“There is a war raging past our eastern border,” says Denisa Saková, MP for the HLAS-Social Democracy party that is attempting to help Slovak citizens who are being pelted left and right with price increases due to the war.
We meet again a year later. What major developments have happened in Slovak politics during that time?
I feel that many things have changed during that year. This time last year, we were busy fighting the consequences of the second wave of Covid which was unavoidable for households and businesses alike. Today, I dare say, the issues surrounding Covid have disappeared as if by magic.
And now we have war...
Yes, raging just beyond our eastern border. We are dealing with waves of migration and providing aid to refugees of war. As if that was not enough, we are dealing with issues that plague our nation, our citizens. There have been enormous increases in food and energy prices. To add to that, we are worried each week about whether there will be enough oil and gas for households and especially the Slovak industry. If somebody had told us last year what situation we will be facing today, I would not have believed them.
There is also turmoil in Slovak politics. The parliament has decided against allowing the prosecution of your former prime minister, Robert Fico. What is your stance on this issue?
We, as the opposition HLAS-SD party, voted against allowing the prosecution of Robert Fico. But not prosecution per se, merely his detainment while it is ongoing. Because Robert Fico is open to all investigations, he always arrives promptly to all interrogations and cooperates fully with the authorities involved in the proceedings. He has been charged with events that happened 5-6 years ago. That is why we do not feel that he should be in investigative detention when the alleged actions took place so long ago. Investigative detention is usually ordered when there is a danger of witness tampering. We really do not feel that anyone feels the need to tamper with witnesses due to an act that happened six years ago. If that were his intention, the witnesses would have been influenced a long time ago.
“Stop criminalizing the opposition! This government's efforts go solely into covering up its own inability to solve Slovakia's problems. All it can muster is this abhorrent pretense of twisted justice,” you wrote recently on your Facebook page. What was this a reaction to?
The quote is the exact expression of how things are right now. The only thing the current government does is criminalize the opposition. For a single reason – it is afraid to face the truth. We are showing the government the truth. It is the opposition's legitimate right but also a duty to provide feedback to the government and put forth alternative solutions for the issues plaguing the country. And this truth might be a rather hard pill to swallow for a government that has done nothing for its nation in the two years it has been in power. Getting rid of the critics is always the easiest and most convenient option.
You were the first female minister of interior in Slovak history. How did you deal with the situations when your position put you in places where tragedies happened?
Yes, leading the ministry of interior is a challenge. Not just in terms of the variety of the issues you have to deal with, you also need to be very knowledgeable on how the state works, you bear great responsibility in ensuring the safety of the people, but mainly, you often have to act with the utmost professionalism during tragic events, which requires a great deal of strength. Because you have to be the one who remains strong when other people are facing the most tragic times of their lives, you have to keep a cool head, always be ready and willing to help, but also provide the best possible solutions in as short a timeframe as possible. And it does not matter if we are talking about an explosion of a condo in Prešov or dealing with a migration crisis. When people's lives and well-being are in danger, your top priority is doing everything you can to help them.
There are tragedies happening every day just beyond Slovakia's borders due to the conflict in Ukraine. That could mean the potential deployment of NATO troops on Slovak territory. Do you agree with that?
We are a full member of NATO, and the request that, in cases of looming conflict, NATO troops be deployed to the areas that are most endangered is absolutely legitimate. There is little need to remind you that the war is going on just a few miles past our borders as opposed to the Czech Republic.
Last year, you complained to us that a large number of Slovak households are on the verge of economic collapse due to the insufficient aid being provided. The war in Ukraine must have complicated matters further, correct?
Last year, when I spoke those words, I had no idea that we would be facing something much worse later on. HLAS-SD has been warning the government that even economists and experts are now calling for social aid to be provided as soon as possible to those groups that are in the most danger. The National Bank of Slovakia has warned that double-digit inflation is coming next year, meaning further drastic price increases. According to the ministry of finance, the price of gas and heat will go up by tens of percentage points next year. Farmers and food producers are putting out alerts that our food stores will be empty in two months. And the government does nothing, nothing, and nothing again. We have repeatedly urged the government as well as Prime Minister Eduard Heger to put the Lex Slovakia Bill to the vote in the parliament right away as it would help Slovak citizens in the coming economic crisis. Sadly, this proposal was dismissed and the Slovak Parliament never got to vote on it.
Has your party presented any proposals that would help the people?
HLAS-SD presented a proposal at the parliament's latest session that would exceptionally raise the valorization of old-age pensions by 3.3 percent. The ruling coalition, however, did not even allow voting to happen, simply striking it from the session agenda. Our party also requested that basic foodstuffs be taxed at a VAT rate of 5 percent and that there be 0-percent VAT on the so-called backyard sale of groceries (sale of small amounts of food). To combat increasing gas prices, HLAS-SD wanted to lower the tax on gasoline and diesel by 20 cents per liter. To help parents who were unable to place their children in kindergartens due to full capacity, the party proposed that parental subsidies be extended to a 5-year duration. It also put forth a proposal to increase subsidies for social services in the upcoming three years, which would lead to a marked increase in wages of nurses and attendants. Due to the increase in energy prices, we urged the government to put together financial packages that would help socially disadvantaged households survive the tough times ahead. Potentially even that VAT be lowered to 5 percent. But nothing happened. We put forth another series of proposals for this parliamentary session. To pay out a one-time stimulus of 100 EUR to people with the lowest wages and another 100 EUR for each child that is not provided for. We proposed an exception from the public procurement of healthy foodstuffs. The goal of this amendment would be that schools and educational facilities could buy groceries right from the source, locally, with an emphasis on quality. We proposed that a 14th pension payment be implemented for senior citizens based on the ongoing increase in living expenses during the past year.
It seems that the gas coming from Russia to Europe is going to pose an issue. Is simply cutting off Russian gas possible?
Cutting off Russian gas right away is not a possibility. The Slovak industry is 95 percent dependent on Russian gas. We can take measures and propose that gas be sourced from other countries, but all of that is in the mid- to long-term. Meaning that implementing these measures cannot be done in weeks or months. It will take years.
How do you feel about the cooperation between Czechia and Slovakia this past year?
I think that the relations between Czech and Slovak people have not deteriorated post the 1993 separation. Quite the contrary, I think that we have a level of friendship and cooperation that other countries can only envy. Even if the cooperation may sometimes falter, it is only for short periods and due to specific people not seeing eye to eye.
“We have a level of friendship and cooperation that other countries can only envy,” says Denisa Saková about Czech-Slovak relations.
Denisa Saková (born April 17, 1976, in Nitra) is a former minister of interior in Peter Pellegrini's government.
She graduated in economics and worked in the IT sector since the year 2000.
She started at the ministry of interior in 2007, first as the director of the IT department, and later as director of one of its service departments.
Saková did a great deal of work on preparing Slovakia to enter the Schengen Area. In 2016, she ran for the parliament for the SMER party and was elected an MP, but later gave up her seat due to becoming deputy state minister of interior.
In April 2018, she was appointed minister of interior, leading the ministry until March 2020. She was once again elected MP for SMER in the February election, moving on to the newly formed HLAS--Social Democracy party led by Peter Pellegrini in summer 2020. This party is currently leading the polls in Slovakia with about 19% percent of people's votes.
Denisa Saková is divorced and has a son.
Denisa spends her free time with her son.
Work and her son
Denisa is also the mother of a teenager. Does she have enough time for him with all the work she does? “My son will be 13 soon, he is very attentive and understanding when it comes to my work,” says Denisa. “He has come to understand that there are certain duties that I cannot do anything about and we both have to accept that. But I try to spend all of my free time outside of work with him. When I worked as minister of interior and would come home late at night instead of the time I originally promised, he would only reply to my apologies with, 'Mommy, I understand completely. Does any other woman in Slovakia have such responsibilities and as demanding a job as you?' Well, not really...” [laughs]