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HUNGARIAN COALITION PARTY LEADER SAYS IT IS A "COMMON MYTH" THAT HIS PARTY CARES ONLY ABOUT HUNGARIAN MINORITY INTERESTS IN SLOVAKIA

SMK wants to be in government, but "not at any price"

BÉLA Bugár, head of the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), says he is already losing his voice from talking to people at election rallies, even though the campaign only started a few days ago.
Analysts describe the right-leaning SMK as the most stable and reliable coalition party in the broad-spectrum Mikuláš Dzurinda government these past four years, one that has kept agreements and worked to keep the often fractious government united.
It's a reputation Bugár says he is proud of, but one that has come with some hard lessons. After failing to secure some of its key goals from 1998-2002 due to opposition from its coalition partners, the SMK says it will not agree to form part of the next government at any cost.


BÉLA Bugár
photo: Ján Svrček

BÉLA Bugár, head of the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), says he is already losing his voice from talking to people at election rallies, even though the campaign only started a few days ago.

Analysts describe the right-leaning SMK as the most stable and reliable coalition party in the broad-spectrum Mikuláš Dzurinda government these past four years, one that has kept agreements and worked to keep the often fractious government united.

It's a reputation Bugár says he is proud of, but one that has come with some hard lessons. After failing to secure some of its key goals from 1998-2002 due to opposition from its coalition partners, the SMK says it will not agree to form part of the next government at any cost.

The SMK has been praised by western observers for improving the country's pro-democratic image and adding impetus to minority rights in Slovakia, where nearly 15 per cent of the population claims an ethnic or national heritage other than Slovak.

But Bugár says he still has a lot of talking to do to convince the electorate that the SMK is far from a narrowly ethnic party, and that it represents the interests of all people living in Slovakia. Eighty per cent of the party's election programme, Bugár says, aims at goals which could benefit the entire country.

Bugár, who is also the deputy speaker of parliament, spoke to The Slovak Spectator on August 26 in his parliamentary office, squeezing the interview between two election rallies that morning.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): SMK party member Miklós Duray recently described the last four years in government as "chaotic". What is your impression?

Béla Bugár (BB): We could certainly say that governing was a chaotic affair because of the fact that various different political parties created the ruling coalition. But I would rather divide the government's term into periods.

The first period was about launching reforms, about regaining trust in Slovakia abroad. We made some substantial changes in the first approximately two years of government.

The second period was worse, as there were more politics being practiced. In this period a deep division between the right-wing and left-wing parties emerged and slowed the pace and even prevented the start of some reforms.

In general, however, I would highlight the fact that we returned Slovakia to Europe, and proved that we are a trustworthy partner.

TSS: What is the biggest lesson your party learned from being part of the coalition government?

BB: I think the lesson was not just for the SMK, but for all parties - that agreements must be kept. If agreements such as the cabinet's programme theses have been made, these must be kept or it's all for nothing. It [breaking agreements] undermines the trust of individual members of the coalition, which can result in every party behaving as it pleases. When that happens, it's the end.

TSS: Do you think the Dzurinda cabinet planned and pledged to do too many things, setting itself an unrealistic task in four years? Should the next cabinet learn from that and define fewer but more concrete tasks for itself?

BB: Certainly, but the next cabinet will also definitely have fewer things to worry about in the first place than this cabinet did. Just take the banking sector, which no longer needs to be fixed because it was done under this cabinet. We also had to prepare an enormous number of laws - both the cabinet and parliament worked hard on this.

TSS: Some politicians, such as Movement for Democracy (HZD) leader Ivan Gašparovič, have criticized the SMK for failing to improve the lives of even its own voters, the Hungarian minority living primarily in the south of Slovakia. Gašparovič has said the party did not give them better work and education opportunities...

BB: I'm absolutely not interested in what Mr Gašparovič has to say, because he was the creator of the state that we have inherited. The [1994-1998 Vladimír] Mečiar cabinet effectively destroyed southern Slovakia as far as financial aid and various investments go, and financially weakened the south.

I could name the positive things which have been achieved, even if they aren't of a purely minority character. For starters, take the Mária Valéria bridge in Štúrovo [completed in 2001 and connecting the Hungarian and Slovak Danube river banks after more than 50 years - ed. note].

Or take the ombudsman [a public defender of human rights elected earlier this year - ed. note]. No party except the SMK had it in their election programme. We managed to make it part of the cabinet programme declaration, and the institute has now been introduced by law.

Then there is the Charter of Regional and Minority Languages [approved in 2002]. We also managed to change the climate towards the Hungarian minority. The atmosphere is no longer as divisive as it used to be, whether you take the presentation of minority issues in the media, or the attitude of common citizens and politicians.

The SMK helped to change the [anti-Hungarian] climate in Slovakia. When we entered the cabinet in 1998, there were strong voices saying that the country would be sold to the Hungarians. When they elected me as deputy speaker of parliament I got phone calls threatening that I would be killed. The fear of Hungarians was massive.

Today, after four years, there is no such general fear. There are only certain districts where people have no experience of Hungarians, and where they still tend to believe those who spread hatred against Hungarians.

Mr Gašparovič never helped us when we proposed changes to elementary, secondary and university schooling laws. Nor did I hear his support for the establishment of a Hungarian faculty at the university in Nitra to train Hungarian teachers.

TSS: Many observers say the SMK over the last four years was the most stable party in government, and was the most willing to compromise with its partners. What was the price of these compromises?

BB: We could have banged our fists on the table and refused to compromise further. There was a time when the SMK was considering leaving the coalition [in summer 2001 before the passage of the public administration reform laws - ed. note]. We could have left. But every intelligent politician in such a situation has to be able to say what next.

If we had left, the cabinet would have had to look for support. They wouldn't have been able to find that support with the [opposition] HZDS or the Slovak National Party, so they would have had to turn back to us. Perhaps we would have been able to get more out of such a situation. But in terms of foreign trust in Slovakia, both the country and the SMK would have lost points. Because of the country's integration goals we had to step back from our party requirements.

But we won't enter the next cabinet just for the sake of integration again. We have achieved this goal already.

TSS: Your election campaign started in Dunajská Streda and ends in Komárno, towns with large Hungarian minority populations. Why don't you get out more to purely Slovak districts? Do you not want to become a mainstream, rather than an ethic or regional party?

BB: Four years ago we thought that in 2002 we'd already be campaigning around Slovakia, but the regional elections [last year in December] convinced us that the better strategy was to address Slovaks in mixed regions first, and only then to go further.

TSS: The SMK does not like to be called an ethnic party. Why?

BB: The SMK is perceived as an ethnic party because Slovaks react very sensitively to minority issues. If the SMK proposes an improved municipal housing policy, nobody notices. But if the same SMK minister says something about Hungarian interests, everybody knows about it.

TSS: It might help if such a large part of your election programme was not dedicated to the problems of the Hungarian minority.

BB: Only 20 per cent of the programme. You should read the programme more closely. After similar information appeared in the media, we organized a press conference and calculated that 80 per cent of the programme is dedicated to issues concerning the entire society, such as family, social issues, unemployment and so on.

TSS: Where does the SMK see itself after the elections?

BB: The SMK wants to be in government, but not at any price. We would like to be part of a government that continues the work started under this cabinet - integration, the democratisation of society - but of course only if some of our proposals are accepted.

TSS: Which demands would the SMK insist on if it were to enter the next government?

BB: We will tell this first to our potential coalition partners. We do have proposals which include some restrictions - the number of cabinet members, continuation of public administration reform and the related dismantling of regional and district state offices - as well as questions concerning the land of unidentified owners, the Hungarian faculty, and other issues.

TSS: Robert Fico, who is already saying what he would do as future PM, said that he would not make any concessions to the Hungarian minority because he thought their rights in Slovakia were at a higher level than in many surrounding countries.

BB: Mr Fico has to realize what he is saying. It's as if I were to buy him size eight shoes and tell him he has to wear them, that they are good and of a high standard despite the fact he takes a size ten.

On the one hand, politicians such as Gašparovič are saying that the education level of the Hungarian minority is low, which is a fact, and on the other hand teachers who will work at Hungarian schools are forced to learn their subjects in Slovak, even though they will lecture them in Hungarian. That's idiotic!

I think there will be a Hungarian-language university regardless of what Mr Fico wants.

TSS: If Fico really does become the next PM, how do you think your communication will work with him given the fact that in 1998 Fico was among those politicians who opposed the SMK's participation in the current cabinet?

BB: The future cabinet will be a coalition cabinet and it won't be about who wants to go with whom, but who can go with whom. The 'can' is the magic word.

Can the individual parties that join the ruling coalition form a cabinet which is trustworthy abroad? Can the government provide stability and the continuation of Slovakia's Euro-Atlantic integration?

These things are not dependent on what Mr Fico wants. He talks as if he had 30 per cent voter support. He doesn't and won't have that.

TSS: In your party programme there is a plan to build another bridge across the Danube - after Štúrovo you want to build a bridge connecting Komárno with Hungary. What is it with the SMK and bridges?

BB: Bridges connect. We say that if we want to connect to the blood circulation system of Europe, we must very quickly develop the infrastructure.

Knowing that Hungary has a very solid highway network, we should do our best to connect to this network. But we also say that the Austrians should finish their part of the highway system connecting Bratislava with European highways.

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