Slovaks join Central Europe's protest season

By bne IntelliNews November 27, 2014

bne IntelliNews -


Around 5,000 Slovaks gathered in front of the parliament on November 25 to protest against corruption and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico.

This was the third protest organised in the Slovak capital Bratislava. It all started in mid-November, sparked by a corruption case linked to over-priced acquisitions of medical equipment by hospitals. In the immediate wake of the scandal, the health minister and the parliamentary vice-chair Renata Zmajkovicova stepped down.

However, that was not enough to placate Slovaks, who rallied to demand the head of parliament speaker Pavol Paska. The deputy leader of the ruling Smer party is accused of being the ultimate beneficiary of the company that sold the medical equipment. He denies he has anything more to do with the company.

Amid public pressure, Paska, who had been seen as the next likely PM had Fico won the presidential elections in March, resigned on November 16. The same day, Slovaks voted independents into the majority of seats in major cities in local elections.

Yet the protests continued, with the crowds demanding more measures to stop corruption in the country, such as a ban on the participation of shell companies in public tenders and the establishment of a special commission to supervise the investigation of the "Gorilla" corruption case from 2011.

There are also demands that officials overseeing the health sector should not be named on political grounds, according to local media. Rallies are expected to continue, with the next one called for November 28 in Kosice, Paska's power base. Opposition MPs have also demanded an investigation into other health sector companies they say are controlled by the Smer politician.

Meanwhile Fico, whose support has slipped over the past year or more, has launched a populist spending programme since he surprisingly lost the presidential election to independent Andrej Kiska. While the government's budget deficit is heading towards EU limits, he has handed out salary increases in the public sector, free train transport for students and seniors, and reduced taxes for people with low incomes.

Flip flop

Slovaks are hardly alone in their anger. The streets around the region have been filled with protestors in recent weeks. Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, Central European populations are fighting similar battles to those of the early 1990s.

Protests have taken place in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania calling for an end to corruption and measures to protect democracy. All have also shown their dissatisfaction with established politicians in recent elections. In most, an inept opposition means voters have little chance of unseating populist and authoritarian governments.

At the same time, it's little coincidence that the unrest comes in the midst of huge geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia. The Visegrad states have found themselves on the frontline because of their closer ties with Moscow, which is pressuring them to opt out of EU policy. 

Poland, the one country in Visegrad with a clear stance, is the only one not to have had similar unrest on the streets. Poles had plenty of reason to protest should they have felt the urge, with a botched vote counting system delaying the results of November 15 local elections by over a week. When finally announced, the results were at odds with exit polls, and the recently revived opposition to the centre-right ruling Civic Platform complained of skullduggery. 

Yet the Poles have stayed at home. Meanwhile, as Slovaks filled a square in Bratislava on November 25, more than 2,000 Hungarians were rallying in Budapest against government plans to eliminate private pension schemes. Another protest is expected in early December.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has faced regular protests in the past month against government policy. Opponents of his "illiberal" democracy concept - modelled on the likes of Russia and China he claimed in the summer - have been encouraged by a turnout of more than 100,000 in late October to demonstrate against plans to tax the internet, and have organised several protests over the weeks. 

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic at celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17  President Milos Zeman was booed and pelted with eggs. Thousands protested in Prague against his calls for dropping sanctions on Russia, as well as his comments during a recent visit to China that Taiwan and Tibet have no claims to independence. An expletive-ridden radio interview was the icing on the cake.

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