Matúš Vallo: Slovak Time of Trial

I feel an energy that will bring change. These local government elections will be a test, and in two years, with the parliamentary elections, we will learn the truth about Slovakia—says Matúš Vallo, architect, urban activist, and candidate for the office of mayor of Bratislava.

ŁUKASZ GRZESICZAK: It’s raining cats and dogs. How did you arrive for the interview?

MATÚŠ VALLO: I usually walk in Bratislava, I like it very much. But when it started to rain, I took a taxi. Otherwise I would’ve probably been even more late.

In the autumn last year I lived in Bratislava just by the Polus City Center for three months. I realized that it is not a city for pedestrians and cyclists.

I feel exactly the same. The blame goes to the huge desire, reaching back to the 1990s, for everyone to have his or her own car. The car was the symbol of luxury not only for Slovaks. Fortunately, by now things have slightly changed in this respect. But due to this old belief almost everyone today is used to having a car and driving it. It’s difficult to believe, but once the mark of social status was not to move around in Bratislava using the municipal transport (MHD)! No wonder we woke up in a city which prefers drivers and completely forgot about pedestrians. The pavements are narrow, damaged, and taken over by parked cars. They are not adapted to the needs of people with mobility problems. And our city has forgotten about cyclists. The new cycling paths are just a marketing gimmick serving as a bait before the elections. In fact, they don’t exist.

Can it be changed?

I am sure it can. You simply have to give people a good alternative for how to move around the city. The alternative is walking and cycling, but the foundation has to be a quality municipal transport system. Buses, trams and trolleybuses must be cleaner and travelling must be safer. Public transport must be on time, waiting time should be shorter and the vehicles should have the right of way at intersections. In some places bus lanes are necessary, exclusively for MHD vehicles and taxis. These are obvious things which work successfully in many European cities. No miracles are needed.

Why are such ideas often approached with disbelief in Bratislava?

The fate of Bratislava and many other Slovak cities is being decided by people who are completely uninterested in urban matters. The mayors are mostly politicians who treat their office in the city as a springboard for a future career. The other type of our mayors are retired politicians, who are offered this job by their party in gratitude for their past work. They are often no professionals, the issues of Bratislava are new and unknown to them. I am not sure they are people capable of giving their hearts to Bratislava. A great reform of public transport? It will hurt. They lack the courage, the vision, and a good team. We have it all.

You are running for the office of the mayor of Bratislava. Is it the beginning of a political career?

I am not interested in politics at the parliamentary level, I am fascinated by the city. I am an architect and I have been running an architectural studio in Bratislava with a friend for 10 years, we employ 15 people. Until January this year, I worked full time for it and now I am running my election campaign. In 2008, we developed the project “Urban Interventions” in Bratislava—small urban interventions which can change and invigorate the space and the city. As an architect I believe that the space we live in has an obvious impact on our lives. It’s a cliché, there are whole academic libraries about that. I am interested in how cities change our lives. Since I remember, I have followed this subject and participated in conferences. One of them—the CityLab conference organized by Bloomberg and Aspen—opened my eyes. I realized that if you want to make a change, it is not enough to be an urban activist, you have to become part of the system.

The fate of Bratislava and many other Slovak cities is being decided by people who are completely uninterested in urban matters. The mayors treat their office as a springboard for a future career.

Can you be in it without becoming a politician?

Of course, when I announced that I would be running for the office of the mayor of Bratislava, I became a politician. The point is how we understand this word…

I think that in Poland and throughout Central Europe it doesn’t mean anything good…

That’s true, I agree with you. This word has negative connotations. However, from my perspective, an urban politician is a person trying to comprehensively solve a given problem, looking at it not only from his or her specialist’s point of view, but from all points of view that are needed for the change to be implemented.

You announced your candidacy two years ago. Are you not afraid that it was premature?

When I decided to run, I announced it to people. Such behavior seemed honest to me and I deprived my critics of arguments. It became obvious to all that they were working with a person who would be running for the office of the mayor. I certainly compromised some of my commercial projects in this way, but many people in my line of work congratulated me on my straightforwardness.

Why do you run?

Bratislava has huge potential. Fantastic nature, the Carpathians around the corner, close to Vienna and Budapest. A beautiful and interesting history, exceptional people gradually returning to Bratislava from abroad. I have the feeling that no one can see this potential and no one tries to make use of it. And we know what to do with it. This is the most important reason. Secondly, I want to live in Bratislava. I have lived in Rome for four years, I have worked in London for one year, and I spent almost one year doing research at a university in New York. I discovered a lot of cities, but ultimately I want to live here. But I want to live in Bratislava without compromises, as I have experienced it in other good cities.

Why did you come back to Bratislava?

I think I could be happy in London or Rome. It was very liberating for me when I discovered that I would not get lost in these cities. But when I was there, I came to appreciate our geographic location, the size and slow pace of our city. This is the first reason, the other is that Bratislava is a unique city. My family lives here. I am not ready to accept that I have to spend two days travelling when I go to visit my mum as a price for living in an attractive European city.

Bratislava has huge potential. I have the feeling that no one can see this potential and no one tries to make use of it. And we know what to do with it.

I want to be able to visit my parents in 10 minutes. I am a proud Slovak, I was born here, I like this city, but I want to change it. I simply don’t want to leave it in the hands of people who destroy it.

In your “Bratislava Plan” one can find the words that Bratislava is to be for everyone, for those who were born here, for Slovaks who came here seeking a better life, but also for foreigners. We are talking a few days after the death of a young Filipino Henry, who was beaten to death in the very center of Bratislava. It was a racist attack and the culprit kicked the foreigner, who had lived and worked in Bratislava for over a year, even after he lost consciousness.

This is a very tragic event. Bratislava is a small city and when someone murders another person in the very center, such an act can shock the whole Slovakia.

I am not ready to accept that I have to spend two days travelling when I go to visit my mum as a price for living in an attractive European city. I want to be able to visit my parents in 10 minutes.

The victim is a foreigner. What signal do we send to the world? Unfortunately, Slovakia tolerates violence, politicians have been pursuing a consistent campaign against foreigners for many years. Someone may say that it is an anti-refugee campaign, but in my opinion these two matters are connected.

We don’t have refugees in Slovakia, in fact we don’t have any major communities of foreigners. Politicians want power at any price, even at the price of inciting hatred towards other social groups. These might be homosexuals, foreigners, the Roma, Hungarians. There will always be someone, and Slovak politicians will always try to make political capital on the hatred for some social group. I know there similar things are going on in Hungary, Poland, and recently also Czechia, but it is particularly sad to see that in your own country.

In Warsaw, a man beat a university professor for speaking German. In Ostrava a Czech attacked students from Spain, for they were speaking their own language in a bus. He believes that in Czechia you can only speak Czech.

It is absurd. Fortunately, we have not come as far as that, but it is not much of a consolation. These stories remind me slightly of Slovakia from the 1990s. I have an impression that in Central Europe we have forgotten what a beautiful period we have behind us. What prosperity we have enjoyed in the last quarter of a century. It turns out that ultimately the populists win. They are people who don’t care about the truth and it is not important to them that they harm someone. A wave of populism and extremism is flooding Europe. This is a lesson for politicians who have ruled the continent for the last twenty years. But I still believe that Europe will wake up.

What is the source of the immense popularity of the neo-Nazi leader of the fascist People’s Party—Our Slovakia, Marian Kotleba?

I have a band. In December 2016, in the concert hall of the Slovak Radio in Bratislava, we played a concert for 500 people which was broadcast live. And another 50,000 people listened. We play involved music, so I very much wanted to warn people against what Marian Kotleba does. And I thought that it should not be us, warning against fascism and Nazism. We found someone who had experienced it. In Slovakia there are still people who remember the cruelty of the war.

We invited Lýdia Piovarcsyová, whose family was murdered in a concentration camp. Her mother was eaten by the dogs in the camp. She was telling her story for a few minutes. People were crying. Our duty is to speak about what fascism and Nazism is. You should remind people about it, teach about it in school. You can’t forget. Unfortunately, people in Slovakia are starting to forget about it today.

Why?

Perhaps they themselves have a feeling that someone else forgot about them. Perhaps they have a feeling that the state has forgotten about them. Perhaps they are simply lazy. I can’t answer this question. I am reading that Kotleba’s supporters didn’t know they were voting for a fascist.

Allegedly it was only meant as a vote of protest against the establishment. But we all know that he is a neo-Nazi, who would send people to a concentration camp if he could. Why is he still supported by 10 percent of Slovaks?

What will be your first three decisions if you win the election?

Anyone who wins the election in Bratislava will have to face a poorly functioning public transport, a poorly working municipality, a poorly managed city greenery, and problems with the health service. It is not that you come to the city hall and make one first step.

I have been working for two years with the aim of not coming to the city hall on my own. I have a team and in that team I have people who will be dealing with specific matters. I created my program for Bratislava with them. We will go to the town hall and immediately we will make many decisions which are included in my program. My first step will be to give these people the scope to act.

A wave of populism and extremism is flooding Europe. But I still believe that Europe will wake up.

You mentioned that Bratislava is close to Vienna, Prague, or Budapest. But isn’t this proximity a curse for the city?

We are in the European Union. When I want, I go to a marketplace in Vienna or to a school in Brno. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, but it does not have to strive at becoming a great European metropolis. We can focus on other things and exploit the proximity of other cities in some areas. Vienna is 40 minutes from us: in America, Bratislava and Vienna would be one city. Because of the size of our city there are things we don’t have and will not have here. But we should not be worried because of that. Thanks to it we can enjoy the size of our not too big but a beautiful city on the Danube, where it is possible to have a good life. Officially Bratislava has 420 thousand inhabitants, but there are 600-700 thousand people here every day.

After the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and archaeologist Martina Kušnírová, there were massive anti-government protests organized by young people across Slovakia. Do you think that this energy will translate into political change?

I feel an energy that will bring change. I think that this energy will be revealed with the local government elections. We announced on our websites that we were looking for volunteers. In the first week, 120 people came to us. These local government elections will be a test, and in two years, during parliamentary elections, we will learn the truth about Slovakia.

After this political murder Slovakia will never be the same country as before. We lost the illusion that we are the better Europe. We realized that the mafia has penetrated the highest echelons of power and that it kills journalists. I think that it was a huge tragedy, but it woke many young people up. Slovaks don’t want to flee abroad. It is here that we want to live—in a democratic, free world, where the mafia is not a synonym for the government and where you don’t kill people for writing the truth.

We invite alumni of Aspen Young Leader Program to present their projects, thoughts and inspiration in Aspen Review. Aspn.me/AYLP


Matúš Vallo

is a Slovak architect, urban activist, and member of a band called Para and was born in 1977. He will be running for the mayor of Bratislava in the autumn local elections. With a group of a few dozen experts he developed his election agenda which he named the “Bratislava Plan.”

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is Polish journalist and writer publishing hist texts Czech and Polish journals.

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