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Slovakian Two-Step

Slovakian Two-Step

Hypocrisy on Ukraine is just one of Slovakia's troubles as Prime Minister Robert Fico tries to quell anti-corruption efforts.

Dalibor Roháč

At his recent meeting with Denys Shmyhal, his Ukrainian counterpart, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico sounded as if his country were among Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. Slovakia wants “Ukraine to be sovereign, independent, prosperous, and democratic,” Fico stressed. “That is why I backed Ukraine’s European path without any hesitation at the European Council meeting.”

In a radio interview just seventy-two hours earlier, however, Fico’s tone was markedly different. “Ukraine is not a sovereign, independent country; it is under total influence of the United States. That’s where the EU’s big mistake lies: in foregoing its own, sovereign view of Ukraine and following the U.S. lead,” Fico said on January 21. As for Ukraine’s EU membership, Ukrainians “[have] to meet the conditions—it cannot be the case that the Union politically accepts a country that does not meet any of the criteria.”

Fico’s cognitive dissonance is hardly new. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Fico has consistently lambasted Western sanctions against Russia—at home, that is. While serving as Slovak prime minister, and attending European Council meetings, he has regularly backed new iterations of the bloc’s restrictions, which progressively amped up during his time in office. 

In the election campaign last year, the promise to stop lethal aid to Ukraine was at the center of his party’s foreign policy platform. Nonetheless, Slovakia had long run out of a military kit to donate to the Ukrainians. And (as became clear shortly after the election), the promise did not cover transfers made on a commercial basis. To this day, Slovakia’s munitions factories continue to churn out ammunition for Ukraine, paid for by the EU’s Peace Facility mechanism and similar schemes.

Hypocrisy might be distasteful, but it is hardly unheard of in politics. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, oftentimes follows the logic of “en même temps” favored by his intellectual mentor, Paul Ricoeur: of doing one thing and its opposite in an effort at a political synthesis. Hence his practice of frequent phone calls to Vladimir Putin before and after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, accompanied by transfers of highly effective weapons systems to the Ukrainians.

An Eastern European version of “en même temps,” stripped of intellectualism and moral scruples, goes a long way toward understanding Fico as a political actor. The same week he both undercut Ukraine and expressed support for its sovereignty, Fico pulled the same trick in a different context. At a conference celebrating the 100th birthday of the late Ján Chryzostom Korec, a Jesuit leader of Slovakia’s underground church who was made a cardinal in 1991—and who had been imprisoned for close to a decade under communism—Fico delivered an eloquent keynote address paying tribute to Korec. Just ten days earlier, Fico had laid flowers at the grave of Gustáv Husák, the former communist president of Czechoslovakia, under whose watch Korec had been persecuted.

From the perspective of the EU or the Western alliance, hypocrisy is preferable to its alternatives. Thankfully, Fico does not see himself as a master strategist seeking to make an imprint on his nation’s history books—unlike the Hungarian Orbán. Like many of his countrymen, Fico dislikes the United States—a sentiment he himself helped foment throughout his thirty years in politics—but he lacks the delusions of grandeur moving Hungarian, Serbian, and Russian revisionists. Holding and exercising power for its own sake appears satisfying enough. Throughout his four premierships (2006-2010, 2012-2018, 2023-), the scale and complexity of the patronage and corruption schemes Fico maintains has grown so much that keeping himself and his cronies protected from criminal prosecutions occupies his mind more than grand nationalist schemes or efforts to remake European politics.

Fico’s complete lack of principles is right at home in a country whose foundation also lacked high-minded ideals. The country’s independence in 1993 was not the result of a decade-long struggle for national liberation. While tensions had always existed between Slovaks and Czechs in their common federal state, the split came as a surprise. Above all else, the decision, made in the summer of 1992, reflected the impatience of Václav Klaus, then the prime minister of the Czech Republic, with the Slovaks’ hesitation over his radical market reform agenda and their inarticulate demands of a looser, confederal governance. Pragmatic and unsentimental about Czechoslovakia, Klaus offered his Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar, a binary choice between the status quo and independence— thus avoiding convoluted policy compromises that would have plagued Czechoslovakia’s transition away from communism.

Mečiar and Slovak political elites were thus handed a sovereign state on a silver plate—perhaps not unlike how Leonid Kravchuk and his fellow apparatchiks received Ukraine’s own independence in 1991. Other than 9th-century Great Moravia (perceived in some quarters as a mythical precursor to Slovak nationhood), there was a dearth of political traditions for the Slovaks to draw on, which would not be simultaneously shared with Czechs, or Hungarians. Of course, there was the virulently antisemitic wartime Slovak State (headed by a Catholic priest), and there was the experience of Slovakia’s urbanization and industrialization under communism. The two—nationalism and communist nostalgia—amalgamated into a nebulous governing ideology that today connects Fico to Slovakia’s founding generation thirty years earlier.

Even more than Fico, Mečiar treated the country as a personal fiefdom, avoiding any systemic reforms or difficult choices. Under Mečiar’s watch, state-owned companies were being privatized via direct sales to his political partners, friends, and sponsors at fire sale prices—typically financed by loans extended to new “capitalists” by state-owned banks. As a result, Slovakia missed the first wave of NATO enlargement, was hit by a full-fledged banking crisis in 1998, and was almost excluded from the big-bang expansion of the EU in 2004. 

Similar to Ukraine’s Orange and Maidan Revolutions, Slovakia’s public opinion was mobilized at critical junctures (1998 and 2018 in particular) around the idea of safeguarding the country’s European future. Following a high-stakes election in 1998, Mečiar’s years were succeeded by dynamic catch-up growth and bold reforms that earned the country the nickname of “Tatra Tiger” and that brought Slovakia into the EU alongside its Visegrad neighbhors, in 2004. The murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018 prompted a wave of mass protests that made Fico’s position untenable that spring—an event that he sees as a “color revolution” and blames on U.S. meddling. 

Unlike Ukraine, however, an independent Slovakia has never faced a genuinely existential threat that would concentrate the minds of its elites on building state capacity, investing in alliances, or thinking about the country’s role on the global or European stage. Unlike in, say, Poland, where the horrors of the 20th century go a long way toward explaining the country’s robust defense spending and strategic posture, for most Slovaks the lesson of Nazism and communism—including that of the Soviet occupation after 1968—consists of weathering geopolitical crises by keeping one’s head down.

Today, Slovakia finds itself in the midst of yet another wave of public protests—this time over the rule of law. Since Fico returned to power in October 2023, he has made it a priority to derail the ongoing investigations into the many corruption scandals and other depredations that had happened under his watch. The legislation to shut down the special prosecutor’s office, which had a mandate to look into corruption cases, alongside a wholesale reform of the criminal code reducing penalties and statute of limitations for past economic crimes, brought thousands of Slovaks into the streets in December in a series of protests backed by all opposition parties. To put a fig leaf on an effort to bring an end to ongoing investigations against Fico's cronies, the government is packaging the changes into a broader reform of criminal law–reducing minimum sentences and statutes of limitations on non-corruption crimes, such as rape. 

While recent protests are smaller than in 2018, their even distribution across Slovakia’s urban centers—not just in Bratislava or Košice—and their persistence into the new year have rattled Fico, who rushed the new legislation through parliament last week, in spite of the opposition's best efforts at filibustering the law.

Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, is bound to veto the law , prompting another vote in parliament. At that point, she is likely to file a lawsuit with the country’s constitutional court but it is more likely than not that Fico will succeed in protecting his own. 

What will be more consequential is whether the public disgust with Fico can keep its momentum, or whether the prime minister eventually manages to divide and demoralize the opposition. Under the former scenario, the opposition’s candidate might succeed Čaputová as president later this spring, and opposition parties will benefit from the mobilization of their voters in the European election.

Like other leaders of his ilk, Fico has had success in the past in elevating cultural issues that divided his opponents—whether immigration, relations with Brussels or with the United States, or “gender ideology.” Furthermore, he oversees a cast of political characters whose antics are very effective at inviting outrage, ridicule, or both. 

There is Andrej Danko, a rhetorically challenged, pro-Russian, leader of the nationalist party (SNS) in Fico’s governing coalition, who smashed his car into a traffic light in January—prompting speculations of driving under an alcoholic influence—shortly before announcing his presidential run. Then, there is the long-standing ideologue of Fico’s SMER party, Ľuboš Blaha, with his peans to Che Guevara and the Kremlin.

Together with an array of lesser figures, their job is to fill Slovakia’s public debate with ballast and distract from policy substance. In a country whose own founding lacked much in terms of seriousness of purpose, this tactic works—particularly in an age of social media and spectator-sport politics. Unlike Ukraine and its existential struggle, Slovakia is likely to remain safe and reasonably prosperous within the EU and NATO, no matter how dysfunctional or clownish its politics gets.

The ongoing rule-of-law protests, for instance, were almost derailed when Martina Šimkovičová, a widely ridiculed conspiracy theorist-turned culture minister, vowed to cut funding to all LGBTQI-related programming, prompting a petition for her dismissal. Culturally progressive hosts of the protests used their platform to bring attention to the issue and, not surprisingly, came close to driving away the Christian Democratic faction within the opposition. 

Well-intentioned interventions by outside actors, such as a recent resolution by the European Parliament, have done little to sharpen the opposition’s focus. The near-complete implosion of a reformist center-right, once the country’s political center of gravity, does not help either: The reach of Christian Democrats (KDH), the most viable EPP party, is limited by confessional lines; the vaguely libertarian Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) may well be doomed by the impending departure of its founder and long-time leader, Richard Sulík. That has elevated Progressive Slovakia (PS), a heavily urban and educated party on the cultural center-left, into a somewhat unlikely position as the largest opposition force. 

But whether PS can manage its ascent to prominence by formulating a governing agenda speaking to concerns of voters outside of urban centers remains to be seen. The combination of cultural wedge issues, complacency encouraged by Slovakia’s EU and NATO membership, and Fico’s mastery of the art of triangulation (and self-contradiction), may well secure him a place in power well beyond 2027. Because of Slovakia’s pliability, it is unlikely that the country will become a major liability for the EU or for the Western alliance. Nevertheless, without a compelling story about the purpose and significance of Slovakia’s statehood, and a clear geopolitical and moral compass, Slovakia’s future might lie simply in lingering passively on the periphery of the Western world. That would be a shame.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor at American Purpose

Image: Robert Fico speaks at the Bratislava Summit in 2016. (Wikimedia: Horecak)

Eastern EuropeAuthoritarianismDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUkraineU.S. Foreign PolicyRussiaEurope