Emergency in Slovakia

The climate of hostility in which the assassination attempt on Robert Fico took place has been a feature of Slovak politics for the past two decades. And Fico has played a decisive role in creating it. How the situation in Slovakia came about – and whether it will continue to deteriorate.

‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have eroded.

F. Hayek

The assassination attempt against Slovak prime minister Robert Fico on 15 May 2024 shocked Slovakia and attracted attention from around the world to this small central European country. Yet the population’s natural expression of grief and the prudent and calming words of the president and others were trumped by the virulent reaction of leading politicians. On the floor of the Slovak parliament, just an hour after the event, members of Fico’s party Smer as well as MPs belonging to the far-right Slovak National Party were accusing the opposition and the media of being solely responsible for the assassination attempt.

That set the tone for Slovak society’s reaction to this tragedy. Instead of being an occasion for reflection and reconciliation, the assassination might sadly become a vehicle for further radicalization. For while the would-be assassin was a ‘lone wolf’, the political tension before and after the shooting has been part of Slovak politics for the past two decades. And Robert Fico has played a decisive role in this confrontation.

Back to the 90s

Following its split from the Czech Republic in 1993, Slovakia struggled to maintain a steady democratic course. Vladimir Mečiar, its strongman premier throughout the 1990s, established an increasingly authoritarian rule until his defeat in the pivotal election of 1998, after which Slovakia switched back onto a democratic track, successfully joining the EU and NATO in 2004. But since last September’s general election, there have been concerns that democracy and the rule of law in Slovakia are again in danger.

The result of the 2023 general election produced a slim, four-seat majority for a three-party coalition led by Robert Fico, who thereby became premier for a fourth time. Although his previous three governments, starting in 2006, had been heavily criticized for corruption and abuse of power, there had never been any sense that the rule of law itself was under threat. The reason for the change since last year’s election is connected to the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

National Council of the Slovak Republic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The investigation into the killings, which were carried out in the style of a mafia hit, led to the arrest of businessman Marian Kočner, who was charged with ordering and paying for them. Kočner has since been acquitted twice, but the case is ongoing. Decrypted electronic correspondence revealed his powerful influence over numerous officials in the Fico administration at the time of the killings. Corrupt oligarchs seemed to be invincible, protected by the powers that be. The succession of attorney generals, able to stop or dismiss any investigation, served as a last resort to conceal shady business dealings with members of government.

Political corruption is particularly damaging because it devours citizens’ trust in fairness and accountability and, ultimately, undermines the legitimacy of democratic societies. It has marked and marred every post-communist society in Europe. But unlike in Czech Republic, for example, there has been little effort in Slovakia to take legal action. Instead, there has been an unspoken agreement among successive governments not to prosecute their predecessors.

The turning point in this malaise came with the massive public protests after the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová. The squares around Slovakia were full, the pressure grew, and calls for an end to the conditions under which such a murder could take place eventually led to Fico’s resignation. Peter Pellegrini, at the time Fico’s trusted political ally, took his place. Fico’s political career seemed finished and the popularity of Smer, his party, plummeted. At the general election in 2020, Smer was ousted from government; soon afterwards, Pellegrini and a few others jumped ship to create a new party, Hlas.

Off the hook

The 2020 election produced a surprise victory for the maverick populist Igor Matovič, who won votes by focusing on the rampant corruption of previous Fico governments. Once Matovič had formed a coalition, law enforcement agencies got the green light to conduct full investigations, pursue arrests, and lay charges against hundreds of individuals. The suspects included several former police chiefs, a senior prosecutor, about fifteen judges and even Fico himself (although the charges against him were later dropped on the orders of the attorney general).

Many Slovaks were glad to see the embezzlers and corrupt officials being arrested, but also horrified by the extent of corruption and its backing and connection with top political figures. Gradually, the net began closing around the leaders of the former government, including Fico. And yet, five years after his downfall, he managed to turn his fortunes around. What happened that allowed his party to recover and secure the largest share of the vote in the 2023 general election?

For one, Matovič and his coalition proved exceptionally inept, particularly in handling the covid pandemic. The government was also caught up in constant bickering. Matovič’s erratic personality, his tendency to demonize anyone who disagreed with him, including the media, made his crusade to put criminal politicians behind bars less like an attempt to reassert the rule of law and more as a cover up for his incompetence.

Threatened by his coalition partners, Matovič resigned in March 2021, nominating as his successor his uncharismatic party colleague, Eduard Heger, while retaining his powerful position as finance minister. The increasingly paralysed government, which eventually lost its majority, refused to call an early election. Eventually, president Zuzana Čaputová dismissed the government and installed a caretaker administration, pending an election.

Matovič and his successor were an easy target. Fico managed to convince a larger and larger segment of the public that he and his cronies were not perpetrators, but victims of a witch-hunt by an incompetent government. Although the police, investigators and the Special Prosecutor Office (ÚŠP) did an excellent job in investigating and prosecuting political corruption, sentencing numerous prominent figures, their occasional missteps were repeated ad nauseam and exaggerated by the opposition and the crafty lawyers representing prominent accused figures.

Other major sources of instability were the economic uncertainty after the pandemic, alarmism about refugees from the Middle East and, finally, the horrors of the war in neighbouring Ukraine. Exaggerating the threats, Fico and the opposition, with the assistance of the press, blamed the government for the mismanagement of these external crises. But their greatest ire was reserved for Čaputová, the president, who was both popular at home and admired abroad for her competence and composure. The vicious and persistent personal campaign against her and her family eventually led her to decide not to run for a second term.

Rise to power

Born in 1964, Fico was a Communist Party member until 1989. When the communists rebranded themselves as social democrats and formed the SDĽ, Fico followed. Young, ambitious and rising in political prominence, he resigned from the SDĽ in 1999, then part of the governing coalition, when it refused to pursue a change in the law that would have allowed him to become general prosecutor before the age of 40.

The creation of Smer in 1999 is shrouded in myth – and still-unanswered questions. The official reason for its foundation was that Slovakia needed a modern social democratic party as the country headed towards EU membership. A more plausible version is that a group of wealthy privatizers needed a political vehicle for expansion and protection of their illegal business activities.1 They designated a marketing expert and rather murky figure, Fedor Flašík, to establish a new party. Fico – young, popular, experienced and, if need be, rhetorically aggressive – seemed the ideal candidate to lead it.

What followed is not entirely clear. But eventually, Fico’s popularity and power – which derived more from his political skills than Flašik’s marketing prowess – led him to carve his own path and independence, particularly after he became prime minister in 2006.

However, he did not sever his connection with the initiators and sponsors of Smer. The most prominent among them, including Jozef Brheľ and Miroslav Výboh, remained in his orbit, enjoying state contracts and protection. After 2020, their prosecution – along with that of several dozen other Fico associates – led to a transformation in Smer’s strategy and policy. Fico realized that unless he returned to power, he and his cronies would be in permanent danger. Determined to regain power at any price, he used populist rhetoric and smear campaigns against police officers and prosecutors involved in the investigation of political corruption in the past.

Fico became increasingly prone to spreading conspiracy theories and anti-western rhetoric, while criticizing the EU and NATO. He praised Putin and attacked Ukraine to win the trust of far-right voters. His strategy was to instigate fear of and rage against imaginary external and internal enemies of Slovakia. In this, he had to outbid rightwing nationalist parties, including neo-Nazi outfits, that were already trawling in the same waters. The nadir of this new divisive strategy was Fico’s personal attacks on president Čaputová. On one infamous occasion, the Smer party hack and self-proclaimed Marxist ideologue Ľuboš Blaha led an enraged crowd in a chant accusing Čaputová of being an ‘American whore’. Standing next to him on the stage, Robert Fico smirked in delight.

With Slovakia heading for early elections in 2023, Fico’s divisive politics at home gradually transformed into a similarly hostile approach to Europe. Instead of craving appreciation in the company of European socialist and liberal leaders, as had been the case a decade ago, Fico sought the company of Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán – testifying to how cynical his anti-Hungarian policies and rhetoric had been in the past. To secure his hold on power, Fico dreams of hastily emulating in Slovakia what Orbán has achieved over twenty years. When Smer formed a coalition government with the far-right Slovak National Party after the September 2023 election, the Party of European Socialists (PES) predictably suspended its membership, along with that of Hlas.

The 2023 election

Fico’s victory in the September 2023 election was neither preordained nor conclusive. His former ally Peter Pellegrini and his party Hlas had been leading until a few months before the elections in opinion polls. It was assumed that Pellegrini would be deciding and choosing the coalition partners. He had repeatedly declared that he would not form a coalition with Smer as long as Fico was its leader. This was logical, given that Pellegrini and a group of other MPs had left Smer in 2020 as it was trailing in popularity. Fico must have felt betrayed and deserted by someone whose entire political career had been enabled solely by virtue of being associated with him.

Many observers were convinced that the alliance between these two politicians was highly improbable. Besides, Michal Šimečka, the young, Oxford-educated deputy chairman of the European Parliament had become the head of the increasingly popular left-liberal party Progressive Slovakia. For many, a stable liberal democratic coalition, which included Pellegrini’s Hlas, seemed plausible.

On numerous occasions Pellegrini expressed a wish to join some kind of liberal democratic coalition. However, the conservative bloc was too suspicious of him to engage in serious pre-election negotiations. With the exception of Šimečka, who said he was willing to negotiate after the elections, all the other parties stamped Pellegrini as Fico 2.0.

The 2023 general election brought seven parties into the Slovak Parliament. It was a result of proportional voting with a five percent threshold. Hlas was able to create majority in either a liberal-conservative or nationalist-populist coalition, making Pellegrini a kingmaker. The conservative bloc sent a signal that he would be offered the position of the prime minister in a potential coalition, even though Hlas won fewer seats than Progressive Slovakia (PS).

But instead, Pellegrini and Hlas quickly decided to join Smer and the Slovak nationalist party (SNS), in return for a promise that the coalition would support him in the upcoming presidential elections. Fico thus returned as prime minister, raising expectations of revenge and an overhaul of the political landscape. That story has been unfolding ever since, with the tragic twist of the assassination attempt.

Slovakia transformed

Slovakia’s latest parliamentary and presidential elections, both of which were marked by unusually divisive and hostile campaigns, have moved Slovakia from being a country with an admired president and a very pro-Ukrainian position into basically the opposite. The new government has embarked on radical changes that have been a key focus of Fico since 2020 – designed to ensure his impunity and to exonerate, protect and pardon his cronies and former colleagues who have been charged, prosecuted and in some cases imprisoned.

As it had promised during its campaign, the first hasty moves of the new coalition included significantly increasing pensions and various social welfare measures, without considering the huge economic deficit they would cause. But the real aim of the coalition came next. Its key steps were to paralyse the National Criminal Agency (NAKA), dismiss the national police chief and submit a bill abolishing the Special Prosecutor’s Office (ÚŠP), which oversaw prosecutions of high-level corruption.

At the same time, two lawyers that had represented several oligarchs in the past drafted a bill radically amending the criminal law. Most of the bill had been drafted by the previous administration, but the new version included two proposals that were adjusted to protect and free those charged or sentenced for economic corruption. The bill also shortened the limitation period for some criminal acts. Conveniently, this meant that many corruption charges currently under investigation would be immediately dropped. The bill also abolished many economic offences and increased suspended sentences to up to five years for economic crimes amounting to tens of millions of euros. This contradicted the European Commission’s conditions on the post-COVID Recovery Fund allocated for Slovakia. The EC has since been reviewing the legal amendments.

Another bill abolished the Special Prosecutor office (ÚPŠ), simply stating that the General Prosecutor’s Office and local prosecutors’ branches were from now on authorised to bring charges of economic corruption. Ironically, the ÚŠP was created in response to widespread embezzlement of EU funds back in 2004.

Fico’s coalition pushed through these changes using a fast-tracked legislative procedure allowed only for emergencies. Outrageously, it justified this by citing ‘human rights abuses’ – code for the prosecution of Fico’s allies and his associates.

They cannot get everything!

The opposition insisted that there was no reason to speed up such a major series of legal changes and hastily called for a public protest in front of the government office. To its surprise, thousands of demonstrators showed up. Throughout December 2023, the protests grew, spreading to other cities around the country. At one point there were 30,000 citizens on the central squares of Bratislava. There was a call for lawmakers to consider their duty and responsibility. Given the coalition’s slim majority of four votes, there was a hope that some MPs, especially from Hlas, might be swayed.

But the coalition held and the bills passed. President Čaputová, whose veto could be overridden by a simple majority, chose to sign the law and instead to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. Whether this strategy was the best way to proceed is questionable. Immediately after Čaputová sent the signed Law to the Court, the protests ceased and the unexpected energy of civil society stalled. The changes to the Criminal Law have been suspended, but it is not certain how the Constitutional Court will proceed.

One of the most frequent slogans during the protests was ‘They cannot get everything’, referring to the upcoming presidential election in March/April 2024. Pellegrini’s opponent was the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former diplomat Ivan Korčok. He ran as an independent candidate but was endorsed by the opposition and at protest rallies. His chances were uncertain, but the hope was that he could pull a surprise victory.

The presidential race again saw a smear campaign and obstruction tactics. As the Charmain of the Slovak Parliament, Pellegrini called the election as early as possible, in order to benefit from his political office and media presence. There was a massive campaign against Korčok on social media and the tabloid press, which belongs to various oligarchs. For example, Korčok was called ‘the candidate of war’ for his support of the struggling Ukraine. Hungarian TV broadcasted an interview with Pellegrini eight times during the 48-hour moratorium before the election. It reached half a million Hungarians living in Slovakia, whose votes were decisive.2

Following Pellegrini’s victory, fears mounted among the opposition, its supporters and the mainstream media that Slovakia was headed in an increasingly illiberal direction. But it was also clear that a substantial portion of society agreed with Fico’s policies and did not mind if the coalition ‘got everything’.

What then caused that majority, however slim, to support Fico, Pellegrini and their ultra-nationalist allies? There are several explanations. The first is that Igor Matovič’s divisive and erratic rule exposed his policies, including the prosecution of corruption, to Fico’s campaign. The second is that disinformation sources, including Russia, have sown confusion and fear in the minds of the public, whose economic circumstances are uncertain and vary from region to region. The third explanation is that it is easy to instigate fear and rage by claiming that external forces and their local agents are undermining Slovakia. In a country where civil society is fragile and unstable, numerous politicians in Slovakia foster this general discontent for their own benefit.

The assassination

We might never piece together what motivated Juraj Cintula to attempt to assassinate the prime minister of Slovakia on 15 May. The little information we have is mostly inconclusive and unreliable. Nothing provides a decisive personal, political or ideological reason for the deed. Cintula seemed to have been acting on his own, although the rampant disinformation sphere saw a variety of instigators: from Russia to the USA and Slovak democrats (with some claiming that the assassination was all faked).

What we know is that Cintula had in the past been critical of immigrants and Roma, had praised the ‘Slovak Defenders’ (Slovenskí branci), a paramilitary rightwing group, and had tried to ground a party called ‘Movement against Violence’. He had even published some prose and poetry and headed a local literary circle. Apparently, he was frustrated with Fico’s policies towards Ukraine. But he did not have a history of violence. This disillusioned and maybe narcissistic individual most likely lived in an informational bubble, believing that he had to take justice into his own hands.

Perhaps the most disturbing consequence was the reaction of Fico’s coalition partners. The first response came from Luboš Blaha, the same MP who had prodded the crowd to shout vulgarities about Čaputová. Only an hour after the assassination attempt, Blaha blamed the liberal media and opposition for the shooting. The leader of the Slovak National Party, Andrej Danko, declared that it was the start of a ‘political war’ in Slovakia and that the government would act swiftly against media and politicians of the previous government.

In contrast, all the opposition parties as well as all the editors of the main newspapers, news websites and TV stations expressed their horror at what had happened. President Čaputová and president-elect Pellegrini issued a common statement appealing for calm and inviting all political parties to the Presidential Palace for a roundtable discussion, in an expression of national unity. The meeting did not take place because Smer and the Slovak National Party refused to participate.

Slovakia at a crossroads

Slovakia is yet again at a crossroads. On many occasions since its independence, the country has faced a similar dilemma. As a society, it has moved forward, modernized and matured. Slovakia’s membership of the EU and the NATO guarantees its economic prosperity and security more than at any previous time in its history.

But unfortunately, it has not generated many political statesmen. Robert Fico has had many opportunities during his long carrier to politically stabilize and economically improve Slovakia. Occasionally he has taken them. But more often, he has caused division, confrontation and instability.

Like every populist government around the world, the one currently ruling Slovakia does not even attempt to improve the dire economic situation. The problem is not only the budget deficit, but also the lack of any strategy to stimulate the economy, or to improve conditions for foreign investment. Most of the government’s energy is devoted to the consolidation of power and the domination of public institutions, while intimidating media outlets that are critical or merely objective. The media is continuously blamed by government ministers for being directly responsible for the hostile political atmosphere. And, unfortunately, this trend has accelerated after the assassination attempt. This makes the situation in Slovakia today unstable, even explosive.

Fico’s political legacy will depend on how he uses the tragedy politically once he returns to his position as premier, assuming he ever does. His current legitimacy, the general benevolence towards him and the hope that he will govern again, make him, paradoxically, more powerful as ever. His actions during this national emergency are awaited with great anticipation; and by some with great trepidation.

The individual trauma caused by the shots fired in the small town of Handlová have brought about a trauma for the whole of Slovakia. In the foreseeable future, both the personal and the political outcomes are uncertain.

Bohumil Hanzel, an emigree who returned from Sweden to Slovakia, was an enthusiastic co-founder of Smer. He later left the party, accusing it of corrupt sponsorship and selling positions on its electoral list. Afraid for his life, in 2010 he left sealed documents at the Swedish Embassy in Vienna to be opened if he were to be found dead. Some years later, during the Slovak general election of 2016, the Swedish Ambassador confirmed to this writer that the sealed envelope is still in his embassy’s vault.

Korčok won the first run of the elections with 42.51% while Pellegrini gained 37.02%. Pellegrini won the second round with substantial majority of 53.12% against Korčok’s 46.87%. Participation was 61.1%, particularly high for presidential elections. Besides strong support among Hungarians, also decisive were the voters of Štefan Harabín, the former head of Supreme Court and a pro-Russian extremist.

Published 3 June 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Samuel Abrahám / Eurozine

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