President Andrej Kiska says that it is a very bad signal when people who want to be engaged and help to make life in the country better are defamed or humiliated.
Why do politicians lack the ability to focus on the important things and the will to take responsibility for their mistakes, as you said in your state of the republic address?
Andrej Kiska (AK): We can say our problems comprise education, health care, regions that are lagging behind, and some of us even find the courage to mention the situation of the Roma. We can also say what the solutions should be like, that in education, for example, we should focus on socially disadvantaged families, on critical thinking or on building values in the pupils. But the fundamental mistake that I perceive is that we cannot set concrete, measurable targets or time plans and achieve them. If you are a manager in a company and you want to build a factory, you know your deadline and your budget. But we react by saying, well, it did not work now, but another government will come, and we have only been here for a relatively short time. That is one of the main failures of our state. And when people do not see concrete, tangible results in the most pressing issues, then it translates into resistance and extremism.
Another strong moment in the address was the focus on corruption as the main problem. But how can we effectively fight corruption in a country where the interior minister says he does not see corruption?
AK: Sometimes, it seems like we live in two different worlds within one country. Surveys show we have the lowest trust in judiciary within the EU, that we have the second lowest trust in the police, and people see corruption as one of the worst problems. On the other hand, we have politicians who claim there is no corruption and nothing to deal with. It is one of the main failures, and it is also a problem of our mentality. People often need to defend their failures. And if they do it ten, twenty, a hundred times, then they end up believing their own lie. They convince themselves that they are right, and that is the worst part. Because if someone is convinced there is no corruption, we cannot convince them to deal with the situation. Such a person should not remain in his post.
If the government does not have enough determination to move the fight against corruption forward, what can the public do?
AK: Those who are discontent with the state of society should show it, conscientiously and decently, as the students are doing. The power of real politicians is in their ability to listen to those who have a different opinion, and together we should consider how to move the country forward. Anyone’s decent critical voice should be welcome here. It is logical that each of us makes mistakes, and as president, I surely make mistakes too. But when someone tells me that I have done something wrong, it should motivate me to correct my mistake, or at least prevent me from repeating it in the future.
What is the signal that comes from politicians who belittle the student marches?
AK: It is a very bad signal to try to defame or humiliate people who want to be engaged and helping to make life in the country better. One of the fundamental long-term problems of our country is that people who are young and capable want to leave. If these people show us what the problem is and beg us to deal with it and talk with us about it, we need to respect them. They are the ones who can help us build the country. When I visit secondary schools and universities, I call on young people to share their opinions if there is anything they do not like.
You said it is essential that people who have the power to decide hear the critical voices. What was the government’s reaction to the criticism you voiced in your address?
AK: I have very actively joined the pre-election fight ahead of the parliamentary election, stressing that health care and education should be the priorities of the new government. I was very glad that the government did, in fact, make them a priority. I often meet the health minister and the education minister to discuss how things are moving forward, and the health minister has shown sincere efforts to improve the quality of care during his term.
Did the government give you any reason to believe it is able to handle the critical state of the country’s health care?
AK: It is immensely hard work to make systemic and fundamental changes in health care. We must be clear with doctors, citizens and nurses on what our aim is and what we want to achieve. Often, it means unpopular measures. I can see that the minister works hard. He comes up with proposals and is trying to promote changes, but he is missing the political support of the whole coalition. There is no discussion about health care in parliament, and I do not hear it in the professional circles either.
You say you meet with Drucker. Have you also met Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák on the Bašternák case?
AK: I spoke with him on the phone, but we have not met to discuss it. I expressed my opinion about the whole case very clearly one year ago, in the state of republic address, when I said that nobody in this country could possibly believe that a person carries 12 million euros in cash in a briefcase.
The recent discussion about the police intervention in the car chase that claimed the life of a young man suggests there is a schism in society’s perception of the police. What do you think of this discussion?
AK: It was a huge tragedy. A young man died who did absolutely nothing wrong. I have children who too might do silly things out of youthful recklessness, and I cannot imagine my child would be shot dead like that one day. It was outrageous to me that the interior minister and the police corps president supported the police’s actions even before a commission looked into it. I think that the majority of our citizens remain absolutely shocked. It is a tragedy that shows one of the things that I have stressed repeatedly. We need an independent inspection of the police. It is not right that the only checks on the police are themselves. We need to act quickly to change the rules for how police should proceed in similar cases. There is an absolute difference between chasing a car driven by suspected murderers and chasing a car driven by reckless teenagers. It is not right to treat such cases with equal measure.
The ruling coalition justified its emergence last year with the argument that they want to be a dam against extremism. Have they managed to do this?
AK: Not yet, but I am optimistic about the statements of the prime minister against extremism and the steps of the prosecutors, the police, and some ministries who deal with extremism. But the most important thing is to understand that democratic political parties must show the voters that they are the ones who can defeat extremist parties. Another thing is that extremism is growing because cases of corruption go unresolved. There is perhaps no greater mistrust in the state than that which voters hold toward the justice system. When we lose the trust in the state, come election day we vote for someone who says that this is a bad state - that politicians are failing, democracy is failing and the EU and NATO are failing. You can look at the Roma issues as an example. Kotleba and his party seem competent to many and create the image that they are the ones who can address it. But we all know that they have no idea what to do. They only have strong words. We have not dealt with the problems facing Roma and often act like an ostrich, with our heads in the sand. But people in the regions see it as a problem and see that the state is not fulfilling its role. Then someone like Kotleba comes along offering quasi-solutions. The government has unfortunately failed to build a dam against extremism, and it has not won back the country’s trust.
The government prefers repression with regard to the Roma community, stressing Roma criminality. How does this attitude influence the Roma community and the majority? What could help to make the community a part of the success story of this country, as you said in your address?
AK: Some politicians see that the group of people willing to vote for extremists is growing and feel that if they want to win their votes, they must use the same rhetoric. This is immensely dangerous for the whole country. We saw it ahead of the most recent parliamentary election, when some politicians provoked a fear of refugees in an attempt to win votes. Today it is clear they were only fear-mongering, but this is risky in connection to Roma too. There are more than 400,000 Roma living in Slovakia, which is almost 10 percent of the population. Obviously, there needs to be order, and laws must be observed by everyone. But we need a vision, a plan, and we need to focus on education, on preschool and school. The school is not only about education as such, as it also gives people dreams. It is hard to raise children in shanties without running water or electricity. This is a challenge for our society to overcome, and I think it is a realistic goal for us to accomplish within ten years. We see so many successful projects that work because of the willingness of some people to help. Many Roma live in Spišský Hrhov, and the town has an unemployment rate of nearly zero. The town also has schools that focus on Roma children and vocational schools that have been effective, but we have so far been unable to use examples like Spišský Hrhov to create systematic solutions for the entire country. We even have the resources to do this - there will be €450 million allotted by the end of 2020. Obviously, we will not be giving hand-outs, and changes will require clear involvement of Roma themselves. This problem is so deep that we should assign it its own minister or even create an entire ministry to help fix it. If we do nothing, we will only play into the hands of the extremists.
Some of the political statements also regard Slovakia’s sense of belonging to a certain European identity, like when we talk about two-speed Europe and Richard Sulik’s opinion. Where do you see the place of Slovakia in Europe?
AK: The EU faces two enemies today. First, the outer enemies: countries like Russia would gladly see the EU divided. Outer enemies are trying to crush us when they question the EU and dissolve us from within using their hybrid war. But we also have internal enemies, who are often motivated by political ambition. Sometimes it is very easy to win political votes when you shout loudly against someone from outside. In the times of Czechoslovakia, it was in fashion in Slovakia to shout that Prague was to be blamed for everything. Now, when things are not going as desired, it is in fashion to blame Brussels. On the other hand, there is a discussion within the EU about its future. I am glad that also the prime minister says it is our duty to be in the core of the EU. What the core of the EU will be and the debate about a two-speed Europe are really philosophical questions. The two-speed Europe is already here. Some countries are in the eurozone, others are not; some are in Schengen, others are not. I am very cautious when I hear these discussions, and I tell people that we should talk about how we see this project and look for the things that unite us.
In the atmosphere of the hybrid war and conspiracy websites, trustworthy public-service media play an important role. After the election of the RTVS director, do you have think that politicians are aware of that?
AK: The public-service television is immensely important in a space often filled with hoaxes and lies. I have a lot of respect for how the RTVS news service has acquired high standards of trust in recent years. My family often takes information from RTVS as well. That was also why I called on the MPs to do everything to keep building that trust. I will keep a close eye on how the new director continues the trend that his predecessor set.
You are expecting new candidates to be elected by the parliament, from whom you will appoint Constitutional Court judges. Parliament’s Speaker Andrej Danko said they will not elect more candidates. How can this situation be resolved?
AK: I want to help solve this situation. I am still convinced that the best people should become constitutional judges. I have never had my own candidates, nor any political ambition. The only thing I asked the coalition was to give me names of people who I could sign without problems and who would make responsible decisions about the fate of our state. I am now expecting the verdict of the Constitutional Court senate, to know how many candidates I need to appoint as judges. I am disappointed that the government is not sticking to its own programme statement goal of changing the law that dictates who can become a candidate for the constitutional judge position. There are some among the candidates who have no clue about constitutional law.
What are your relations with PM Robert Fico? Do you meet regularly?
AK: The last time we met was after I presented the state of the republic address, when, together with the parliament’s speaker, we discussed current issues in domestic and foreign politics.
Do you have a reason to believe that the crimes linked with the abduction of the president’s son to Austria will be punished now that the amnesties have been revoked?
AK: I was really glad that even after many years, there was so much pressure to cancel the amnesties. I have great respect for the decision of the parliament. When I embraced Mrs Remiášová after the movie Únos, I told her I would do everything to have the amnesties cancelled, so that those who committed the crime would finally be punished. We have said A, so it follows that now we must do B, so that our citizens are not left feeling that those who committed the crime or violated the law go unpunished. I will watch what happens very carefully, and I expect clear results. Now that we as a society have raised this issue, we need to help bring it to its end, because that is the way to build trust in the state.
What do you want to stress during the regional elections, regarding the possible victory of fascists? Because it is apparent that the Banská Bystrica region might not be the only case of this.
AK: I vetoed the law changing the format of regional elections, but the parliament passed it anyway. I have a serious concern that the two-round election was condensed into one round to secure the victory of some partisan candidates in some regions. The coalition chose to sacrifice Banská Bystrica region for its own partisan, egoistic interests. If the election had two rounds in Banská Bystrica, people would be sure to join to prevent Kotleba from winning. But I believe the candidates have a civic responsibility and are willing to unite for the benefit of one candidate. As president, I will do everything I can to prevent extremists from winning in any region.
You had an unplanned meeting with some of the extremists. How did you feel after the talk?
AK: They came by bus to Brezno, and when I saw them gathering there, I felt the need to stop by. When you are convinced of what is good for this country, you are not afraid to say it to them, to explain what type of country I want our children to have one day. I may have even heard a cry for help in their questions. They do not see a way out, so they resort to extremism. Our role is to show them what the solutions are. We can work with them, but we just cannot give up.