As international travel has been put on hold, we are grateful for this period as an opportunity for reflection. In the first installment of a two-part guest blog, Deputy Director of the Goldman Environmental Prize Lorrae Rominger writes about her trip to Eastern Europe in November 2019. Lorrae had the opportunity to meet with two Prize winners 20 years apart: 2016 Prize winner Zuzana Čaputová, now the first female president of Slovakia, and 1996 Prize winner Albena Simeonova, who empowered citizens to address environmental concerns in newly democratic Bulgaria (blog).
At the Presidential Palace
After nearly 17 years of service to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, I was grateful for the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave in late November 2019. During that time, I visited two Goldman Prize winners in Eastern Europe to learn more about the effect of winning the Prize on their lives and work.
I was honored to be invited to the presidential palace in Bratislava by Prize winner and current president of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová (Slovakia, 2016). As the nation’s first female president, it was an incredible and unique opportunity to meet with her and discuss her life before and after being elected head of state.
Zuzana’s personal assistant and secretary, Veronika Gulasova, met me at my hotel and escorted me to the palace, through security, and finally to Zuzana’s office suite. There are several rooms in her suite, including a library, a conference room, press room, and a ceremonial room for events and presentations. The palace is an office building only—Zuzana continues to live with her two daughters in Pezinok, 20 miles from Bratislava. Pezinok is where Zuzana stopped two toxic landfills from continuing to operate, for which she won the Goldman Prize in 2016.
No doubt motivated by her experience in Pezinok, Zuzana has aggressively shifted her county’s approach to energy as president. In an unprecedented show of regional leadership, the entire nation of Slovakia is now on course to become carbon neutral by 2050. Zuzana has also enacted policies to halt Slovakia’s coal production after 2023. It is clear that she wants to be known not only for providing a fair and just government for all Slovaks, but also for protecting the environment on a national level.
A Wave of Change in Eastern Europe
While in Slovakia, I also met with Martin Hojsik, who nominated Zuzana for the Goldman Prize in 2016. Previously an employee of Bank Watch, Martin is now a Member of Parliament for the new party in Slovakia. Martin’s wife, Dana, accompanied Zuzana when she came to San Francisco to receive the Goldman Prize, making our meeting more akin to a reunion.
Both Martin and Dana believe Zuzana began a wave of change in Eastern European countries. A “Facebook phenomenon,” Zuzana’s election is attributed to a younger demographic who rose up against the old guard. According to Martin, this is representative of a national trend—although the prime minister and parliament remain loyal to the old party, new liberal mayors and progressives are being elected throughout Slovakia. As a result, there are high expectations placed on Zuzana from all sides.
As a representative of the Goldman Prize, I was proud to be a small part of Zuzana’s presidential journey. It’s reasonable to conclude that the Goldman Prize helped Zuzana advance her political career—a career that has already sparked a wave of political change in Slovakia and perhaps elsewhere in Eastern Europe. My visit provided me with a renewed sense of pride in my role in awarding the Goldman Prize to this extraordinary leader and other environmental heroes around the world.
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