Slovakia: democracy just bearing up
The country is one of the smallest members of the European Union and sometimes struggles to develop a vision for itself
03 Jun 24

Slovakia's four-time Prime Minister Robert Fico. Photo: European Council

You may have seen some of the coverage of the attack on Slovakia’s four-time and current Prime Minister Robert Fico. The attacker was apprehended and has not been formally named but is identified in Slovak media as a 71-year-old unsuccessful and disgruntled amateur writer who spread anti-Roma prejudices in his pamphlets. The blatant attack put Slovakia briefly in the global spotlight and came six years after Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered, reportedly on the orders of oligarch Marián Kočner.

No country could sensibly have wanted this attention. Slovakia still meets the threshold for democracy in global comparative measurements. Yet the attack, coupled with recent governmental assaults on independent institutions including public broadcasters, makes Slovakia appear dysfunctional and inspired by neighbouring Hungary. That country is ruled by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

This sense of “something rotten” goes much deeper into the past than the 2024 assault, and the 2018 murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová was a critical juncture. Fico governed back then, too, for the third time, and his rule facilitated the impunity of Kočner and the like. While not known as a friend of independent institutions, Fico managed to persuade some democratic parties to form a coalition with him.

The 2018 murder sparked massive protests and Fico resigned – only to hand his seat to one of his deputies. That politician, Peter Pellegrini, is now Slovakia’s President-elect, to be inaugurated in June.

The 2020 elections were supposed to translate anger towards the previous political elite into a pro-reform government. A new government emerged, but led by an inexperienced populist, who was faced straight away by the immense challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A post-pandemic cabinet emboldened qualified investigators to unearth crimes of corruption. In fact, this is why Kočner is already in jail, as his orchestration of the Kuciak murder is still being litigated. The first-instance court acquitted Kočner twice for the murder-related charges, despite the first acquittal being quashed on appeal.

The “untying of hands” of the investigators made some Slovak elites, Fico among them, worried. Fico himself narrowly avoided investigative detention although one of his closest aides spent a month inside.

Hence, when frustration from the mismanagement of the pandemic combined with unscrupulous use of disinformation catapulted Fico to become PM for the fourth time, his government identified those same anti-corruption bodies as a key target. If democracy was to fall with them, why not?

With the police and special prosecution service gutted, the media has become the obvious next target. Fico has not hidden the fact that Kuciak’s journalistic successors, as well as intellectuals speaking truth to power, irritated him.

Some Slovak independent media have resisted this slide from democracy and a good deal of resistance remains, including from journalists themselves even in major commercial media which the government has had a hard time to subdue directly. Media owners are less enthusiastic about the risks of losing profit though, and signs of their willingness to compromise good relations with the government have been scarce so far.

There are other institutions that can help democracy, too. The Constitutional Court, an influential interpreter of the Slovak constitution, remains largely untouched by the government and difficult to be subordinated by the executive.

Slovakia’s constitution enshrined democracy at the front of its wording when it was enacted more than 30 years ago. That principle is still there, as are the rule of law and a relatively broad rights catalogue. As such, the Constitutional Court has much to work with to address, for example, challenges to legislation curbing independent public broadcasting.

These forms of resistance may even generate new leaders and ideas. Yet, there is little social energy left to go beyond just bearing up under the strain.

On New Year’s Eve 1990, weeks after the Velvet Revolution, dissident and last Czechoslovak President Václav Havel argued that “our country is not flourishing”. He meant to prepare the public for the difficulties of the transition from authoritarian state socialism.

These words apply equally for today’s Slovakia. The government is going to have a hard time to completely silence the opposition even with the additional support gained from the attack on Fico. The EU institutions may weigh in as well, especially if they learned some lessons from having observed the Hungarian regime change with minimal questioning.

But the energy to resist is taken from addressing long-term local and global issues – the climate emergency, demographic changes, a braindrain of Slovakian talent, underperformance in research and much more.

Arguably, Slovakia has lacked an elected government with a vision for more than a decade. NGOs, the media, or the public at large cannot replace vision-building completely. That leaves Slovak academia, where most Slovak political leaders were educated. Comparative disadvantages abound here: the oldest surviving university is just over a century old, and the country did not get an intellectual injection akin to, for example, the founding of the Central European University in Hungary. But these hurdles do not excuse its insufficient contribution towards a societal vision.

In Hungary, Orbán succeeded in effectively forcing most of the CEU out of Budapest and subordinating most public universities. In Slovakia, it is unclear whether the followers of Orbán would need to bother with academic resistance in the first place. And long-term democratic resistance is difficult to sustain without a positive societal vision.

Five years on from 2019, the individual who fired five bullets at Fico lamented that definitions and notions no longer apply. He should have stuck to his writing and talking. After this desperate act, a critical mass of Slovak journalists is trying their best to prevent even more definitions and notions being captured by non-democrats, an increasingly uphill struggle.

Alone, they will not succeed but others can help – both in daily vigilance to the government’s new measures, and by refocusing to a long-term vision for life in and of Slovakia beyond mere bearing up.

By Max Steuer

Max Steuer studies democracy beyond disciplines, affiliated with O.P. Jindal Global University (Jindal Global Law School, India) and Comenius University (Department of Political Science, Slovakia)