>Slovakia 15 Years On – or how we learned to stop worrying and love populism

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Somehow without quite realising I agreed to co-organise a one day conference at SSEES on Slovakia 15 Years On. However, with the help of the British Czech and Slovak Association, the Slovak Embassy and colleagues from SSEES and elsewhere, this turns out to be a whole lot less onerous that I had feared and on the day the event itself both interesting and successful and we are even lucky enough to get a keynote address from the current Slovak Ambassador to the UK, Juraj Zervan.
The ambassador, suffering (like me) from hay fever, reviews Slovakia’s development as a small Central European nation bringing it up to date with a discussion of the current ‘dynamic and stable’ government, which he says is building upon earlier reforms while developing a less passive foreign policy than the previous government and not losing sight of the social side of economic development. My scribbled notes also say that he stressed the importance of using state monopolies to forward the development of the economy, but it is not clear (at least from my notes whether this means using existing state holdings, or actively developing them.

Over lunch I hear less sanguine views about the current government from others: it has no real interest in foreign policy and is mainly interested consolidating its domestic position (very successfully so far) in controlling the finances of ministries and doing advantageous deals with the Russians over gas without much of an eye to longer term energy security. On the other hand, Tomáš Valášek of the Centre for European Reform reminds us the afternoon session, Slovakia has an excellent corps of EU-minded diplomats and previous Slovak governments’ focus in democracy promotion in SE Europe (while successful) overlooked the question of Ukraine, whose future Slovakia a more direct interest in as far as its own security is concerned.

The rest of the politics session centres on the question of populism in Slovak politics. As Tim Haughton notes, this is less related to the EU, whose influence on domestic politics is somewhat tangential and ad hoc than the general trend of democratic politics across Europe to ‘go populist’. As Kevin Deegan-Krause explains in a presentation that is theoretical, accessible and witty, populists appeal tend to move around the political landscape depending on who is in power (and part of the establishment) and who is not and can use various bits of kit from the toolbox of populists appeals (there are many). Holding government office tends to wear down populist lustre and new parties therefore do best as populist insurgents. The big exception to this rule, is of course, Fico’s Smer, which has bucked the trend and remained popular and populist in office. The reason, as Karen Henderson highlighted, in her presentation on the disarray of the Slovak opposition, is that populist parties reflect social and electoral demand. It matters little that the opposition can depict Fico as a semi-democratic ‘Mečiar lite’ (my phrase, not hers) and win international support, when they lack any coherent unifying political project – either for themselves or society – and Slovak voters are elsewhere. Interestingly, although some Slovak officials and politicians can rather sensitive about discussion of the current government – seemingly fearing an outbreak of Fico bashing as soon as any Western political scientist takes the floor – intellectual undercurrents seem to be shifting towards taking Smer much more seriously.

The day it should be said also included a morning session on culture: presentations on the refraction of Slovakia’s transformation to a consumer capitalist society through fiction with an outwardly trashy and sensational edge; a clever and interesting sounding novel with a mentally handicapped narrator, which, again, offers a skewed, satirical perspective on Slovak society and reveals much more going on than first meets the eye; and the work of the Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň, the centenary of whose birth is rapidly approaching.

In the margins of the conference I also learn that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico ate a lot of kangaroo steaks whilst a visiting scholar at SSEES in 1999; that a Slovak designed the dollar bill; that (allegedly) a fifth of Slovaks are of aristocratic descent and that some Slovaks may be allergic to the metals in the new Euro coins and will need to watch out for skins complaints when the single currency is introduced in Slovakia in 2009 (now a source of predictable anguish in parts of the Czech press – the fact that the Slovaks are ahead in European integration, that is, not the skin allergies). And for anyone who can’t work out the puzzles of Slovak politics or culture, there is always the rather neat (and rather cheap) Slovak-themed puzzle I came across from Puck Puzzles, which illustrates this post.

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