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How Slovakia halted its democratic descent

Recent successes by Slovakia’s civil society and opposition politicians carry a lesson for the world’s pro-democracy protests: change can happen. 

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Last week, I was standing outside a hotel conference hall on the first day of the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. I had arrived from Washington, DC, earlier that morning and had showered and changed, but not yet slept. Bleary-eyed, the coffee that I’d chugged down had not yet had any impact, I looked up from my phone and saw Zuzana Čaputová, the first woman and youngest person ever to be president of Slovakia, walk by with her team in tow. She then made her way to the largest of the conference stages and delivered the keynote address.

“We need rules to guide us,” she told the audience. “These must be valid and respected. For Slovakia, the EU and NATO, our democratic rules are our main rulebook, at home and abroad.”

Later that day, on the same stage, Eduard Heger, the prime minister of Slovakia, said something similar. “For us,” he said, “the rule of law is of top importance, because no democracy can grow in an environment other than one in which the rule of law is fully active.” Heger said that sovereignty within the European Union had to be respected. But for Slovakia, he stressed, the aim is to make the nation “a solid democratic country with strong roots in the rule of law”.

It was, in some ways, unremarkable: a president and prime minister speaking about the importance of the rule of law.

Except that, given the state of Slovak politics only a few years prior, it was.

***

In 2017, anti-corruption protests overtook the streets of Bratislava. The demonstrators, who were led mostly by students, were calling for the resignation of Robert Kalinak, the interior minister, who was an ally of Robert Fico, the former prime minister, and was accused of having ties to a corrupt businessman. They protested for months. But Kalinak and Fico were not to be moved.

“At first, I felt discouraged, because I expected more as a young person,” David Straka, a high school student at the time, told me when we met over coffee in Bratislava in September 2017. His friend and fellow protester, Sam Klacman, added, “we have to keep going”. 

On that same trip, I interviewed Slovak journalists about the state of press freedom in their country. It wasn’t just that they were combating fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories, but they were also facing antagonism from their own government. Fico had been in office from 2006 to 2010 and then returned to power in 2012. In 2016, he said that journalists who were investigating corruption, namely accusations that public procurement rules had been breached during Slovakia’s EU presidency, were “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”. (One, Andrej Matisak, told me he was a “very proud” dirty anti-Slovak prostitute.) The next year, the president claimed that journalists deliberately avoided publishing good news.

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Slovakia had been down a version of this road before. In the 1990s, as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, Slovakia was called by Madeleine Albright, the then-US secretary of state, “a black hole in the heart of Europe”. Vladimír Mečiar, then prime minister of Slovakia, politicised the state administration. He sacked people he deemed disloyal from state-run media and sold off state-owned companies to Mečiar allies. His security services were involved in kidnapping the son of the then president, who was a known Mečiar opponent.

Mečiar could control the state institutions, and state-run media, and try to ensure powerful private companies were owned by his friends. What he could not control was civil society. In 1998 — with the help of US and European funders — a group of Slovaks ran a campaign to help ensure a free and fair election. Most of the campaigns were organised by a movement called Civic Campaign OK ‘98. Pavol Demes was a civil society actor in the movement, and when I interviewed him in 2019 he said: “The ethos that we created: it will be OK in ‘98 because we citizens will step in.”

And they did. Two months before the 1998 election, more than 50 per cent of Slovaks thought Mečiar would win again. But he lost.

In this respect, Slovak citizens in the late 2010s had already a precedent for taking back control of who gets elected into their government. But for a while it appeared as if that historic movement of mobilisation would remain a memory. 

Then in the winter of 2018, the journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered.

***

Kuciak’s story was a tragic marriage of the government’s failure to address corruption and its open contempt for the press. After Kuciak wrote several stories about government misconduct, and shortly before a report on corruption was to be published, Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered in their home. They were both 27-years-old.

People returned to the streets in protest. And this time, the government could not ignore them. Fico tried to blame George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist, for coordinating with the president at the time, Andrej Kiska, to destabilise the country. The protesters were unbowed.

Kalinak resigned. And a few days later, Fico did too, after a junior coalition partner threatened to withdraw support from the government if he did not step down.

The people were not finished. In 2019, they elected Čaputová, as their new president. She beat Maros Sefcovic, who was backed by Fico’s party, Smer (which was, at the time, still in power). As a lawyer, Čaputová ran as an unabashed pro-western liberal promising greater transparency. During the campaign, an image of her face was changed to make her nose look bigger. Fico tried to smear liberals as “people without values”, but Čaputová still won.

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The next year, in 2020, the country held parliamentary elections. The Ordinary People party — an opposition anti-corruption party — won 25 per cent of the vote. They entered a coalition with other anti-corruption parties. 

None of this is to say that everything is as it should be in Slovakia. Corruption did not magically disappear with Fico. There are still conspiracy theories. Fico’s party remains a political force. The road to justice is still winding: a businessman alleged to be involved in the murder of Kuciak was acquitted but then, last week a judge ordered a retrial. And as recently as April 2021, there was a crisis of confidence in the government: Igor Matovic, the prime minister whose party came to power on an anti-corruption platform in March 2020, resigned amidst dismal approval ratings related to his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The fact that Heger, who was deputy prime minister and finance minister from March 2020 to April 2021, is now prime minister is a reminder that all has not been smooth sailing in post-Fico Slovakia. Heger is in the role because his predecessor failed to live up to expectations (though Heger, too, refers to himself as leading an “anti-corruption government”). 

***

It would be easy as a journalist reporting on the state of democracy and protest movements in the US, Europe, and around the world, to become discouraged and cynical. People take to the streets to push for policies that aren’t enacted. People call for resignations that never come. The media cover stories and then gets bored of them. Democracy backslides further and further. Things go from bad to worse. You watch a round of protests and think that this, finally, will be the time something will change, and then it doesn’t.

But that isn't true. As I realised sitting in Bratislava, sometimes power structures do change. And while so much of Slovakia’s story is specific to the country — its history in the 1990s, the permutations of the Fico era, the murder of a journalist, the alignment of anti-corruption opposition parties — there are movements that can be copied. Slovakia has something to teach other countries that are worried about the health of their own democracies and civil societies — change can happen. And that it happens because enough people engage with changing the political status quo.

Heger was right: no democracy can grow in an environment other than one in which the rule of law is fully active.

“I would not have expected those speeches from Slovak leaders a few years ago,” I told some Slovak analysts at the conference. They nodded back. I couldn’t tell whether they were agreeing with me, or whether, unlike me, they’d known better. That they had been sure, even when it looked to me as if no one would ever step down and things would never get better, that they wouldn’t give up on Slovakia.

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Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review