Laszlo Miklos is head of the UNESCO Chair on Sustainable Development and Ecological Awareness at the Technical University of Zvolen, Slovakia, and senior scientist at the Institute of Landscape Ecology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava. A researcher in landscape ecology, landscape planning, ecological networks, physical and regional geography, environmental policy and sustainable development, Miklos served as Slovak minister of environment from 1998 to 2006, and as a member of parliament from 2006 to 2010. He was also a member of the first REC Board of Trustees.
As Slovakia’s minister of environment, part of your work was connected to the development of a landscape map for your country. Now, as a professor of ecology, what are some of the key challenges that the region faces in terms of nature conservation?
Since most of the nature conservation areas, national parks and protected landscape areas are also the most attractive territories for recreation, nature conservation efforts are engaged in constant struggle with developers. This is most apparent in the case of high mountains, where ski resorts pose significant threats to protected areas. Another challenge is that foresters and nature conservationists take different approaches to forest management.
In what ways might cross-border cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe be strengthened on a regional scale?
Without any doubt, what we need are real cross-border projects. By “real” I mean working together according to common methods on cross-border territories, with participants fully dependent on all the others to achieve results — not just the formal creation of consortia, not just projects in which each participant works in its own way.
Can you recall some good examples of cross-border cooperation? What remain the most significant obstacles to good cross-border cooperation?
There was a Hungarian–Slovak project on monitoring microclimatic conditions to better predict vineyard diseases. The Hungarian partner developed the measuring devices and the data interpretation model; the Slovak partner developed the interpretation of micro-morphometric indices of the terrain, enabling the interpolation of the monitored data over broader territory to include vineyards in both countries.
The most significant obstacles for each international project are bureaucratic in nature. All too often, more time is devoted to administration than to project substance. The ruling bodies devote more attention to bookkeeping and public procurement than to any efforts to achieve real project results. All of this makes any serious researcher disinclined to work on cross-border projects.
What special roles do you see the CEE region playing in a Europe-wide or global context?
Central and Eastern Europe, and Central Europe in particular, is a true crossroads of the continent’s major natural regions, characterised by intersecting biogeographical regions such as Beschidicum, Hercynicum, Carpathicum, Pannonicum — as the central region — and Noricum, Ponticum and Illyricum. These conditions basically determine answers to questions concerning human influences on the natural environment.
One fundamental problem is the increasing unification of institutional environmental tools — in particular EU legislation — that are being applied towards these diverse natural conditions. This approach resulted in real problems during the implementation of Natura 2000 and the Water Framework Directive, and also with GMO-related issues. It’s a seemingly simple solution: “Just modify the tools according to the natural conditions.” It is much more complex, however, because administration and bureaucracy have a much stronger voice than nature, so we force nature to adapt to human rules. Anyway, the opposite direction, regional and local strategies, is the inevitable road to success.
From a geopolitical perspective, CEE stands at the crossroads of very different political, economic and societal experiences. The region, therefore, serves as a testing ground for different types of environmental policies. The experiences of different states in this region in how they react to global environmental issues and related politics can serve as textbook examples for teaching different societies how to deal with environment issues.
What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
As a member of the first Board of Trustees, the REC was where I first entered into international environmental high politics. I was quite experienced in professional environmental issues, including international cooperation and domestic politics, but the political discussions between East and West in 1990 really brought new and unexpected — and not always positive — surprises.
Can you share a humorous story or otherwise memorable experience involving the REC or the CEE region?
I have an anecdote from back when the REC started. It might be more sarcastic than humorous, but it derives from the situation at the time. We were CEE citizens who had grown accustomed to a certain mode of life, but the political situation was now new, and the REC a totally new body on the scene.
After the REC country offices had been established and the heads of the offices were hired, the task of the Board of Trustees was to agree on salaries for those persons. One of the basic criteria was that the salary should be “competitive”. Of course, the main voice belonged to the REC founders, and the first figure that was suggested, I think, stuck in the craw of all of the members from the CEE countries — but nobody reacted immediately. But after a few minutes, the representative from Romania — at that time the minister of environment and a respected old scientist — dared to speak up: “Okay, competitive, but this figure is x-times more (I won’t reveal the precise figure, but it was notably high) than a ministerial salary.” To be frank, it was similar with all the CEE country members. Nevertheless we agreed, and the result considerably increased the authority of REC offices.
A second story illustrates the differences in understanding between the “West” and CEE. The REC, from the very beginning, devoted a lot of finance to projects involved in collecting information on the environment. At that time I was vice-minister for environment, also responsible for, among other things, environmental information. Since I’d worked professionally in the environment before entering the ministry, I was well aware of Slovakia’s state-of-the-art environmental information system. I was very pleased that our informatics attracted such considerable finances, but the money went to different, generally small projects, and was aimed at particular problems. My dream was to obtain financing for building up a complex, GIS-based state environmental information system, which the state budget at that time could afford.
I repeatedly raised the idea that the REC should help to build up such systems in all CEE states, unfortunately without success. Once, when I again addressed the issue after a formal session, one of the REC directors told me that my efforts were in vain because the REC was established to help civil society and NGOs, not governments. That was exactly a key point of misunderstanding of the situation in CEE in the early 1990s. NGOs often had much better information on the environment than the ministries of environment, but they were not responsible for decisions, which was a strange situation. At the same time — say 1990 and 1991 — ministries of environment were quite strongly opposed by other ministries and were in fact closer to environmental organisations — that is, civil society. I, as the vice-minister, still worked in the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and I felt much more a scientist than a governmental officer. So, the ministries of environment were, at that time, not in any sense adversaries of NGOs. But in any case, as we later came to understand the situation in Western countries, the REC was decisively involved during this period in gathering environmental information in the CEE region.