Will Marian Kotleba and the members of his party ever be invited to the presidential palace?
Definitely not. People who remember the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis and Holocaust survivors used to sit at this table where we are doing the interview. I cannot sit here with a man who considers the uprising the saddest event in Slovakia’s history. I will definitely not extend an invitation to a man who talks about the Holocaust and about 60,000 Jews who had been deported from Slovakia as not being our concern because we are a Slovak nation, not a Jewish one.
My grandfather was a partisan and during World War II he fought against people who endorsed such ideas. I don’t know how I would look my children in the eye. But my attitude to Kotleba does not express my attitude to people who voted for him. I respect every citizen. That is also why I went to Krupina and its surroundings, where Kotleba got the most votes, to talk to those people, to understand what they are thinking. There has been no big surprise. People who voted for him are frustrated. They said they wait for an appointment with a neurologist up to six months.
There you see where the state is failing. A bureaucrat, paid from our money, often treats a citizen as an enemy of the state. If you don’t deal with corruption, which is everywhere, frustration deepens in people, and then they show resistance. People resort to simple solutions.
Last week I also went to Lunik IX to mark the International Day of Roma. We’ve got about 400,000 Roma and problems that have been unsolved for decades. One mayor once wrote on his blog: now you, politicians, show us that you can do something about it, because if you fail, it can happen that extremists will have many more votes in the next election.
A significant group of first-time voters voted for a party that denies human rights as part of its ideology. What should be done with that?
During discussions at grammar schools in Žilina, Trnava, and in Krupina, we have always come to that question. I was very pleasantly surprised that when I explained who Kotleba really is and what ideas he promotes, students then spontaneously asked me: why don’t we just ban and cancel them? They alone started asking the question how it is possible that people who praise Tiso now sit in the parliament and want to rule the country.
Solving the rise of extremism is a cross-section thing. We have discussed it with the individual ministers. I spoke to the education minister about the possibility that schooling might be failing if children aren’t explained the fundamental things at civic education classes. We don’t teach them what democracy, freedom, human rights are. We don’t teach them the basic values.
With the culture minister I discussed about the media, about the influence of the public-service media, about what we show and what we should be showing to people. I will never forget, when 20 years ago I stood in front of the barrack with children's things in Auschwitz. I will never forget that shock, that thought about how many thousands of them did not survive the concentration camp. Many students don’t know what happened, we are unable to make them see it.
I’m asking myself how it is possible that racist attacks occur on social networks and nobody intervenes. Can we not put things in order? We need to learn to fight against extremism. To not tip-toe around it. To say clearly that these are things that we won’t tolerate in our democratic society.
Did the results of the election surprise you?
I was surprised. During the election night my seven-year-old son fell asleep next to me, and I was sitting in front of the TV until about 3 am, since our Statistics Office failed, and I was waiting for some kind of miracle. That did not come, and the results were confirmed in the morning. Many questions arose. I travelled to Bratislava straight away and we were trying to figure out what would happen.
What does it mean for Slovakia that the one-party government is over?
The government of several parties is an advantage for our country. It gives the opportunity for mutual control, which will probably be stronger. Parties with less voter support who entered the government will try to control it, because any possible failures might significantly harm their image.
I have met all the ministers and I wished success to each of them. If the problems that I talked about aren’t dealt with, I’m afraid the next parliamentary election might end even worse than this one.
One of the election results was the failure of standard political parties. What is the reason for that?
It’s the failure to solve basic problems in the long run, which creates frustration and causes the loss of trust in democracy, allowing a very simple rise of extremist and xenophobic ideas. This is happening not just here in Slovakia. It’s an extremely important phenomenon, and this government needs to realise that if there are no tangible and concrete results in four years’ time, the problem will only deepen. People name exactly what they mind.
Don’t you miss the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) in the parliament?
Parties make it to the parliament and drop out. That’s the fate of several parties. We also had the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) that was once successful. The Slovak National Party (SNS) too has been through a rise and fall, now it’s back again. It’s up to the KDH to self-reflect on how they see their role in this society.
Didn’t it surprise you how quickly the new government emerged?
A bit, yes. On the other hand I’m glad that the government emerged, and it’s good that the situation started calming down. The society was in great tension. If that tense atmosphere continued until this day, or we would have to have another election, it would polarize the society and I’m afraid extremism would get a green light.
The dominant force in the government is a party that in the past 10 years significantly shaped the development. What hope do we have that there will be improvement in key areas?
I’m glad to see some of the priorities that I have stressed before the election in the programme statement. For instance health care is well anchored. I hope the education minister is aware of how important education is. I think that the justice minister is also taking things ambitiously. I’m glad to see many ideas of non-governmental experts there. The fact that these points are in the programme statement means it will be relatively easy to control. In other areas, we can but wait for the results.
Judiciary is also part of the Justice Ministry’s agenda. As a president you have personal experience through the conflict on appointing constitutional judges. Does the Constitutional Court need reform?
We need the Constitutional Court to be a respected, top organisation, the top of our judiciary. This court decides on fundamental issues of statehood. I only want to make sure that real experts become constitutional judges, to get really good-quality people there. That was my only condition. I insist, and will insist, on that.
We have arrived at a stalemate situation because of the way the Constitutional Court decides and the controversial stances that it issues. But I see willingness to solve it when I talk to the leaders of all parliamentary parties. I don’t want to be too fast to speak, but I think that in a relatively short time there will be a solution and I believe it will be to the satisfaction of the lay and the expert public.
Why do you hesitate to appoint Jana Laššáková and Mojmír Mamojka as constitutional judges?
That’s part of the talks with political partners.
Do you miss anything in the programme statement? Is there anything the government should stress more?
Programme statements unfortunately often feature formulations like “we will stress” or “we would wish” or “it will be our priority”. Such semantic constructions say nothing about what the commitment really is. So the most important thing now will be to look at the concrete steps that the individual ministers will endorse. To watch it very closely, and if any of them does not realise how serious the situation is, to speak out loud and clear.
Is there a guarantee there will be improvement in health care, given the programme, and the minister that was chosen?
Let’s wait for the results. But yes, I see it as positive that there are points I also talked about as priorities.
The programme stresses changes in public administration, the value for money principle under which citizens should be getting real value, quality and accessible services, for the money they pay in taxes. Does this government have the potential to introduce something like this?
I think this is exactly how state institutions should proceed. I ask each minister to secure really good analysts. They are helpful to lead a better discussion with the finance minister who is asking what the money will be used for, what the effect would be, and why that particular amount. And the Finance Ministry does have qualified people. Every big investment should undergo real analysis. Sometimes we should not be afraid to say no – also when projects that we historically keep financing but they bring no effect are concerned.
Fighting against extremism is in the government’s programme, but the radicalization of politics also happened due to politicians. How do you perceive what the government plans to do about extremism?
I’m glad that the election is over and that the rhetoric of politicians suddenly is more cultured. They no longer use strong words about the migration crisis and so on. The rhetoric calmed down, and we are becoming a normal European country. That’s positive. The success of Slovakia – GDP increase, drop in unemployment rate – is closely connected with the space we are in. We are a small country with 5 million inhabitants and that’s why we need to be pro-export oriented and attractive for foreign investors.
Everything we take pride in we have thanks to being a part of the European space, the EU, and the common currency helps too. That resonates at all meetings I have with investors and politicians. That is one of the things we need to realise and we should all reflect that in our statements and attitudes towards partners in the EU, to seek problematic points and remove them so that we are stronger together. With the entire EU, with over 500 million people we can make it in this demanding world. We need friends, we need someone to lean on. That is why I see the attacks against our partners before the election, and some also after the election, as unnecessary. We have the right to speak up when we think things should be different. But we also need to seek compromises with our partners. That is one area. Another one – talking about the rise of extremism and anti-establishment – is the attacks on the basics of democracy. I really mind the strong statements of some people in politics about how politicians are not independent, that they are only controlled by oligarchs, that they only wait for a phone call from someone to be able to do anything. That’s stupid. That exactly creates the impression that democracy is not working. Attacks against the EU, against democracy, against political life, led even by the standard political parties alone, are a great service to extremism. They support groups who will say that democracy is bad and that society is falling apart, that we need to save our nation, cleanse it, and other xenophobic and extremist talk.
Don’t you mind that fighting extremism at schools is covered by the nationalist SNS in the government?
I don’t. I had the chance to talk to SNS chairman Andrej Danko after the elections. I closely watched his speeches before the elections and after, about their participation in government or about criticism of Kotleba, and I’m convinced they will do everything to get education to a higher level.
Radicalism and extremism rise also during the refugee crisis. You said it is the moral duty of all of us to help refugees. How should that help look like?
Quotas were absolutely unfortunate, they don’t work. From the start I’ve been saying they are not a good solution. I think the model of how we should deal with it is the way we proceeded with the Christians from Iraq. We should be active, show good will, seek families, and keep it under control so that people linked with crime and terrorism don’t make it to Slovakia. To show willingness, because we are a successful country; in the past tens of thousands of our people left and other states sheltered them and helped them. We should consider how to join this process and help.
Should the government withdraw the lawsuit against quotas that the previous government of Robert Fico filed?
I gave my view of that several times. If the government thinks it does have the arguments in favour of the lawsuit, let it file it. This government hasn’t made a statement on this yet, and I will not comment on that.
How should Slovakia use its EU presidency?
Mainly to promote our country as such. A great number of people will come here to take part in various events. We should show them that we are a modern European country, an open economy, that we are a country endowed with beauties that are often undiscovered, as people tell me when I meet them abroad and show them Slovakia.