal is to set the rules of the game, not only for the Roma but for everyone. If you have three or four children it's okay, the state is ready to support you with child benefits, social benefits. But when you have your fifth, sixth, seventh, eight, ninth child, this has to be the parents' responsibility. Parents must be responsible for the quality of life enjoyed by their children.

We stress that the only thing we can do is in terms of education and upbringing. We have to start working now with the youngest generation of Roma children to show them another standard of living, another lifestyle, what they can achieve in their lives. I'm all for supporting talented children.

But we can't close our eyes to Roma crimes, or pretend we don't want to talk about it because the West will criticise us. We're closing our eyes to the fact that in 10 years there will be one million Roma here in poor health, without qualifications, without a future. This cabinet has done nothing. Dear journalists, if this cabinet put all the money it spent on sandwiches, alcohol and transportation for various conferences into building housing tenements, today we'd have 10 housing tenements for the Roma.

We're trying to talk about this issue in a balanced manner, and I simply refuse to pretend the problem doesn't exist. It's here, and it's far more serious than what [European Commissioner for Enlargement] Gunther Verheugen saw when they took him to Lúnik IX [a Roma ghetto in eastern Slovakia's Košice - ed. note].

Also, there is a massive nervousness among people. The majority realises that our social system is collapsing. We don't have money for pensions at the end of this year. We don't have money for unemployment benefits. Therefore we have to deal with these people so that duties come first, then rights, and only then positive discrimination.

TSS: Many of Smer's policies seem to involve various senses of justice and law, but ignore the possible conflict between them. On many issues you appeal to a sense of justice you think Slovaks are after, even if it means playing fast and loose with the letter of the law, for example acting on the presumption of guilt, rather than innocence. On the Roma issue, will you be more swayed by the justice you feel people want, or by the strict rule of law, which for example entitles all Slovak citizens to equal access to social benefits?

RF: Slovakia is not a country where the law rules, and I say this knowing that foreigners will read this interview. I'm convinced of it. The rules of the game must be observed first, that's most important for me. In Slovakia, no rules are being followed. Sometimes I have the feeling that the only things that work here are filling stations. I'd like to have working institutions as well.

TSS: So why do you make suggestions which seem to further infringe against the rule of law?

RF: Like what?

TSS: Like taking people's social benefits away when they travel to foreign countries to ask for asylum.

RF: That again is a proposal which has been completely misinterpreted. We have in our laws a provision which says that people can lose their benefits if they are abroad. I just proposed that this provision be put into practice. This provision is already present in the current law.

And is our draft law on having people document the origin of their property not democratic? We have people here who are 22, 23 years old, registered as unemployed, but sitting in a Mercedes worth Sk5 million. I think I have a right to ask such people where they got that property from. I don't want to get involved in a legal discussion, but this not about the presumption of innocence at all, because the draft is a civil law.

TSS: But based on what would you ask the person sitting in a Mercedes, rather than someone in a beat-up Škoda? You're simply making an assumption that people in fancy cars are more likely to have acquired their assets illegally than others, without a shred of proof.

RF: That's very simple. Based on a civil law I will ask him where he got the property from. If he doesn't explain it, the attorney general will file a civil suit in court. There the person will have to bear the burden of proof. These are civil proceedings, this is not penal law. Trust me, I did human rights law for eight years at the European Court for Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights fully respects that as far as civil proceedings are concerned, we may transfer the burden of proof onto third persons from the state. The entire draft law on documenting the origin of property is built on this principle.

TSS: If it's up to the attorney general to decide who is asked to prove what they own and where they got it from, surely this can be politically abused, unless you have some formula for ensuring the attorney general is utterly unbiased and unable to be pressured.

RF: No, look, we have examples for this. We have a law on judges and courts. Based on this law, if a judge cannot show where he got his property from, he loses his judge's function. He has to say where he got the money. If he can't do this he loses his judicial function, but he doesn't lose the property. In this case the attorney general steps in and says: "OK, this person has lost his function, but I will also file a civil suit where he will further explain how he got the property." If the person can't explain, the property is forfeit to the state's benefit. It's clean as a lily.

The draft law explicitly says that it must be an obvious, evident, significant discrepancy between declared income and the real circumstances. This is not about average citizens. This is about the greatest thieves.

I have said it seriously and I insist on it - I will leave the negotiation table on forming the next government if there is no guarantee that this law will be approved. Tell me why one half of MPs ran away from voting about this law in parliament [earlier this year]. They ran away and they knew why. They looked at their own property and discovered they couldn't explain where they got the money from. This is what this is about.

We simply need to finally create order in Slovakia. That's what the next government will be all about. You think the government can achieve economic and social success? From what? The state budget deficit will be Sk70 billion this year, the trade deficit will be almost Sk130 billion [government forecasts are for slightly over Sk50 billion and Sk100 billion, respectively - ed. note]. How are we supposed to create an economic and social miracle? It can only come if we have order in the country. Then investors will come, normal enterprise will be possible, it will not be necessary to bribe. Corruption is completely out of hand here. You have to pay for everything, and the government pretends that it's all right. Not to mention that many ministers suspected of corruption have ended up back in parliament as representatives of the people. This is what I'm talking about.

TSS: The current government four years ago promised to punish privatisers, eliminate corruption and create order. How do you expect to be any more successful?

RF: We'll use completely different methods, such as specialized teams. Standard prosecutors, police and judicial organs can't solve problems such as that of [fugitive former secret service head Ivan] Lexa. We need specialised teams which will be specially protected. In Italy I met people fighting the Mafia, and they congratulated me for approving a new programme to fight corruption. "How many dead judges and prosecutors do you have so far?" they asked. "Not a single one," I replied. "Then you're not fighting anything," was their reaction. I completely agree that once we start seriously fighting the Mafia, it will be a tough battle. Psychological and physical attacks will occur.

Of course, I don't wish anything bad for anyone, but if you have on one side a person who stole $200 million - and we have people like this in Slovakia - and on the other side a prosecutor or investigator making $600 a month, the thief can afford top legal protection, usually attorneys who previously worked as supreme court judges. They have top tax and financial advisors. And against them is a prosecutor or investigator who lives in a block of flats in the Petržalka suburb [of Bratislava] where the street lamps have not worked for four years now.

Let's turn it around. Let's put specialized teams, which will be protected 24 hours a day, to work against these criminals. Let's pay them properly - if I know this team can catch a $200 million thief, I will easily give them Sk100,000 a month. Their families must also be protected 24 hours per day.

The need for justice is very strong in Slovakia, where many people have gotten abnormally rich.

TSS: One of the worries in the European Union is about where you get your money, and fears have been raised that it may be from Russia, particularly given your support for energy projects involving Russian participation. What is it with Smer and Slovak nuclear power plants?

RF: Tell EU officials not to talk too often to Prime Minister Dzurinda, because these are his theories. As far as atomic energy goes, no company from this sphere supports Smer. Our list of sponsors is on our Internet website. Maybe somebody gave us Sk100,000, but there are no firms giving us millions.

Secondly, Slovakia today exports 13 per cent of its energy. If we close [aging western Slovakia nuclear plant] Bohunice [as the current government has promised the EU to do from 2006-2008 - ed. note] and don't complete the construction of [new central Slovakia nuclear plant] Mochovce, we'll have to import 25 or 30 per cent of our energy. Would the US ever agree to changing from a pro-export to a pro-import nation in this sphere? They'd never agree.

TSS: No one is saying Slovakia should not be energy-sufficient. People just worry about your trips to Moscow to talk with Russian nuclear energy officials, and your promise to arrange the financing of Mochovce. It's about committing Slovakia to long-term nuclear fuel-rod contracts with Russia, waste disposal contracts...

RF: Why are we nervous? Let's not be nervous. All prime ministers, whether it's [German PM Gerhard] Schroder or [British PM Tony] Blair very much like going to Russia and making big deals there. It's our duty to have good relations with the whole world.

I can only repeat that the closure of Bohunice is the biggest nonsense this cabinet has done. The biggest. I want to see the expert report that doubts the plant's safety. No such report exists.

TSS: Is the issue important enough for you to see Slovakia not get in the EU over it?

RF: Once again. Slovakia's energy security is very important to me. Very important. We want to get into the EU. But I'm the type of politician who can't be quiet. I think closing a healthy power plant into whose modernisation we invested Sk9 billion in recent years is arrant nonsense. Fine - if there is an old reactor which really can't be improved, then let's build a new one or let's complete the building of Mochovce.

Our duty is to secure energy security for the country. We no longer have food security, and from 1990 to 1992 they stopped our weapons production industry. We lost gas, because 49 per cent [of gas utility SPP] is now in western hands. All we have left is three things - energy, water and wood. Should we listen to everything the others say because Slovakia is tiny and weak? I know they want us to import electric energy to Slovakia. But why can't Slovakia be self-sufficient in this sphere?

TSS: Again, are you willing to defend this strongly enough that we don't get into the EU?

RF: No, certainly not. We won't endanger the country's EU entry, but as a politician and a Slovak citizen I think it's nonsense to close Bohunice. It's clear that commitments have been made, but we'll do everything to see the Mochovce construction completed.

TSS: You have talked of re-opening deals arranged with the EU over Slovakia's entry and securing better terms. With an EU summit scheduled for December, at which all negotiations are scheduled to be closed, some EU officials have said that Mr. Fico may not have enough time to achieve what he wants.

RF: Did those officials not also ask you about Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who said Poland was going to open chapters that were badly negotiated by the previous cabinet? Why can't Slovakia do it as well?

We want to enter the EU, but we want to be prepared. Let's talk about the preparedness of the country; it will be a shock for the people. Just for fun, you should ask any cabinet minister what the difference is between the European Union and the Council of Europe. I bet you a bottle of cognac that they won't know.

We have to prepare people for entry, but not like the current cabinet [which says that] paradise will come. What paradise? There'll be no paradise at all. We'll pay, and it will cost us a lot of money. Entering the EU is a priority. I have a nine-year-old boy, and I want him to be in a united Europe. But not at any cost.

TSS: Smer has made absolute conditions on people it will not work with in the next cabinet, for example Dzurinda and Mikloš. Is it politically wise to exclude top members from a potential coalition ally?

RF: We'll be negotiating on the cabinet. If the SDKÚ party says that Dzurinda and Mikloš should be in it, I'll simply stand up and leave the table. I mean this completely seriously.

TSS: What choice does that leave the party, if these men are its leaders?

RF: Our idea is to have new people in the cabinet. I believe the SDKÚ has a new generation of politicians, and Dzurinda and Mikloš are responsible for some very strange things in this country. I'll leave the negotiating table.

TSS: Leaving the country to its fate as well?

RF: Why should anything happen to the country? Responsibility must also be borne by the SDKÚ - 80 per cent of people don't want this cabinet. Our requirements are no Mečiar, no Dzurinda, no Mikloš, and the law on proving the origins of property.

TSS: What do you wish for Slovakia the most after elections?

RF: I was at a wedding where the guests had an incredible fight over politics. The bride's side liked one politician, and the groom's side another. Politics in Slovakia is a national hobby. I'd be happy if we pushed politics out of the living rooms and bedrooms and put it back into the public domain. I'd be happy if politics stopped being the national hobby, and we started talking again about sports and pretty women.

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