The Splitting of Central Europe

The inhabitants of a small European country have found a peculiar way of defending themselves against the political and economic gale force winds sweeping the continent and dredging up right- and leftwing extremists from the social depths: they have elected a man who has promised them windless conditions.

The name of the man swept to power by a landslide victory in Slovakia’s general election— held early following the collapse of the centreright coalition government—is Robert Fico. Having earned a reputation for authoritarianism and left-wing populism during his term of office between 2006 and 2010, the once and future Prime Minister now says that what the country needs to weather the European crisis in good health is social reconciliation. He can afford to talk that way, having garnered enough votes in the election to assure his party, Smer (Direction), a comfortable majority, enabling him to form a government without coalition partners.

While it remains to be seen whether the Slovaks have chosen well, Fico’s sweeping victory is good news for the European Union, particularly its Left. In Europe social democrats have been in the minority for years and their hope that the economic crisis would bring them back to a place in the sun has been slow to materialize. This has begun to change now that austerity as the right-wing prescription for reducing debt has clearly failed to work since the economy has been drifting into recession, the debt has continued to grow, and financial markets are losing confidence in this type of treatment.

Fico has won the election by promising to safeguard people’s social certainties, to raise taxes for the rich, and through loyalty to Europe. For the Slovaks have been among the most loyal supporters of the EU, the overwhelming majority of the population embracing the country’s adoption of the Euro in 2009 with great enthusiasm. Admittedly, the enthusiasm has waned somewhat in the wake of the crisis, nevertheless the Slovaks still regard the EU as a guarantee of their security.

From a European perspective Slovakia thus furnishes evidence that concerns about enlarging the EU to the East were out of place. After all, who would have thought in 2004, at the time the enlargement took place, that eight years later it would be the South rather than the East of Europe that would pose a critical threat to the entire European model?

Although the political impact of Europe’s economic crisis—governments falling like dominoes and each consecutive election (e.g. in Greece or the Netherlands) strengthening extremist and populist forces—has also been felt in the eastern part of the European Union, but not excessively so. In the case of Slovakia the power of the extremists has actually been on the wane. The March elections saw the nationalists thrown out of parliament, where they had held seats since 1990, and the formerly mighty populist party of the 1990s Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar has been forced into political retirement.

This peculiar phenomenon can be explained in two ways. The original extremist electorate is split between several parties, which offer a wide range of protest options, from anti-European to the resentment of the Hungarian or Roma minority. None of these parties has, however, made it into parliament. More importantly though, most of the population feels threatened by the crisis and by the prospect of a potential collapse of the EU and that is why they gave their vote to the parties oscillating around the centre. It was collective fear that has made the Slovaks realistic.

The greatest realist, or rather pragmatist, of all is none other than Robert Fico. This former communist (he joined the Communisty Party as a young man in the 1980s to pursue his dream of a career as a lawyer) was never under any illusion about the nature of politics, and after 1989, when the centre of power in Central Europe shifted from Moscow to Brussels, he turned into a loyal European. Incidentally, in this respect he is no different from the rest of Slovakia’s inhabitants, who—having learned from history—know it is their job not to cause trouble.

Quite unexpectedly, this has brought Slovakia closer to Poland in terms of foreign policy, even though historically it has much closer ties with the Czech Republic and Hungary. Nevertheless, the current right-wing government in Prague emulates Britain, sharing her dismissive attitude towards the EU, while Hungary has driven itself into isolation under Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian rule. Never since 1989 has the foreign policy of the Central European countries known as the Visegrad Four been so divided and even mutually contradictory.

Having found itself in the same boat as Poland in terms of deeper EU integration, Slovakia has recently, in a surprise move, also coordinated with Poland its approach to Ukraine, a country with which they both share a border. There is some logic to their failed attempt to make the EU sign the (long-prepared) association agreeement with Ukraine, in spite of the country’s many ailments: both prefer an eastern neighbour with some ties to Europe to a country under Russian control. The Czechs and the Hungarians, however, did not support this Slovak and Polish initiative.

Of course, this could easily change. The Czech right-of-centre government is mustering all its strength to cling to power and the left-wing opposition, which has much in common with Fico, including its attitude to European integration, is impatiently waiting in the wings.

But meanwhile, Fico is rather isolated in Central Europe with his left-wing dominance (which is why he was so happy about François Hollande’s victory in France), just as he is isolated on Slovakia’s political scene. The fabulous era of the Slovak Right, under two-term Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, lies in ruins. Dzurinda’s party just about scraped into parliament and his partners are little better off. Gone is the the time when the Slovak Right represented a specific mix of economic liberalism and state modernisation with an emphasis on human rights. What brought this disastrous result about is the fact that its leaders have run out of ideas as well as hypertrophied corruption.

Ironically, Fico himself lacks a Big Idea and his party is also riddled with corruption down to the marrow. However, unlike the Right, he promised to give people security and was careful to avoid the hated word reform. Exhausted after twenty years of catching up with the West, Slovak society longs for peace and quiet and even though it knows that the promised better times are not likely to come, people are willing to settle for the promise that things will not get worse.

However, this may come at a rather high cost. Right now, Fico holds sway over Slovakia’s political scene, just like Orbán in Hungary. But the difference between the two men is that Fico has no intention of changing the system. Instead he has tried to bring all social classes and groups together in a kind of corporatist model. The Slovak tradition of circular defence against bad times and external threats seems to call for this strategy, one to which Slovaks respond well. The problem is that corporatism and liberal democracy make uneasy bedfellows and Fico’s past clearly suggests that, given half a chance, he would be only too happy to succumb to the temptation to weaken democracy.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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