COMMENT: Is Slovakia ready to fight back against Fico´s increasingly autocratic government?

COMMENT: Is Slovakia ready to fight back against Fico´s increasingly autocratic government?
"Stop Them!," reads a placard at an anti-Fico demonstration in Bratislava on December 7. / Milan Simecka
By Michal Vašečka in Bratislava December 8, 2023

Only six weeks after the formation of the new government, Slovakia is facing quick and dramatic changes in governance and an uncompromising consolidation of power by Prime Minister Robert Fico. He has become prime minister for the fourth time in his career and is already the longest serving prime minister in the history of Slovakia.

The parliamentary elections on September 30 did not bring results that would catch insiders off guard. Most votes went to Fico´s Smer party, which claims a social democratic orientation but offers radical right-wing messages that go far beyond those from France’s Front National, Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Brothers of Italy, or the Dutch PVV.

Progressive Slovakia, the most successful opposition party, were not able to convince Peter Pellegrini's Hlas party to create an anti-Fico coalition. Pellegrini, who left Smer and has been recently performing as a Fico with a human face, joined his former boss and teacher without much hesitation.

Many democratic voters believed in a big coalition of democratic parties and Pellegrini´s Hlas, but realistically it was not an option for a second. Why? Because of the preferences of people from the Hlas leadership, the wishes of Hlas voters, multilayer interconnections between Smer and Hlas, and finally because of the preferences of oligarchs standing behind both political parties.

Smer and Hlas needed a partner and they found it in the Slovak National Party, a political structure that unified most of the disinformation, conspiratorial and openly pro-Putin scene in Slovakia.

Does Fico´s recent performance come as a surprise? Not really. Firstly, Fico – a former enthusiastic communist and lawyer once interested in human rights and later advocating the death penalty – has not changed as some suggested. As a vivid enemy of open society, he has been able to change the Slovak democratic system and institutions into pale shadows of democracy in the past, his people paralysing them with great success. Unlike Hungary’s Victor Orbán, he did not openly attack independent media and civil society because he did not have to – the country was fully under his command.

Secondly, public opinion polls have been revealing unpleasant truths about Slovak voters, who shifted towards populist political parties, unsatisfied with the chaotic performance of the previous government led by the enfant terrible of Slovak politics, Igor Matovič.

Public opinion polls, however, also showed deep dissatisfaction with life among Slovak voters and a deep conviction that the economic situation in the country is extremely bad. In a long-term perspective, polls suggest that only half of the population is satisfied with the political changes since 1989 and only a slight majority support EU membership. Moreover, according to various comparative surveys, Slovakia has turned in recent years into the most anti-Western society in CEE, the most pro-Russian and pro-Putin society, the most anti-American, and a strong believer in conspiracy theories, with a very low mutual trust both on the horizontal and vertical levels.

Life in the free world

Is Slovakia ready to fight back against Fico´s increasingly autocratic government? The previously mentioned context of the value orientations of Slovak inhabitants can provide the answer. It might seem harsh, but large segments of the Slovak population do not appreciate life in a free society. Their deeply anomic performance leads to cynicism and nihilism that do not contribute to the nurture of civic participation and liberal democratic behaviour.

Many could argue that this is true for most Central and Eastern European countries. However, in the case of Slovakia we are speaking about half the population and a number that has not changed since the 1990s. Also, during that 30 years since declaring its independence, Slovakia has been ruled by autocrats for 18 years (Vladimír Mečiar and Robert Fico) and only 12 years by broad democratic coalitions desperately trying to reverse the damage caused by Mečiar and Fico.

This makes one pessimistic about a potentially successful battle with Fico´s autocratic government. Those who like it this way are almost in a majority, no matter what the urban population of Bratislava and Košice believe in. The young generation who do not remember either real socialism or Mečiar’s regime of the 90s seems to be unfit to react to the Machiavellian steps of Fico.

And most importantly, the European Commission (EC) might be a weak part of the chain as well. Robert Fico sent already a clear message to Brussels: “I do not care about your war in Ukraine, and we see it differently. Nevertheless, I will support your European consensus concerning help to Ukraine and anti- Russian sanctions. I just have one condition:  do not over-criticise my internal steps in Slovakia and most importantly do not even think about depriving us of European funds.”

We will see what reaction the EC will have and whether the EC will commit the same mistake as they did with Orbán in the past.

There are, indeed, also arguments in favour of a successful opposition to Fico´s government. Slovakia went through valley of tears in the 90s during Mečiar’s regime and people learned a lot from it. Independent media in Slovakia are diverse, strong, financially secured, and interconnected in their mutual solidarity. Civil society is strong, emancipated, and well experienced with challenging autocrats.

In comparison to Orbán´s Hungary there is also a dimension usually overlooked abroad: Although both Hungary and Slovakia belonged to the same state once, Slovaks gained democratic experiences from Czechs, while Hungarians remained in almost feudal conditions for years after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. Orbán, one can argue, is just a continuation of these feudal habits that survived from Admiral Horthy´s regime.

Where does Slovakia go from here? Fico´s government will be bribing people and redistributing the last money available from an empty state budget. The reason is simple: Fico also needs a victory in presidential elections and Pellegrini seems to be a perfect candidate who – in case nothing significant happens – will win the race next spring and will become president. Afterwards Fico will try to change the electoral system and in case he succeeds, he will stay in power for a long time, just as Orbán has in Hungary.

Meanwhile, his most important task is to get rid of people who proved to be dangerous for Fico’s interconnected system of power: the  police, the National Criminal Agency (NAKA), the Special Prosecutor Office, some parts of the judiciary, etc. Public TV and radio will follow – one cannot work on everything at the same time, obviously.

As always there are people who will comply with the new rules and the new power. In the same way as our parents after 1968, they will “normalise themselves”. But the difference to the post-1968 era, or the times of opposition against Mečiar’s regime in 90s is visible: people have got mortgages, nice cars, shiny apartments in new buildings, and fancy holidays under palm trees. There is something to lose. Those of us who opposed Mečiar’s regime did not have anything to lose and that was also a reason why we were successful. The upcoming months will therefore show the real level of determination of Slovak society to fight for its liberal-democratic future.

Doc. PhDr. Michal Vašečka, PhD. (1972) is a sociologist, who studied at Masaryk University in Brno and New School University in NYC. He focuses on ethnic and migration studies, issues of populism, extremism, and the functioning of civil society. He has been the programme director of the Bratislava Policy Institute since 2017.  Since 2012 he has been the representative of the Slovak Republic in the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and since 2016 the chairman of the editorial board of Slovak daily Denník N.