>Never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s … Robert Fico

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I travelled up to London on the train listening to an oddly alternating mix of Irish traditional music and the Sex Pistols on a cheap (and malfunctioning) MP3. This mix of lyrical national sentiment and take-me-as-you-find-me iconoclasm was not entirely inappropriate, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in town – and (more importantly, if more briefly) was visiting SSEES, where as a Masaryk Scholar in 1999 he first set out the idea of founding the new political party, that became SMER – Social Democracy, now Slovakia’s dominant party – The plan was create a new force, which could deliver reform of the centre-left without becoming bogged down in the old nationalist vs. liberal, world vs. Vladmír Mečiar conflicts that characterized Slovak politics for much of the 1990s.

Somewhat distrusted for his populist leanings even as a rising star in opposition, since winning the 2006 elections, Fico has acquired the reputation of being something of the Johnny Rotten of Central European politics and has attracted similarly dreadful headlines. Forming what The Economist terned an ‘iffy and wiffy’ coalition with far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Vladimír Mečiar’s declining ex-ruling party of 1990s, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) after last year’s elections, his party gained the dubious distinction of being the first member party to be booted out of the Party of European Socialists. Despite leaving much of the previous right-wing government’s neo-liberal welfare and tax reforms in place, foreign trips to Libya (where, as well as having warm words for Colonel Gadaffi, as did Tony Blair, he described the Bulgarian nurses and one Palestian doctor convicted on trumped up sounding charges of spreading HIV, as ‘perpetrators’ – much to the consernation of the European Parliament and wider EU for whom it is an obvious injustice and a cause celebre) sent signals that he was a bit more Chavez than Blair, as did opposition to proposed stationing of the US anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, warming the cockles of President Putin’s heart on a visit to Moscow – savvier comrades in the Czech Social Democratic Party simply sidestepped the issue by calling for a referendum; and a visit to the Cuba Embasssy in Bratislava to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Together with more minor signs and signals such as the BBC World Service suddenly losing its Slovak FM frequencies, the impression, fanned by liberal opponents, is of an emerging anti-Western, or at least anti-American, illiberal ‘Mečiarism lite’ out of step with the rest of the EU.

Fico in person, however, did quite a good job of puncturing this enfant terrible image and. unlike some politicians of a more liberal persuasion in similar circumstances, was more than willing to take questions and comments and argue his case. He justified the coalition in terms of stability and as the best option for getting key social democratic policies through, arguing that he had effectively cordoned off SNS and HZDS by having them in office, rather than keeping them out of government and stressed that his foreign policy was more European and less American oriented than that of previous governments. The Visegrad group still mattered for Slovakia and its European policy would reflect this. Overall, the session left me turning over some interesting thoughts about the nature of social democracy in CEE and its (possible) relaionship with nationalism, liberalism and populism, which distantly echo debates in Britain’s very own populist-cum-social democratic party, New Labour. Once again, as with home grown left-populists like George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan, I was impressed with an ability to put across position I was basically unsympathetic to.

Whether such political acumen is enough to shift his reputation as one of the bad boys of the region, indeed or more broadly to establish a pragmatic left-populist alternative of the kind Smer seems to represent as legitimate part of the European political landscape remains to be seen.

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