These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Žilina

Slota-style success

    
 
 photo: Ján Svrček

Žilina is a perplexing place. It is a city with two distinct images, a city where it is hard to separate the man from the town.

The man is four-time mayor Ján Slota, perhaps the single most controversial Slovak alive today. He has earned Žilina a nationalist reputation by honouring Slovaks that have been judged poorly by history, and has further bruised the city’s name with his offensive politics and infantile public acts.

On the other hand, the four-time mayor has engineered the dramatic transformation of his city from a disagreeable industrial centre into one of the loveliest cities in Slovakia.

You cannot separate the two. But in order to give Žilina its due, we should begin with the city.

Since 1990, the city centre has undergone a massive reconstruction. As a result, the Old Town has one of the country’s largest pedestrian zones, stretching from the railway station to Ľudovít Štúr Square.

The highlights of the historical core - which was declared a Protected Urban Area in 1987 - are its two main squares, separated by the Church of the Holy Trinity. From the railway station, the first square visitors find is named after Andrej Hlinka. A priest and politician, Hlinka is considered by many a heroic Slovak patriot as he was the leading advocate for Slovak independence between the World Wars, plus a reputed humanitarian. Others consider him a nationalist, even a fascist. Many historians, however, argue that the fascist tag is unjust, that he was thus labelled during Communism as a result of his strong advocacy of democracy and a free economic system.

A statue of Hlinka is found on the square, as is a multi-tiered fountain in the shadows of the Church of the Holy Trinity. Beyond that is the Square of the Virgin Mary, a cobblestone zone with several outdoor cafes and benches, a fountain and a bronze statue of an angel. The square is surrounded by burgher houses above and behind arcades.

A key Žilina site outside the Old Town is Budatín castle, a 20-minute walk from the railway station. At the confluence of the Váh and Kysuca rivers, the powder-white fortress with Romanesque tower is home to the Považské Museum. Among archaeological and historical exhibitions is the Tinker Trade display, which claims to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Walking back into town one notices the housing estates surrounding the city. These blocks of flats, while far from aesthetically pleasing, signify the growth in both population and significance Žilina has experienced over the past half century. At the end of World War II, the population of Žilina was 18,000; today it is 83,000. This growth is a result of various things. First, the city has become a major international railway junction, with direct routes to Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Moscow and Budapest (it also sits on the main Bratislava-Košice line). Furthermore, several industrial factories were opened here during Communism, factories that still provide extensive employment for locals. In 1996 the city was re-established as the regional capital of the greater Žilina region.

The city is certainly thriving. The new Old Town is evidence of that. And Slota deserves much, if not all, of the credit.

Under his leadership, the city has installed an 800-million-crown ($16 million) trolley-bus system that has cut harmful emissions by 35%, donated 40 million crowns in equipment to local hospitals, and doled out several loans to shop owners to help revive the city centre economy. Furthermore, he has done all of this while accumulating only 140 million crowns in debt, compared to debts of 1.5 billion crowns in Banská Bystrica, 2.5 billion in Košice, and 4.5 billion in Bratislava.

Indeed, Žilina would be the ultimate post-Communist Slovak success story if it were not for the man himself behind it all. For no matter what Slota achieves as mayor, he is doomed to be remembered for his follies.

Slota would prefer that people focus on the city rather than the mayor. But until he learns to control his behaviour he will not get his wish. The list of charges against Slota includes appearing allegedly drunk on a nationally-televised election debate, shutting off the lights in an auditorium where the constituents of his Slovak National Party were in the process of voting him out of power, and most famously making an impassioned call for Slovaks to man their tanks and storm Budapest. “I was quoted out of context,” he told this magazine last year. “I was speaking about Slovakia’s ability to defend itself if ever again faced with Hungarian domination.”

Slota also devised plans to unveil a plaque in honour of Jozef Tiso on a Žilina convent where the priest first declared Slovak independence. Tiso was the president of the Slovak state that was formed with the backing of Nazi Germany, and his place in history will always be dubious. For most historians, he was a fascist and a Hitler-collaborator who oversaw the deportation of nearly 80,000 Jews from Slovakia in World War II. Others however maintain that he had no choice, that Hitler had given him and his country the option of cooperation or annihilation. “Tiso was forced into cooperating with the Nazis, as were most European countries during World War II,” said Slota. “Which is why I have no great affection for the Germans.”

Most recently Slota has pushed for the deportation of Columbus Igboanusi. A Human Rights lawyer from Nigeria, Igboanusi represents Roma that have allegedly suffered high-profile cases of hate-crime. Slota wants him deported on the grounds that he is “racist against whites”. Slota also now wants to ban the ethnic Hungarian SMK political party because member Miklós Duray in April 2002 attended a pre-election rally in Hungary, telling the crowd that the then Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán was supported by ‘Felvidek’, the old name for Slovakia when it belonged to Hungary.

Finally, besides the fugitive Ivan Lexa who fled the country in 1999 to avoid charges of kidnapping the former president’s son, Slota has the highest absentee rate in the Slovak parliament at 92.5% (as of April 2002).

This is all a pity, really. Žilina is a lovely city and the locals are so un-Slota. They are pleasant, non-abrasive and extremely helpful. On my last visit I ducked into the tourist information centre to collect some brochures on the town’s history. A wonderfully obliging woman enquired where I was from, how I liked Slovakia and Žilina, and where I was headed. After telling her I was going to Čičmany, an hour to the south, she said, “It’s late in the afternoon already. By the time you get there it will be late. Do you have accommodation yet?”

I didn’t. “No problem,” she said brightly. “Just sit down and I’ll arrange everything.” She then called information and got telephone numbers for pensions in Čičmany, placed a second call to the Penzión Javorina, and then reserved a room for me for two nights. Finally, she found every brochure I requested, gave me a few complimentary postcards, commended me on my broken Slovak, and told me to come back anytime I needed any assistance at all.

That is how it is with Žilina. Looking in from the outside, it is difficult to keep the mayor’s absurd antics from clouding the picture. But once in town, visitors are struck by how relaxed and friendly Žilina is, and how different the people are compared to their abrasive - albeit effective - mayor.

- Chris Togneri


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.


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