Protest at the SNP Square on 9th of March 2018 in response to the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová (via WikiCommons)

Slovakia is a rather unique case within post-1989 Central Europe as far as democratic transition is concerned. The lack of a tradition of statehood is the most evident difference between Slovaks and the other nations of Central Europe. It is necessary to keep this fact in mind when examining the specific trajectory of democratic consolidation, the development of civil society, and the evolution of political culture in Slovakia; the experience of administering the state, after all, is an important element of ‘civic maturity.’

Since January 1, 1993, a majority of Slovak citizens have lived in a state they did not want. The situation of Slovaks was different from that of their Czech counterparts due to lack of a state-building tradition and ethos that went beyond tribalism and nationalist sentiments. And this difference was, although many disagree, the root of most of the recent problems in Slovakia. 

As Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, noted “states reproduce themselves on the principles and ideas on which they were created.” Slovakia is not the expression and outcome of the “millennial emancipation effort of the Slovak nation”—as the political elite has claimed since 1993—but rather, it is the materialization of an effort to create a new Slovak economic elite by the privatization of state property. This latter tradition is being reproduced today with the aid of the euro-funds and the new possibilities brought about by an EU membership.

In the 90s, under the rule of Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia had become a symbol of illiberal democracy within Central Europe. Nonetheless, it managed, because of  the emancipation and mobilization of civil society, to overcome its challenges of democratic and economic consolidation. In fact, since 1998  the country’s economic performance within Central Europe has been largely positive. After its adoption of the Euro currency at the start of 2009, it has been repeatedly evaluated as one of the most successful transition countries in Central and Eastern Europe. 

But it was clear early on that Slovakia, despite becoming economically modern, lagged behind culturally, and that this discrepancy was rising. Fatigue from the reform period of 1998 to 2006 brought populist Robert Fico to power, and Fico’s regime started to shift Slovakian democracy toward an oligarchic kleptocracy. 

Rule of law in Slovakia had always been a problem and the young democracy was not able to secure and consolidate strong democratic institutions. The state was slowly but systematically being hijacked by oligarchs who were successful in maintaining the image of the country as a standard liberal democracy, as it had avoided sliding into authoritarianism like some of its neighboring countries. However, the comparison of Slovakia with Poland and Hungary is inaccurate. Fico aided the oligarchic kidnapping of the state, and although he displayed autocratic tendencies, he did not follow the path of Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Fico was not ideological, and he did not establish control over the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, and the police. He had no incentive to tighten his grip on power as bluntly as Orbán or as ideologically and retroactively as Kaczynski, since the oligarchs already had everything under control: Euro funds were flowing, and Brussels was satisfied with Slovakia.

Everything changed in 2018 after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová. Slovakia was caught off guard. The people’s reaction to the murder of two young people and their realization that they lived in an oligarchic society, had shocked the world. Slovak society, which was perceived, albeit incorrectly, as stable and balanced, had changed drastically. Overnight, Slovak society understood that they were ruled by a Mafia state. The murder of the journalist and his partner had revealed the mafia’s links to the highgest levels of the government. The people in Slovakia understood, with anger and shock, that the corrupt political elite created a system that was not just a simple kleptocracy, but that it rested on a sophisticated ideological illusion of fixity.

Slovak democracy before the events of 2018 was stillborn. Oligarchs and the political-elite had comprehensively accumulated power. The political elite, even without sociological education, had correctly understood how Slovak society, especially the youth, was depoliticized; Slovaks had become cynical, anomic, and distrustful. Many did not believe it was possible to change anything at all, and this conveniently had helped the state retain its power. 

The murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová, however, changed this situation in an instant. Like in 1989 and 1998, Slovak civil society had awakened, and people stepped out of their shells. In particular, the youth, which had grown accustomed to a high standard of living that came with the EU membership, now demanded widespread civic and political participation beyond elections.

The fake and artificial image of Slovakia as a successful liberal democracy faded away after 2018, when a large part of the Slovak public spoke out against the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, and against the Slovak oligarchs who were exposed by Kuciak’s critical reporting. Many people who had been fearfully silent for years suddenly began to speak. Revelations from policemen, farmers, officials, prosecutors, even ex-mafia members laid bare the extent of the corruption in Slovakia. From 2018 to 2020, the reawakening of civil society and the unmasking of the corrupt Fico regime had fostered optimism that Slovakia could build a genuine liberal democracy. 

But a new wave of authoritarianism was raising its head. After all, liberal democracies around the world were under attack by the enemies of free society and their new sophisticated methods. Rapidly changing technologies have created new challenges for democracy. The oligarchization of Slovakia had left the country susceptible to these global tendencies. 

However, these forces were momentarily kept at bay by the victory of the liberal and progressive Zuzana Čaputová in the 2019 presidential election, which provided an unexpected democratic impulse. Zuzana Čaputová is the youngest president in the history of Slovakia, and the first woman president of any Central European country. Čaputová had worked in the non profit sector for many years, and first became known for her decade-long successful struggle against a toxic landfill in her hometown of Pezinok. 

The victory of Čaputová, which resulted from the unrest that broke out in February 2018, was viewed as a continuation of the ethos of the Velvet revolution of 1989. It led to an international recognition of the renewed potential of liberal democracy in Slovakia and many hoped that her success would also inspire proponents of liberal democracy in other countries of Central Europe. The appetite for change in Slovakia increased and, although Slovak politics was deeply polarized, people saw the possibility of establishing a liberal government. However, the impulse generated by Čaputová’s election did not last.

In the 2020 parliamentary election, the liberal political block, which included the Progressive Slovakia party, (the catch all) For People party, the centrist Together party, and the economically liberal Freedom and Solidarity party, was expected to become the corner-stone of the future government. The opposition was to include the populist Common People party, the Christian Democrats, and radical right-wing We are the Family party.  

The election campaign had been naturally dominated by anti-corruption appeals and by a struggle to get rid of the oligarchic government. The populist “Common People” party of Igor Matovič and “Sme Rodina” of Boris Kollár became surprisingly popular. Their simple, straightforward anti-corruption appeal proved to be successful. The traditional conservative party, Christian Democrats, which had been key in all pro-reform governments in Slovakia since 1990, failed to make it into the parliament. A coalition of “Progressive Slovakia” and “Together” were not successful either and remained major opposition political parties. On the other hand, “For People” and “Freedom and Solidarity” barely passed the required five percent threshold. 

These unexpected results of parliamentary elections led to the emergence of the most conservative radical right-wing populist parliament in the history of modern Slovakia. The new government was created by four conservative, and partly clerical, political parties. Paradoxically, this happened less than a year after Čaputová’s successful presidential bid.

What had happened? And what was really at stake in this moment? The naiveté and political illiteracy of many voters who were tired and exhausted by the oligarchic pseudo-democracy created under Fico’s reign gave inexperienced populists, who are being moderated only by two smaller political parties within the government, a chance. The anti-corruption appeal, in consequence, surprisingly strengthened conservative and clerical forces whose primary goal is to fight political correctness and gender ideology, to strengthen position of the Catholic church, and most importantly, to pass strict anti-abortion laws.

Slovakia has been ruled by a Catholic priest once during the so-called Slovak Republic that existed between 1939-1945 as a client state of Nazi Germany. This peculiar Slovak combination of clericalism and fascism led to a kind of Clero-fascism or, more gently put, a “Parish republic.” Now, amidst the pandemic, Slovakia has found itself in a unique situation. In terms of returning to the rule of law Slovakia started to strengthen legal institutions which had been missing in the Fico regime. However, it also started to backslide from the secular model that had been in place since the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. The “Parish republic” is thus back, 80 years after its first manifestation. 

Michal Vašečka, Programme Director, Bratislava Policy Institute, Slovakia, Associate Professor at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA), and at the Pan-European University in Bratislava.

This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.