The Slovak Spectator spoke to Kosová about Kotleba’s practices in office and his work with school-age children, while avoiding confrontation with critics.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Before Marian Kotleba entered the BBSK office you were known for your work with marginalised Roma and education of children. In recent years however you have been often commenting on the running of BBSK. Had this man changed your focus?
Ingrid Kosová (IK): I have many activities, I do advocacy related to Roma issues, deal with abused women and education of children and not only those who are Roma. I love Montessori pedagogy and I would like to pass its philosophy of education to other generations. I am founder of a Montessori school garden and I am trying to found a Montessori school. After Marian Kotleba became the BSSK head I did not change my interests, but I started to focus also on activities showing who people voted for. It is nonsense that a man with such a past can run a public office. What is even worse, he does not have any relevant experiences which have been proven over the last two years. I would like to run only Montessori pedagogy but I can’t ignore that a fascist has a political function and is able to decide about my life and life of my children. I would like to stop but I can’t because he is in parliament. In the past two years we devoted a lot of time to research, we had many interviews with BBSK mayors, officers and citizens asking them about Kotleba’s work results in various aspects of their lives. Everywhere we went we received negative answers. People were often using words like “catastrophe”. However, thanks to this campaign, for example in Slobodný vysielač (Freedom Broadcaster, the private conspiracy broadcaster) Kotleba’s party reached its desired success and entered parliament.
TSS: Were you surprised when Kotleba won the BBSK regional election two years ago?
IK: Yes, it surprised me a lot despite the fact that we knew Slovakia is not a promised land of tolerance and the Roma issue was a hot topic. Politicians have been using it during election campaigns and Kotleba rides this wave as well. Despite this, I didn’t expect that it will make him the BBSK governor. Many people were saying that they voted for Kotleba not because they are fascists but because they wanted to get rid of then-governor Vladimír Maňka. After parliamentary elections I’m starting to doubt that.
TSS: It was protest votes which got Kotleba into the office then?
IK: Many people we asked answered that the reason behind his success is not anti-roma sentiment but the fact that people have had enough of Smer. Kotleba then won in many villages in which people have never seen any Roma and don’t have any real experiences with them. At the beginning Kotleba was not criticising Smer so openly but he listens to what people are saying and always uses an issue which can bring him success. Thus he used also this issue. In discussions broadcasted by Slobodný vysielač he started to increasingly criticise Smer, NATO and EU. After speaking about “Gypsy parasites” he began to speak also about “Smer parasites”. The spectrum of his supporters has been widened by fans of conspiracy theories. Despite all of that I am convinced that only a person who agrees with anti-Roma and anti-migrant attitudes can vote for Kotleba and his party.
TSS: Have you witnessed similar changes in other cases?
IK: Currently he is not using the words “Gypsy parasites”; eh refers to parasites in settlements or parasites in ties. He claims that he is not against Roma and he doesn’t care whether people are white, orange or green until they are abusing the social system. What is more, he swapped the word “parasite” for the an word “extremist” [as a reaction to people calling him extremist] and now he is claiming that he is not an extremist, but those people are who are committing crimes in Roma settlements without being punished. He declares that even on his billboards. These things are illustrating how he evolves his rhetoric according to sentiments in society.
TSS: Was the situation in BBSK really so desperate that people elected an extremist?
IK: The situation there is really bad, there is the biggest number of Roma communities despite the situation in Roma settlements is not as bad as in those in eastern Slovakia. Roma were not the reason for the unrest of the people; it is rather crisis and unemployment. Despite that Maňka made BBSK the most transparent region in Slovakia, he poorly communicated it or any other of his successes such as saved money or what he achieved with voters. People were angry that he was occupying several seats, for example he was also a MEP. On the other hand, people don’t understand what competences BBSK has and they are not interested in regional politics. They are frustrated and unsatisfied, therefore they are susceptible towards – and let’s call it by its true name – primitive slogans without real solutions which Kotleba has been spreading.
TSS: What were other reasons for his success?
IK: The next thing which politicians and the third sector have underestimated is the fact that Kotleba has been working on mobilisation for several years. He has approached an incredible number of young people. We send reports to Brussels, map [the situation], do research or train young people; but Kotleba’s guys were the first who came to help ordinary people hit by floods. Therefore they say to themselves that those guys are not as bad as other people described them in media. When doing human rights training, I was personally negatively surprised by how many young people at secondary schools, particularly those studying technical fields are absolutely infected by his ideas of fascism and hate towards Roma and refugees.
TSS: In which ways can he persuade those young people?
IK: For example, Kotleba’s guys have been often reconstructing castles and taking young people with them. Using those activities they agitated for Kotleba. This is how those young people described it to me. Sometimes they were also taking their younger siblings who are visiting elementary schools with them. They were working on castles during the whole summer where they were manipulating and brainwashing them.
TSS: What would you say to a person who claims that Kotleba is not a fascist?
IK: We have been explaining for a long time that a person who uses Kotleba’s rhetoric and offers no real solutions has all the signs of fascism. We read the ĽSNS programme with them and try to analyse it. We point to the fact that when he was in Slovenská pospolitosť ( SP - party banned by Constitutional Court for anti-democratic goals) Kotleba wanted to cancel political parties and introduce a system of professionals ruling the state. We are asking people whether they understand what such a government is and what changes it would bring to society.
TSS: The answer could be that this is Kotleba’s past and he has changed.
IK: He stated that he hasn’t change. The fact that someone changes their rhetoric doesn’t mean that they changed their opinions. He is an adult person who was thinking in this way 10 years ago and in the same way three years ago. Why would he change his opinions now? Kotleba didn’t succeeded with his opinions in SP therefore now he is trying to adapt to society via ĽSNS in a slightly milder way. Not even Hitler was using the same language when he started in politics as he used in 1938. At the beginning Hitler had to carefully pick his words; and look at him - where he made it. People should rather think about what Kotleba is offering. For example, he proposes to come back to traditional values and religion in the education sector. How he can improve our education system by such proposals? Further, he promises to give a job to everyone. Is this real? He also wants Slovakia to leave NATO and the EU. What it would mean for Slovakia and for our foreign trade? We want people to start thinking about it and answer question whether things which Kotleba is preaching are really feasible. I don’t think that people who voted for Kotleba are pure fascists. On the other hand, a person who is not at least a latent racist would never vote for him.
TSS: Many observers say that Kotleba’s voters don’t know his past. Is it even possible in the 21st century?
IK: I would rather say that they don’t know what fascism is. It is a term which has never been properly explained to them. When we ask people what fascism is they don’t know. The huge problem is that nowadays people don’t think at all and just passively accept information. This is the reason why Kotleba’s cheap words are winning over every argument. Instead of succeeding in contradicting his arguments with every statement we have against him just supports his image of a martyr and warrior who is pursued by the media and the third sector because he is the only one who speaks truth, despite the fact that he is the same liar and populist as others. And he is fascist.
TSS: You think that his voters do not have a need for checking his words and learning more about him?
IK: They don’t. No one really asked the question if he really stripped the BBSK of its debts as he claims, not to mention how he did it. No one has been really interested how much money he saved and if he actually saved something. If they asked those questions they would realise that he is misleading people and lying to them. He doesn’t say that BBSK’s income increased due to legislation which increased the share which the region gets from income tax. He doesn’t say that he saved money by doing nothing. Kotleba knows how to use a Slovak-specific characteristic – disinterest – in his cheap slogans in the form of simple sentences.
TSS: Could you be more specific about how Kotleba runs BSSK? Is it true that he has had a successful two years in office?
IK: Of course he didn’t. Reduction of the region’s debt was agreed upon during the rule of the previous governor. On the other hand, the region lost €19 millions from EU funds due to Kotleba's stance towards the EU; money which could have been used for reconstruction of schools, social houses and roads. Despite the fact there are proofs that Kotleba is liquidating Banská Bystrica Regional Roads Management (BBRSC) everyone is talking only about how he saved money on road salt. This is a masquerade. He saved €400,000 on road salt but he caused BBRSC to suffer a debt of €500,000 with the explanation that he was funding a regional programme of employment and that the previous governor caused the debt. The truth is that the previous government’s mortgage helped to decrease expenses on yearly repairs of old machines. When it comes to his “glorious” programme of employment (Kotleba was promising to employ socially-excluded people by giving them manual labour positions) he employed altogether 60 people for three to six months who were cleaning ditches, while particular BBSK municipalities usually employ 160 people. Moreover, those 60 people were not even employees of BBRSC because they were hired by municipalities and their salaries were coming from the Labour Office. Therefore we asked BBSK what BBRSC was paying for and we wanted to see invoices the road management was paying to municipalities. They told us that our request will be passed to BBRSC but we haven’t received any answer.
TSS: If this is the truth, how it is possible that his voters do not object to that?
IK: This is the worst part. Kotleba always says only part of the truth and ignores the rest which would totally change the picture of such truth. Kotleba’s statements are not exactly lies. It is not a lie that he spared some money on road salt and he paid less for energies than his predecessor. But he doesn’t say how he did it. He doesn’t say that energies are cheaper because winter was milder and many buildings in BBSK were reconstructed with improved isolation [by his predecessor] therefore heating demands were lower.
TSS: Kotleba’s fans often say that he is an open man not afraid to say what he really thinks. On the other hand, usually he is not in direct confrontation with his critics. How it is possible?
IK: He knows exactly what he is doing. He was running in regional elections only to get into the national parliament. He needed to have the position of a martyr who is going to save Slovakia; but he is not allowed to do so. He can hold this position only by avoiding confrontation because he would not have arguments. Maňka challenged him in 2015 to have a discussion but Kotleba stated he cannot participate and blamed media for that.
TSS: What did you feel when media published exit polls during election night saying that Kotleba will make it to parliament for the first time?
IK: I was expecting that and that’s why I was telling everybody to participate in elections because Kotleba’s voters are organizing. Nevertheless I was sad when I saw the results. I see that some people can’t understand what it means for us - Roma to live in a country where everyone is signalling to you that you are different. And then some extremist will come mobilise people in anger against those “different” people.
TSS: Do you expect an increase of this hatred?
IK: Of course I do, I can see it every day. The hate has been increasing since Kotleba entered the BBSK office. I remember that a few months after he was elected my friends were calling me saying that they were physically or verbally attacked, they were not allowed to enter a bus or that they were afraid to go outside after sunset. Their fear has increased. Moreover, this situation is embracing Kotleba’s fans. I fear that my children will grow up in such a country.