Central Europe has been overtaken by populist, authoritarian governments. But the victory last month of Zuzana Caputova, the first woman to be elected president of Slovakia, gave hope to pro-Western liberals in the region. The 45-year-old lawyer who has fought corruption for years decided to run only last year, after the assassination of a young journalist, Jan Kuciak, who was investigating high-level government graft. On televised debates and social media, her campaign for change captured the hearts of a majority of Slovak voters. Caputova sat down with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth on Wednesday in her crowded office. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: People say your election is a victory for liberalism in this part of the world, where populism and nationalism have been rising — in Poland and in Hungary. Do you see it that way?
A: My campaign convinced me that you don’t need to use the language of populism — nor work with the emotion of fear or employ threats as a tool of manipulation in order to emerge victorious.
Q: Your opponents insinuated that you’re a puppet of Jewish financiers and George Soros, or that you’re Jewish yourself. What did you do about that?
A: One of the ways to deal with this and all attacks was simply to ignore these lies. But . . . what we did was to post the attacks on our Facebook site, and then my team simply commented on them, setting the record straight.
Q: Did the 2018 assassination of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee prompt you to run for president?
A: Yes, the murder of Mr. Kuciak and the public reaction to that murder, the large public protests that went on, informed my decision. I had collaborated previously with Kuciak on several cases, he as an investigative journalist and myself as a lawyer — allegations of abuse of power. I [have] absolutely no doubt that he was killed because of his work. The investigation into his murder is producing more and more information about the links between crime and representatives of our justice system.
Q: Who in the justice system?
A: Prosecutors. The person who now stands accused of organizing the murder of Kuciak [businessman Marian Kocner] was on the opposite side in the 14-year legal battle I fought against the proposed landfill in my hometown of Pezinok.
Q: Are people in your country fed up with corruption?
A: The big challenge is to improve the citizens’ perceptions of politics so they can start trusting again, so that extremist and populist forces will not win.
Q: The extremists have a pretty strong opposition bloc in Slovakia. If you combined the opposition parties together, aren’t they around 25 percent?
A: Obviously it is a big figure. People tend to vote for these extremist parties out of frustration. I can empathize with them, and we can even agree on the diagnosis of the situation. But obviously, my solutions will be constructive, reasonable and different to the ones that extremist leaders are proposing.
Q: Do you believe in the European Union, and do you think Slovakia has an important role to play in it?
A: From my perspective, Slovakia belongs in and is an integral part of Europe and the West — politically, historically and culturally. It is absolutely vital that we are and will remain members of the European Union.
Q: How do you feel about the United States? Would you like to have a stronger relationship with the U.S.?
A: Obviously the United States is a key partner within NATO. The collective defense of NATO is indispensable to the security and defense of our country. I don’t agree with some of the decisions of the U.S. administration, such as the withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord.
Q: What is your view of President Trump?
A: I respect him as the president of a partner county. But I hope that the U.S. and the E.U. find a way to improve relations and that we’ll be able to avoid escalation of trade or other skirmishes.
Q: U.S. tariffs would affect Slovakia, right?
A: They would affect all of Europe but Slovakia as well.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish in your presidency?
A: My three priorities are in the areas of rule of law and justice, social care, and protecting the environment. The president has strong powers when it comes to the appointment of judges. Next year there will be a pivotal vote on the appointment of the next prosecutor general. Apart from that, my mission is to come forward with real systemic changes and proposals in the way the prosecution and police work.
Q: The prime minister has most of the power in Slovakia. Are you hoping that in parliamentary elections, which will be held before next March, the liberal side can prevail?
A: I have huge expectations when it comes to next year’s parliamentary elections. It seems that new political forces are gaining support in opinion polls . . . There is a potential that the distribution of power after the elections could be different from what it is today.
Q: When you started your campaign, did you think you could win?
A: Obviously it was hard at the beginning. I didn’t have much funding, and I also had very low name recognition. So through the entire autumn, I was eighth in the opinion polls. . . . But my colleagues and friends urged me to stay in the game until the televised nationalized debates began. Those debates triggered a huge reaction from the public, which translated not only to increasing my public support but also to increasing my fundraising. Nearly half my campaign money came from small donors who donated 10 or 20 euros.
Q: Was corruption the biggest issue during the campaign?
A: Corruption, but also the lack of accountability. I put rule of law and reconstruction of the justice system at the core of my campaign — making institutions such as the police and the prosecutor independent of political influence.
Q: You voiced your support for LGBT rights in a very conservative country.
A: Precisely. It was a dangerous step to take. The feedback I got from people who are deeply conservative was that they disagreed with my ideas, but they would vote for me because they saw that I am honest. I got a lot of support from Christian leaders, even from members of the clergy. I am actually a believer. The support I got confirmed for me that conservative values are not necessarily in conflict with liberal ideas and opinions.
Q: How do you think you succeeded as a woman in such a male-oriented society?
A: We don’t have many women in positions of political power. I faced questions as to whether a woman belonged in politics at all, if I should give up my candidacy and support another candidate. But there were also those who saw the fact that I’m a woman as a symbol of change. I think once the public debates started, this factor receded.
Q: The United States wants Slovakia to sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement, giving your country $105 million to upgrade its military airports. But Slovakia’s Defense Ministry, which is reportedly sympathetic to Russia, is opposing it. Are you in favor of this agreement?
A: I am in complete agreement with our Foreign Ministry: The U.S. offer to help us upgrade the military airfields absolutely does not violate our sovereignty, as was alleged by the opponents and critics.
Q: Why is there such strong pro-Russian sentiment in Slovakia?
A: People equate Russia with conservative values. You have to respect that Russia is a power with which we want to have predictable and constructive relations. But . . . this does not preclude a strong, principled position when it comes to Russian actions.
Q: Do you have any comments on Russian actions in Ukraine?
A: I share the position of the European Union. Unless and until the Minsk Agreements are implemented, I consider sanctions on Russia to be a legitimate tool.
Q: On the night of your victory, you addressed your voters in many languages. Were you trying to show that different ethnicities can be a unifying factor, whereas so many people in your region, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have used them as a divisive factor?
A: Speaking in the languages of all the ethnic minorities was a symbol that I intend to be president of all the citizens of this country. Diversity does not make us weaker but enriches us.
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