Elections in Slovakia, or Russian roulette

Rastislav Káčer analyzes the future results of the upcoming elections in Slovakia and disseminates the biggest potential threats to the Slovak Republic. He compares the fatalistic mood of Mečiar´s rule to Robert Fico, and his potential winning of parliamentary elections, smashing Slovakia with his coalition.

“I find it hard to imagine a good, strong, reform-oriented and dynamic government emerging after these elections. But even avoiding disaster will give us reason to rejoice,” says Rastislav Káčer, Slovak head of diplomacy from 2022 to 2023 and former ambassador to the United States, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Łukasz Grzesiczak: In your opinion, could the unexpected decision of President Zuzana Čaputová, who effectively announced her withdrawal from political life a few months before the early parliamentary elections, affect the outcome of the September voting? Will her decision strengthen anti-system and populist candidates attacking Čaputová herself and the pro-Atlantic liberal democratic values she represents?

Rastislav Káčer: The President’s decision did not surprise me, I understand and respect it. I don’t think it is meant to strengthen the position of anti-system and populist parties, rather the opposite. It may rally voters who would like to see a candidate representing similar values replacing President Čaputová. 

The results of the parliamentary elections will be crucial. If a large number of votes are won by Robert Fico and similar extremists, this will increase the chances of a candidate with values close to President Čaputová. However, in the event that a coalition of democratic parties headed by Progressive Slovakia [Progresívne Slovensko] emerges, it is difficult to predict how much store voters will set in having a candidate similar to the President. I would say that Slovaks do not want to “put all their eggs in one basket”. 

Observing the Slovak election campaign, you get the impression that the Slovak elections are being presented in the category of a cultural battle between East and West. And this not for the first time, as it was the case, for example, during the previous parliamentary elections. Are Slovak democratic institutions, checks and balances really so weak? Or is such an argumentation simply a smart and effective electoral tool against Fico-type populists?

You are right. Elections in Slovakia often are of a fatalistic and existential nature (laughter). The fact that this ‘fatalism’ repeatedly hovers over subsequent elections follows from the immaturity of Slovak society. We have a bad electoral law and a bad law on party financing, and when the legal foundations are badly constructed, mistakes abound throughout the system. 

In 1994, the democrats underestimated Vladimír Mečiar, with bad, even fatal consequences. If the 1998 elections (again quite decisive), after which the Dzurinda government was formed, had ended with another four years of Mečiar’s rule, Slovakia’s fate would have turned out very differently. We would not be in the EU or NATO and we would be a defenceless, vulnerable country.

Today’s fatalistic mood is similar to that of 1998. What we have here is a really different Robert Fico. We have a Fico favoring Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, and speaking openly against the values on which the European Union and NATO are built. He is not anti-system. He is a cynical, crude politician who can smash our country to pieces. 

He is no longer the populist we knew so well. He used to criticize America, but in fact sucked up to the Americans as much as possible to earn a photo-op from the White House. Today’s Fico is different. He is potentially as dangerous a politician as Orbán, to whom, incidentally, Fico’s victory would be very convenient. A coalition led by Fico would not just be a disaster for Slovakia. It would be bad news for the whole of Central Europe, a threat to our European institutions, our alliances and our security. 

I know that the elections are still a few weeks away, and you are not a seer. Nevertheless, I would like us to try to grapple with possible post-election scenarios. How realistic do you think a SMER and Hlas government is? Perhaps Fico and Pellegrini – perhaps Fico himself – will need the votes of the Republic’s MPs to get a majority. What would their participation in forming a government mean for Slovakia?

It is difficult to predict for the time being. If Fico gets a good result (e.g. 25 per cent) and Hlas performs poorly, there will be increased pressure to put together a SMER-Hlas coalition. They could of course form a coalition without the Republic, with someone else. Hlas is losing support and could get a very small number of votes. 

PS (Progressive Slovakia – note ŁG) may get a good result – in slightly different circumstances I could even imagine them winning the elections. A coalition led by Michal Šimečka could be formed. It would, however, be a complicated mix of several parties with quite diverging agendas. 

Fico’s coalition poses a huge threat to Slovakia. A much better option would be a coalition without Fico, but this too would be complicated, fragile and incapable of introducing much needed radical changes and reforms. In short, I find it hard to imagine a good, strong, reform-oriented and dynamic government emerging after these elections. But even avoiding disaster will give us reason to rejoice. At the moment, Fico’s chances are increasing rather than decreasing.

Let me ask you a cynical question. Earlier, in the case of the SPD in the Czech Republic or Kotleba in Slovakia, there was a demand to cordon off these parties, i.e. not to cooperate with them. Is this a wise idea? Or does it increase these parties’ share in the vote? Should the democrats, with a view to stopping SMER rule, be prepared to cooperate with anyone – including the Republic? An analogous question arises in Poland in the context of possible cooperation between the Confederation and the democratic opposition.

Arguments about cooperation were once used by Viktor Orbán. He said: “Give me a blank check, don’t criticize me for extremist statements, I just want to weaken Jobbik, after all you know I am not an extremist…” This all ended up completely changing the scope of what is acceptable in politics, and Orbán is now a bigger extremist than Jobbik ever was. On top of that, he has a constitutional majority and unlimited power in his country.

Robert Fico is following a similar path. He is open to extremists, talking to them, with the result that the extremists’ way of thinking is becoming less and less shocking. This is an insidious tactic, reminiscent of the boiling frog syndrome – it ends in acceptance of all kinds of extremism.

Democracy loses its ability to nip extremist thought in the bud. But many are beginning to fall for that. It reminds me of the 1930s. Even state institutions are failing as defenders of the constitution. But this is another complex issue.

Opinion polls (including, for example, the report “GLOBSEC Trends 2023: United We (Still) Stand” show that Slovak society is susceptible to anti-Ukrainian or NATO-hitting propaganda. That being the case, what might the foreign policy of a possible SMER government look like? Is there a real danger of weakening Slovakia’s position in NATO or the European Union – or perhaps even withdrawing from them? 

The Russian disinformation campaign would not be so successful in Slovakia if it did not have an effective ally in Robert Fico, and if many political leaders (like the former Premier Peter Pellegrini) did not panic and succumb – calculatingly – to the narratives of pro-Russian propaganda.

I know of no other country in the EU where a former three-time Prime Minister, according to opinion polls heading the strongest party, would so openly spread Russian propaganda. And on top of that, he has gathered a whole team of pro-Russian fake-news spreaders around him.

Public opinion is not scripture, it can easily be changed. Apart from the intense and carefully targeted Russian campaign, the state of public opinion is also the result of the cynicism, opportunism and immaturity of the Slovak political elite; and the naivety of many public figures.

If the democratic parties succeed in forming a government, is it possible – given the public mood and the uncertainty about who will replace Čaputova – to maintain the current course of support for Ukraine? Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava Institute of Public Affairs (Inštitút pre verejné otázky, IVO) calculated that the per capita value of Slovak military support for Ukraine is one of the highest in the EU.

I was a member of a government that pursued a good foreign and security policy – despite the fact that it was a rather complicated government, in many ways ineffective and unpopular. It unequivocally kept Slovakia on the right side of history – even at the price of some of our justified decisions not being appreciated. We were the first to break the taboo when it came to the supply of air defence systems. And more recently, we were also the first (along with Poland) to break the taboo regarding the supply of fighter aircraft. We are aware that supporting freedom and territorial  integrity is a key issue. We also understand the risks of a possible loss of Ukraine.

However, as I said, we have very immature and strategically confused political elites. Some of them are unscrupulous cynics. They know that they intend to steer the country in the wrong direction. They deliberately lie. Robert Fico is one of them. He is not a stupid man, but so cynical and unprincipled that he is sacrificing the entire state for the vision of power and impunity of his associates (many of whom are on trial and some of whom have escaped responsibility as a result of the Attorney General’s abuse of power).

If a Fico-led government started pursuing pro-Russian policies and withholding aid to Ukraine, it would have no practical consequences. But it would reflect badly on the EU and NATO consensus. These institutions cannot afford to have another Orbán in their midst. And above all, Slovakia cannot afford to get on the wrong side of history. That would not mean only one own goal but a few. Or simply forfeiting the game. That would be Russian roulette not with one bullet, but with a full magazine. 

Where do you think these anti-Ukrainian and anti-American sentiments of a sizable proportion of Slovaks come from? Next to the Bulgarians, they are regarded as the biggest Russophiles in the EU. In the long term, is this not a threat to the Slovak presence in European and Atlantic structures? 

As I have already mentioned, public opinion is not something static, unchangeable. On the contrary. It is just a reflection of what politicians and public figures say and do.

Our elites today are failing. They downplay the threat posed by Putin’s neo-imperialism. They ignore the danger posed by Orbán’s corrupt autocracy with revisionist tendencies – linked to a subservient role to Russia. It is a bad mix.

Of course, an irrational sentiment from as far back as the nineteenth century, when to politicians with a romantic bent the “Russian sturdy folk” seemed a possible ally in the fight against intense Magyarisation, plays a role here. Of similar importance is the erroneous but lingering myth of ‘liberation’ by the Soviets. The defeat of Fascism followed by a bloody Communist dictatorship can hardly be called liberation. But three successive generations saw it that way.

Poor teaching of recent history, little emphasis on instilling democratic values and mechanisms, brain drain of young and talented people … There are numerous factors at work here. It is bad. And unfortunately this applies not only to Slovaks. We see bad public opinion dynamics in Hungary, Greece, Slovenia and Austria. We are not unique in this… More than 100,000 people came to the pro-Russian demonstration on Wenceslas Square in Prague. Poland and the Baltic states are thinking soberly. The rest of Central Europe, however, is susceptible to manipulation.

Rastislav Káčer

Slovak diplomat and politician. From September 2022 to May 2023, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Eduard Heger’s government. Prior to that, he served as Slovak ambassador to the United States, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is a Polish journalist and writer publishing his texts in Czech and Polish journals.

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