Slovakia’s Democratic Backslide

Anton Spisak

5 mins - 21 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

When Robert Fico won Slovakia's elections last October, few foresaw him as the champion of the rule of law, democracy and Western values. Throughout the campaign, Fico vigorously criticised Ukraine and pledged to overhaul politics in the landlocked central European country of 5 million. The new prime minister has so far wasted no time reshaping Slovakia's political institutions to his liking. His recent judicial overhaul has ignited fresh concerns about the country's adherence to the rule of law, prompting fears that Fico would follow the path akin to that of Viktor Orbán in neighbouring Hungary.

A seasoned political figure, Fico initially assumed the reins of the Slovak government in 2006, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair in Brussels. His tenure, after a brief hiatus, lasted until 2018, when he resigned amid a scandal following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. Kuciak's investigations had unearthed potential ties between political donors and criminal networks. 

Mass protests swept Slovakia in the wake of Kuciak’s murder. Fico left office in disgrace and few expected him to make a political comeback. During his five-year absence from power, many of Fico's associates faced corruption probes, eroding support for his political party Smer to single-digit figures in polls. Fico himself came under investigation for alleged involvement in criminal activities during his time in office, though the charges were ultimately dropped by the public prosecutor. 

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Fico’s remarkable comeback was propelled by a fervent anti-lockdown sentiment during the Covid pandemic and a stance favoring softer sanctions on Russia. Combined with the widespread disillusionment with the previous centre-right government, these factors propelled him to victory for the fourth time in Slovakia’s 30-year history. He formed a coalition with the centre-left party, Hlas, that emerged from Smer during its downfall, and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

Since taking office last October, Fico has made headlines when he set out to pivot to a more “sovereign foreign policy”, advocating for an end to military aid to Ukraine and calling for the EU to resume ties with Russia. He recently claimed that “there [was] no war in Kyiv” and that Ukraine must relinquish territory to end the Russian invasion.  

Fico’s international policy has been at best incoherent and at worst entirely calculated. When the Slovak prime minister refused to visit Kyiv and meet Ukraine’s president Volodimir Zelensky – a move geared towards domestic optics – that did not hinder his support for the EU’s decision to initiate accession talks with Ukraine, nor for the €50 billion aid package. And when his foreign minister Juraj Blanar recently met with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, at a summit in Antalya, Fico quickly countered that his defence minister met on the same day with the Americans.

However, Fico has focused most of his energy at home. His government recently approved contentious judicial reforms aimed at dissolving the country's anti-corruption special prosecutor's office, effectively halting several contentious legal proceedings, some involving donors to Smer. The reforms also entail softening penalties for white-collar crimes and reducing the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes such as sexual violence from 20 to 10 years.

Meanwhile, the government has slashed support for civil society organisations working on human right and LGBT+ issues, branding them as “foreign agents”; the culture minister has resumed cultural cooperation with Russia and declared a war on the public television; and members of the government have advocated for criminal prosecution of several journalists for their alleged “hatred against the Slovak nation” – a tactic straight out of the Orwellian playbook.

These measures have sparked mass protests across Slovakia, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets every other week. Despite public outcry, the government has pushed its judicial proposals into law using the fast-track legislative procedure that legal experts deem unlawful and the Constitutional Court is yet to consider fully.

Slovakia’s political landscape faces a fresh test with the upcoming presidential election in March. The country’s president holds limited formal power, the incumbent can veto certain laws and shape public discourse. With the liberal president Zuzana Čaputová opting not to seek reelection, her successor will be decided between Peter Pellegrini, Fico's coalition partner and speaker of the parliament, and Ivan Korčok, a former career diplomat and liberal. 

Should Pellegrini assume the presidency, as current polls predict, Fico’s government will be further emboldened. The prime minister and his allies would wield unchecked control over the legislative and the executive branches of the state, with their sights set on influencing the judiciary through sweeping reforms.

The prospect of such unhindered power evokes memories of Slovakia's tumultuous populist governments in the 1990s, following the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia. The country was then seen as the weakest link among newly established democracies in the region. But a democratic government that united across the political spectrum in 1998 paved the way for the country’s accession to NATO and to the EU in 2004, which has in turn transformed the country’s security orientation and economic fortunes over the last two decades.

Slovakia's international allies are monitoring the developments in the country. The European Commission has already warned the Slovak government of potential legal action, which could entail suspending payments from the EU’s lucrative Recovery Plan. Slovakia is yet to receive over €4 billion from Brussels – out of the pledged 6.4 billion – a significant financial injection amounting to more than 3 percent of its entire economy.

Whether the EU will opt for such action remains uncertain. In previous encounters with figures like Robert Fico – Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland – EU institutions acted only after democratic norms and the rule of law had already eroded. But if the EU wants to avoid another member state slipping into a perilous territory, it might to act decisively — and more swiftly than in the past.

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