History Repeating Itself

Mečiar, Tereza Nvotová (2017)

The fall of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in mid-March was greeted almost like another East European “Color Revolution” or even a reprise of the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism in Czechoslovakia. Foreign journalists rushed to witness the biggest popular demonstrations in the country since 1989. They cheered on the downfall of the country’s longest-serving premier, who was painted as one of the Central European populist quartet of Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Miloš Zeman.

Tereza Nvotová’s recent documentary Mečiar draws a much closer parallel, juxtaposing images of the popular mobilization that helped bring down Slovakia’s founder Vladimír Mečiar with demonstrations against corruption within Fico’s Smer party last autumn. The documentary shows both that Slovakia’s weakness is its predilection for strong leaders, but that its strength is its popular anger when they overstep the mark. For Nvotová, the young generation must learn these lessons and stand ready to continue the fight.

How close are the parallels between Fico and Mečiar, as well as with neighboring strongmen such as Hungary’s Orbán and Kaczyński’s Poland? And what does this tell us about Slovak politics, and the di erences from its neighbors?

Fico’s Takeover of Power

Some have argued that Fico was always just a “young Mečiar” clone. Slovak advertising impresario Fedor Flašík is shown in Mečiar yet again claiming credit for creating Smer in 1999, just as if he had sold gullible shoppers old wine in new bottles. Flašík ran the advertising campaign for Mečiar in 1998 when he was defeated by a coalition led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, but then switched to Fico, a former Democratic Left deputy, for Smer’s first general election in 2002, when it came a creditable third with 11% of the vote. Behind Flašík were a group of mini-oligarchs such as Vladimír Poór, many of whom had also transferred their financial backing to the up-and-coming Fico after 1998 when they saw that Mečiar, if not yet finished domestically, was anyway unacceptable internationally.

Fico did little to contradict this impression when he formed his first government together with Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) in 2006. He then seduced HZDS voters away to Smer, which consigned the once-dominant party Mečiar had created to political oblivion in 2010 and led to its leader’s retirement. Fico, like Mečiar, then went on to be prime minister three times until he was forced out over the assassination of journalist Ján Kuciak, who was investigating alleged links between the Calabrian mafia and Smer.

This story is rather too neat. Fico was as much using Flašík and the other HZDS tycoons as they were him, and he only formed an unholy alliance with Mečiar and the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) as more mainstream parties refused to work with him. It can just as easily be argued that he did Slovakia a big favor by taking over Mečiar’s voter base and pushing him out of politics.

To Feel What the People Want to Hear

Nevertheless, there are some real similarities between the two strongmen in their background, style, and policies that help explain their dominance of the Slovak political scene. Born 20 years apart (Mečiar is now 75, Fico 53), both were bright working-class students who trained as lawyers and joined the Communist Party. Mečiar was expelled after the 1968 Soviet invasion, though as the documentary details, he allegedly became a secret police informant and afterwards stole his le to cover his tracks.

Mečiar uses archive footage well to show how both charismatic demagogues were able to command crowds using simple, folksy, emotional, even vulgar language, and by offering simple solutions to their problems, which had often been ignored by the smug Bratislava liberal elite.

Former Bratislava Mayor Milan Ftáčnik, who was with Fico in the Democratic Left Party, says he has this rare gift to tune into people’s needs. “He is able to feel what the people want to hear,” he says. “No-one around him has that ability.”

Fico was always the more polished speaker, and his performances were staged more professionally, but Mečiar was the one who appeared to have a real emotional bond with his supporters. At a huge election rally I attended at Bratislava’s old ice hockey stadium in 2002, he joshed with the grannies that had been bussed in from nearby villages, cracking bawdy jokes and basking in their adulation. But the documentary neatly shows how a few years later these older, poorer, and less well-educated rural voters switched over to Fico, and used similar language to express their devotion.

The Lambasting of Political Opponents

Nvotová’s rare interview with Mečiar in the documentary shows his charisma but allows him to pose as an avuncular grandfather rather than the menacing figure I remember. In my first interview with him in 1997 he spoke quietly and sadly about the injustice of Slovakia’s exclusion from the EU and NATO, but when he looked at me with his hooded eyes the effect was as chilling as being fixed by a wounded bear.

The darker side of these rhetorical gifts is the way Mečiar and Fico lambasted political opponents, creating a hugely divisive political culture. Especially when on the defensive, both few into cold rages, Fico for instance publicly accusing journalists of being “dirty prostitutes” who were besmirching the country’s good name. As with Orbán and Kaczyński, opponents are not only enemies but traitors to the nation.

In terms of political content, Fico mined the rich seam of Slovak nationalism, xenophobia, and racism that Mečiar had exploited before him. In his rst term, Fico played on fears of Hungarian irredentism to prove he could be as nationalist as his coalition partners, but by his third term he was in coalition with the largely ethnic Hungarian Most-Híd party and was on good terms with Orbán. He aped him by using the 2015 refugee influx into Europe to whip up fears among his voters, fighting in the 2016 election under the slogan “Protect- ing Slovakia.” His rhetoric against Islamic refugees was among the harshest in the region, even though he was careful to admit just enough to avoid EU infringement proceedings. “He did benefit—he was able to sustain himself as PM—but he created all this space for the fascists,” says Vladimír Bilčík, foreign a airs expert for the new liberal Spolu [Together] Party. “He pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable discourse, including on the streets.”

A Vision of a Strong and Protective State

Mečiar and Fico also fulfilled the first of academic Cas Mudde’s two populist features by claiming to be fighting on the side of the little man against a corrupt elite. Like Orbán and Kaczyński, when in power, Fico used wel- fare handouts to buy support from poorer voters. In opposition he slammed both Mečiar and Dzurinda as corrupt, though his own party was to become dominated by business groups, and graft under his rule was to rival any- thing in previous administrations, though it has yet to reach the heights of Orbán’s kleptocracy.

Yet there are also key differences between Fico and Mečiar and the neighboring strongmen. The most obvious, though perhaps the least important, is that Fico is a self-proclaimed socialist, whilst the others are authoritarian conservatives.

The documentary shows both that Slovakia’s weakness is its predilection for strong leaders, but that its strength is its popular anger when they overstep the mark.

Fico’s ideal is a strong state that protects its people, but this is a vision that Mečiar, Orbán, and Kaczyński all share. “I am an étatist,” he told me in 2006 at the start of his first term. “I respect the role of the state. The first goal of the government is to guarantee that if someone is in a bad social situation, the state must provide such conditions that they can live normally.”

Fico believes the Left has neglected this duty to its cost. He told a Party of European Socialists (PES) conference in Prague in 2016 (a grouping that suspended Smer once and in which he has never felt at home) that they had not only ignored their voters’ fears over immigration and multiculturalism but they had also forgotten about their bread and butter issues, such as wages and living standards, allowing the populist Right to steal their clothes.

A second more substantial difference is that Fico has nailed the EU’s colors to his mast, while Mečiar, Orbán, and Kaczyński use the bloc more as a punch bag. Fico took Slovakia into the eurozone and now proclaims his desire for the country to be in the inner core.

Slovakia Was Sliding towards Dictatorship

Yet again the differences are less than they first appear. Fico was at first ambivalent about EU membership, famously campaigning on the issue in the 2002 election with the slogan “Yes, but not with bare arses.” In interviews with me at the time he complained that there needed to be more discussion about the costs of Slovak membership, that the country was unprepared, and that there would be a popular backlash.

Even now that he has become an EU enthusiast, Fico attacks the bloc when it suits him, such as over refugees or anything that he divines will play well with his domestic audience. It is clear that Fico supports the EU largely because it is a strong selling point against the Euroskeptic parliamentary opposition; whether he would continue to back it if it stopped being in his political interest is very doubtful.

There are some real similarities between the two strongmen in their background, style, and policies that help explain their dominance of the Slovak political scene.

The third and key difference between Fico and Mečiar, and between him and Orbán and Kaczyński, is with the second part of Mudde’s definition of populism: despite everything, Fico remains a pluralist, while the others believe that they alone represent the general will and should be able to rule unchallenged. Under Mečiar, Slovakia was even sliding towards dictatorship. One of the documentary’s strongest sections shows how Mečiar’s secret police even kidnapped President Michal Kováč’s son and probably commissioned the murder of witness Róbert Remiáš.

Mečiar Inoculates the Country against Authoritarian Populism

Fico may bully journalists and other politicians, clash with President Andrej Kiska, and squash opposition within his own party; he may also have nobbled the police, prosecutors, and judiciary; but he has not tried to undermine democracy, stifle the media and NGOs, or remake the state in the way Mečiar, Orbán, and Kaczyński did. He has always worked skillfully to patch together coalitions, and even when Smer held an absolute majority in 2012-16 he ruled responsibly. “Fico used single-party government power with restraint because he saw what happened to Mečiar,” says Bilčík. “He does not want to go down in history books like Mečiar.” He also finally resolved the recent political crisis by resigning, when Kuciak’s murder was clearly something he had no responsibility for.

So what does all this tell us about Slovak politics and how it di ers from its neighbors? Slovakia’s short 25-year history as a state may help explain its weakness for strongmen such as Mečiar and Fico, but it also fails to give them the deep roots of grievance and trauma that have provided such fertile soil for Orbán and Kaczyński. “Hungary and Poland are limited and de ned by their heavy history,” says Milan Nič, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The crisis of the Mečiar years has also in a way inoculated the country against authoritarian populism. Not only is his fate a warning for politicians such as Fico but the network of civic movements that sprung up to mobilize opposition to Mečiar also provides a positive example that still resonates today, as the documentary tries to show.

Gloom-mongers fear that Fico will now still direct events from behind the scenes, just like Kaczyński does in Poland. However, they should recognize that the way Slovak demonstrators forced out a powerful premier is the envy of their counterparts in Budapest, Warsaw, and even Prague, who are also protesting against corruption and obstruction of justice. “It shows something healthy about the system and that democracy is working better here than in Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic,” says Ftáčnik. Orbán in particular has built up such a strong state machine backed by loyal supporters (and assisted by a fractured opposition) that many Hungarians have given up on politics or chosen to emigrate. Nvotová need not have worried: as events have now shown, Slovak democracy by contrast is very much alive and kicking.

Robert Anderson

was the Financial Times correspondent for the Czech and Slovak Republics between 1997-2007. He is currently the managing editor of intellinews.com, a business news website covering the CEE region. He tweets at rjanderson8.

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