The process of the formation of the new government was surprisingly swift. In two weeks, Robert Fico, the leader of the (nominally) centre-left Smer-SD (member of S&D Group) was able to form his third government, this time leading a wide coalition of four parties. If anything, one would have expected longer ritual dances to excuse the previously unimaginable: cooperation of the Slovak nationalists with the party supported mostly by the Hungarian minority, and of Robert Fico and Radoslav Prochazka, leader of the conservative party #Siet, who liked to pose as the leader of the Slovak centre-right forces – but post-elections mathematics offered few other options.
Robert Sulik, the leader of the euro-sceptic and anti-immigrant party SaS (Sloboda a solidarita – Freedom and Solidarity), could try to form a wide anti-Smer coalition of five or six parties. But due to his divisive personality and personal animosities riding high, that was hardly seen as a stable option. Moreover, such a government would have been a motley crew. Besides SaS, it would have to include an amorphous group Obyčajný ľudia (Ordinary people) – which is not a proper party, but a loose grouping of activists and politicians of a conservative leaning – and included another conservative party on its list. Then there would be the comprising of a combination of the Slovak National Party and Most-Hid, which has a strong support among the Hungarian minority, or an unpredictable political start-up of a controversial oligarch Boris Kollar. Or both. The smallest coalition member would have been the conservative party #Siet.
The last option, a minority or caretaker government (at least for the duration of the Slovak EU Presidency), was seen only as a last resort.
Back to the old telenovela
The electoral success of the fascist party LS NS (People´s Party – Our Slovakia) led by Marian Kotleba – polls were predicting that they would score somewhere around 2%, in the end they got 8% and 14 mandates – brought an initial shock. True, Slovakia has had its fair share of extreme right politics. One or more parties were campaigning on such a platform in each election and the political mainstream was always liable to play with prejudices and racism (against Roma) or xenophobia and scare-mongering (lately against Muslim immigrants). Official representatives of the Catholic Church never actually distanced themselves from the legacy of the clerical-fascist regime of the WWII Slovakia, and far too often voices could be heard that life was “not that bad” back then. But this is the first time that such a political force made it into the parliament.
But soon enough the political mainstream reverted back to that all-too-familiar political telenovela as soon as possible. They know the script and could play by it relatively well. The post-election discussion had become dominated by a well-known tune: who goes with him, for how much, and for how long. And what about Kotleba and his thugs? They seem to believe that this shame disappears if they put it in a political ghetto. It won’t.
Kotleba is a product of diminished sensibility to intolerance, hate and extremism, as well as an atmosphere of despair, which is slowly transforming into blind anger. There is a growing feeling that the country has been hijacked by oligarchs and their friends in the political elites – left and right – and that elections are just a joke, with little bearing on the real execution of power. On all of these accounts the new government will probably do very little.
Unsustainable political discourse
So what could be expected from the third government of Robert Fico? Its constellation seems to be more stable than any other available alternative. But that’s just it.
Robert Fico’s Smer-SD teamed up with three conservative parties of nationalist (Slovak National Party) or conservative varieties (#Siet and Most-Híd, but it’s fair to say that the latter had some liberal elements and was the only party that tried to distance from the pre-election anti-immigrant rhetoric). Smer-SD itself, despite some progressives in and around that party, cannot count for a social-democratic counterweight. On the European front, the new government will probably try to “manage the Slovak EU Presidency” well. From a technical point of view, the chances are that they will succeed. For now, it seems that the administrative capacities built-up in last year, especially at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will not be affected by changes. Combined with support from the Council of the European Union administration, it might be just enough to prevent a major failure.
But politically, no substantial change of course could be expected on any of the major issues. The controversial position adopted by the previous government of Robert Fico on migration is just a logical conclusion of the way we learnt to see the integration process: a giant ATM dispersing funds with no strings attached. Slovak governments – of different political colours – refused to support, or were openly against, many initiatives for a deepened European integration: EU tax to finance the European budget, tax harmonisation, a stronger common social policy, public debt mutualisation, European Prosecutor’s Office, etc. Our political elites are mentally ill-prepared for a time when the European integration project is crumbling and the pro-European forces are losing hope that it could be saved in its present form and start focusing on salvaging the remains, sacrificing the “troublesome” periphery if needed.
The third Fico’s government will have little internal strength to change this unsustainable course in our EU policy. Worse still, it will probably do little to rearrange the structural conditions that are putting limits to our semi-peripheral capitalist development, despite the fact that we are hitting those limits.
The prevailing “modernisation narrative” presents the first fifteen years of our “transformation process” as a constant strife. First is to eradicate remains of the old regime, then to prevent the slide to some semi-authoritarian autocracy, ruled by Meciar’s verkhushka and its home-grown oligarchs. We were doing anything to catch the EU integration train. And then… nothing. Just a grey capitalist normalisation, a road with no alternative.
The official narrative of the post-Communist transformation, based on the modernisation myth, is losing its persuasiveness. We have mimicked political institutions, economic structures and formal rules. European integration should have been the ultimate seal of our return to the West. But the reality looks much more like a return to feudalism, theorised by a Czech sociologist (currently an MEP, elected on the list of the Czech Social-Democrats).
When the dust of our race to the West settled, and we got used to being part of the “global haves” family (albeit as poorer cousins), we’d found out that the transformation process has produced a country turned to a marked territory, divided into fiefs of the close group of winners. Industries, political parties, public contracts, football clubs… all up for sale. From time to time chairs are shuffled, but it’s more like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
Memories of our hopes from the time of the “Velvet revolutions” are slowly turning into ritualised nostalgia. How is it possible that our strive for a better, more human system created this tragic comedy? To make peace with our memories, we are ready to blame any malicious culprits. Flexible Communist cadres, which were able to withstand changes and knew how to exchange connections and influence for money, and vice versa. Stupid masses and their primordial instincts. Weak cultural elites. Agents of foreign capital. Malevolent foreigners…
However, it’s increasingly difficult to avoid an unsettling question: how real were our hopes in the first place? What if the structural conditions were not permissive for directing the transformation process towards a liberal democracy (whatever that means), but to a semi-peripheral quasi-liberal capitalism? With all that it entails: privatisation fire-sales, political caudillos, endemic corruption, broken and divided society… A world oscillating between an absurd tragi-comedy of Strugatsky brothers, and Dostoyevsky’s despair.
To our consolation we are told that it’s the only world we could get. Refuse it, and you end-up with extremes; demons from the past. The most we could ask for is that the transformation process finally produces economic elites that are conscious enough to share their riches, and political elites that are decent enough not to behave like a superior caste.
But deep inside we reject second-hand ideals. Remember Michail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: “Second freshness – that’s what is nonsense! There is only one freshness – the first – and it is also the last. And if sturgeon is of the second freshness that means it is simply rotten.” And a fish rots from the head down.
Aftermath of La Grande Bouffe
This unfair system holds together by a lucky coincidence. At the last geopolitical card game, we have ended up in the winners’ camp – politically as well as economically. Some have profited really well, while others are having at least some bits and crumbs from la Grande Bouffe. Foreign investors created jobs and revived some economic sectors. Thanks to open borders, we could export part of the unemployed to the West. A pillaged state would have probably been at the last cast, were it not for the EU funds, financing public investment. The situation could – and should – have been better. But it could have been worse.
This “normalisation” maxim is just enough to keep carrying on. But it’s far from dissolving the internal contradictions of the system – quite to the contrary. Social pressures are building up and the point when a disgusted passive citizen turns into an angry one is hard to predict. Equally unpredictable would be the character of the following explosion. It could be inclusive, based around demands for equal rights and opportunities for all. But it could be also intolerant, built on segregating identities. A velvet revolution or a Kristallnacht? Following a string of events in Central Europe, and Europe in general – with the electoral success of the fascist party in the Slovak elections being just the last of them – we should start fearing the latter.