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>Fico’s SMER more acceptably unacceptable, say European Socialists

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Meanwhile, the Party of European Socialists (PES) has ruled on the status Slovakia’s SMER, suspended from PES for entering into coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party last year. Robert Fico’s party is still not welcome back into the PES fold, but the reasons for its continued suspension has subtly changed in a way that basically vindicate’s Fico rationale for entering into such an alliance. PES chair Poul Nyrup Rasmussen is cited by Sme as saying that the Fico government’s policies accorded with the social-democratic line of PES – indeed EUX reports one German SPD leader as effusing over the ‘the great progress and stable policies carried out by our Slovak friends’ which ‘stand with the highest European level financially, economically and socially’ . PES also seems to accept that SNS had had no substantial influence on Slovak government policy. PES was, however, still worried by ‘xenophobic voices’ from within the government, the loudest and most raucous of which, naturally, belongs to long-time SNS leader Jan Slota – so SMER remains suspended until a further review in February.

SMER and Fico are predictably fuming in public. But broadly, the upshot is rather favourable for the Fico view. It is seemingly OK for a European social democratic party into enter a coalition with the extreme right soprovided it is effectively managed and reasonably soft-spoken. Doubtless there is a deal of pragmatism here. PES has a strong incentive in retaining a strong governing party as its Slovak partner and probably feels that will retain more leverage with Fico in, than out. But, how long before Socialists in Bulgaria, Romania or elsewhere try Slovak model of respectable (more or less) red-brown politics? The Party of European Socialists website, meanwhile, seems to have nothing to say on the subject. It last news item is dated 2nd October.

>Slovakia: open for business, open for immigration?

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As Tim Haughton and Darina Malová point out in the latest issue of Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs, even under the lefty nationalist/populist government of Robert Fico, Slovakia is – thanks to pressures of key business groups and its low wage, high(ish) pattern model of integration into the European economy – very open for business. And, logically, but said unusually publicly, it is also open for migration, at least if you happen to be a Ukrainian with skills in the construction industry.
Consistent with Haughton and Malová’s stress on brute business interests as akey social determinant of government policy, a recent issue of Sme reports growing pressure from Slovak employers to open up the Slovak labour market to Ukrainian migrants on a longer term basis, revising the current system whereby most work permits for Ukrainians are issued non-renewably for only one year. Some business leaders even want the quotas restricting Ukrainian migration abolished altogether.

The shortages seem to be for semi-skilled labour predictably, in the construction, manufacturing, garment and agricultural fields. Despite the nationalist colouration of much Slovak politics, the potential growth in Ukrainian migration seems to be received with equanimity by most of the political spectrum with the key obstacle seemingly how quickly Ukrainian and Slovak officials can re-negotiate the technicalities of the existing bilateral agreement dating from 1994 (not very, is the answer there). The most revealing and interesting remark, however, is the comment attributed to Alexander Duleba of the liberal-leaning Slovak Foreign Policy Association thinktank that ‘It is in our interests to have Ukrainians here rather than people from non-European countries, who will pose a problem of integration in terms of culture and customs’. The subtext seemingly being that Slovakia should hoover up the limited supplies of suitably qualified, culturally assimilable migrants before other competitor countries in the CEE region do. However, as Ukraine itself has an ageing population and labour shortages of its own emerging in fields like the construction industry, I doubt whether even the most liberal open door policy to post-Soviet neighbours will avert the need for migration from points further East (and South).

>Young academics to back Mečiar?

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Even in its current much diminished, more moderate form Vladimír Mečiar’s populist-nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is not known for its intellectual qualities, so it is interesting to see that it has just founded a Young Politcal Scientists Club for sympathetic adademics to advise and feed in ideas. The rationale, reports Sme, is to counter the heavy bias in Slovak political science community towards liberal, pro-market parties. This I suspect does exist, although ,that said, Slovak political science is of a generally rather high quality with less obvious and uncomfortable partisianship creeping in than (for example) in the neighbouring Czech Republic. It will be interesting to see whether this initiative develops and contributes to the modernization of HZDS, whose vagueness plus loyal base of voters remembering the bad/good old days when VM dominated Slovak politics may be an asset for future growth. In Croatia the broadly similar Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), for example, took Ireland’s Fianna Fáil as its model of thoroughly modern small country nationalism. HDZ founder Franjo Tudjman did, however, have the decency to die at a poltically opportune moment…

>European Socialists may soften line on Slovakia’s SMER

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Slovak liberal daily Sme reports that some Austrian and German Social Democrats are willing to consider re-admitting Robert Fico’s SMER into the Party of European Socialists, despite its coalition with the extreme, Hungarian-ophobe Slovak National Party (SNS), or at least to take some steps to normalizing relations. Pragmatic reasons seem to inform this step: Fico, despite some rather paranoid sounding attacks on the media, seems not in practice to have steered a reasonable respectable course policy-wise and keep SNS at arm’s length. Essentially, it appears they are buying into Fico’s justification that such a coalition can be innocuous and indeed means of managing extremists. The fact that SMER is riding high the polls and is clearly not going to disappear as a dominant political force might also have something to do with it. Will it I wonder lead to a broader reappraisal about Social Democrats engaging with the darker populist inclinations of working class voters and others left behind by reform?

PES will review SMER’s suspension at a meeting on 4 October. SMER’s only strong ally in PES at a party level have been the Czech Social Democrats.

>Slovak press sees Czechs as laggards despite latest reform package

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Slovak liberal daily Sme assesses the Czech reform package of flatter and lower taxation which has, as expected, just squeaked through the Czech parliament – although the headline rate of income tax seems lower in the CR (15% falling to 12.5% in 2009; 19% in Slovakia), it points out effective tax rates are higher as both employees’ and employers’ health and social security payments are included in the Czech tax base. Slovak corporation tax at 19% is still lower, although Czech rates are set to fall to that level over the next three years, and there are no taxes on share dividends. Twisting the knife, Sme notes that the real problem is that there is no strong reform coalition in the CR as there was in Slovakia in 1998-2006. However, if the price of such a coalition is the left blasting back into power a few years later a la Robert Fico, Czech free marketeers might do well do consider whether they in fact may have some hidden advantages, although, that said, the current consensus seems to be that Fico, despite posing as a kind of Central European Hugo Chavez, cannot and will not touch the main pillars of earlier neo-liberal reforms and Czech politics seems polarized even before any really radical reforms have been passed.

>Slovak pensioners unaffected by Labour Code reforms

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Slovakia’s liberal daily Sme reports (4 July) that the country’s new (less liberal) Labour Code) passed by parliament will have limited impact on pensioners. The Code – seemingly in contrast to the Czech Republic – does not recognise the concept of a ‘working pensioner’ and proposals for restrictions on rolling temporary contracts for employees already in receipt of a pension were dropped after objections by the Ministry of Culture (controlled by the main governing party SMER) at the consultation stage. Those still employed who were past normal retirement age and paying into the state pension scheme will gain higher pension entitlements, but those already retired who take up employment will only gain marginally with much depending on what type of employment contract they conclude. Overall, the amended Code has been criticized for giving employees enhanced social rights and allegedly putting a heavier burden on (small and medium) employees.

Pensions do, however, still seem to be something of a hottish political issue in Slovakia as, the same paper reports (2 July), the left-populist government of Robert Fico is busy tinkering with the state-supervised private pension funds established as part of the previous government’s welfare reforms. The proposed new Social Law will allow transfers from the second pillar (compulsory individual private saving) back into the state pension system. This – combined with higher payments for employers, the self-employed and higher earners – is reportedly intended to bale out the state pension system

>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.

>Pasta and populism – the Czech and Slovak elections

> At yesterday’s SSEES roundtable on the Czech and Slovak elections Tim Haughton and I strut ted our stuff discussing the electoral politics of the two countries’ elections in June. Karen Henderson then rounds up with a discussion of parallels and underlying issues. Alas, even with exciting developments in Slovakia, we don’t do big box office. There simply isn’t the same audience for Czech and Slovak politics

The same blocs of populist, urban-liberal and free markets can be detected across the two cases despite Slovak’s more regionally complex pattern and crosscutting cleavages. Corruption is an issue, but also a weapon and a source of mud to sling and the reality is hard to disntinguish from the hype. Corruption and clientelism are notoriously hard to measure directly, however, but we tend to agee that we are talking about something slightly different from murky world of post-Soviet ‘political technology’ and ‘virtual parties’

Mainstream catch all parties. Karen noted, allying with extremists are damned if they do (Robert Fico’s embrace of Slovak nationalists, the Kaczynskis’ link-up with Catholic ultras and rampant rural populists ) and damned if they don’t (the Czech Social Democrats’ keeping the Communists at friendly arms length for the sake of anti-communist political correctness – de rigeur for all mainstream Czech parties).

Over pasta and red wine academic attendees talked round a few more issues in Central European politics. Slovenia, it seems, like the Czech Republic also has a civil partnership law, – interesting given it is c Catholic country, although very much fitting in with received wisdom about Slovene liberal democratic culture. The Czechs are notionally Catholic by a large majority too, of course. Access to IVF, we are told, for single women is, however, a big issue divisive moral issue in Slovenia. And yes, someone really should do a mind numbingly detailed study Central European party clientelism in a single ministry, agency, district or whatever… PhD there for someone.

This being an Italian restaurent the waitress is, of course…. Slovak. She doesn’t give us give her view on populism, the left or Robert Fico, however.

>Czeching out Slovak politics

>Chewing over themes for an upcoming event on the Czech-Slovak elections via email, I realize just how tricky meaningful comparison of the two halves of the old Czechoslovakia is these days. Apart from a large academic sub-genre on the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1990-2, the more standard pairing (as seen in dozens of US PhDs) is to compare Poland and the Czech Republic, but perhaps because the whole Mečiarism episode and the Hungarian minority dimensions produces a line up of parties making neat comparison difficult.

My initial thoughts were about a discussion on the politics of flat taxation, but from a Slovak angle this is too passé –influenced by my own preoccupation with the Pyrrhic victory and subsequent humiliation of the Czech Civic Democrats as their Blue Chance programme disappeared down the political plughole. The Slovaks meanwhile have done flat taxation and the Greens – wild cards in the Czech election pack – are as non-existent in Slovak as everywhere else in CEE. That leaves perhaps a discussion of contrasting Social Democratic hardmen Robert Fico and Jiří Paroubek (pictured). The Slovak PM and Czech ex-PM are the both fighting successful rearguard actions against neo-liberalism (say fans) or liberalism (say detractors) by trying to manage and work with some radical forces not beloved of the liberal West – Czech Communists, Slovak Nationalists, and Mečiar and his depeleted party …

A colleague also suggests that the now increasingly fashionable issue party patronage and the state – subject of a recent special issue of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. Interesting but is damn hard to measure The Czech Republic and Slovakia are often paired in the literature as having high levels of state politicization and as late reformers in state transformation despite their different trajectories in 1990s with Klaus/Zeman and Meciar as the principal (pantomime?) villains of the piece. The new ODS government, which squeaked into power in the Czech Republic last month and still faces a confidence vote in October it is likely to lose, has still not wasted anytime replacing various officials and government nominees on public bodies… But I’m not sure quite what the comparative angle is here. Clientelism? Party patronage? Well, yes there’s a lot if it about, but how might it be different in the two countries? To cap it all, I find the Slovak party system hard to categorize. Even saying that it is unstable and fragmented seems too much of a generalization too far now Robert Fico and Smer have stacked up almost 30 per cent of the votes and got in the driving seat, although whether they will have the rubberish resilience of their Czech comrades at the end of four years in office.remains to be seen.

The gory details of the ongoing Czech political imbroglio (to date) will shortly appear as briefing paper on the website of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network. Karen Henderson’s excellent briefing on the Slovak elections and their shorter, sharper outcome appears is just below.

>Slovakia: It’s politics, but not as we know it, Jim…

> Colleagues specializing in Slovak politics have been reflecting on the Slovakia’s new populist/nationalist/sort-of-Social Democrat coalition. Most are dispirited and rather shocked without necessarily seeing developments as an automatic re-run of the Mečiar period , despite the structural similarities in the coalition (dominant party with charismatic leader – this time Smer’s Robert Fico – with two much weaker and more radical partners).

Despite the equivocations and divisions of the Slovak Christian Democrats (KDH) over whether they wanted to work with Fico – still tearing the KDH leadership apart according to the Slovak press – it seems that Fico wasn’t that keen on working with them or indeed anyone else in the outgoing centre-right coalition. A majority coalition with the Hungarian minority party and the rump of Mečiar’s HZDS was apparently an option, but Fico’s Smer seem very rapidly to have opted to work with HZDS and the extreme Slovak National Party instead, who are more economically anti-market and probably more controllable as neither has anywhere to go (except into marginal opposition).

As Karen Henderson suggests (Sme 28 June 2006) CEE politics constitutes a kind of parallel universe – there are Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and liberals in familiar kind of settings, but politics is as they say in Star Trek “not as we know it Jim”. For her a Czech style liberal-Social Democrat coalition – burying the hatchet after knocking six bells out of each other in the election – or indeed a German style Christian Democrat/Social Democrat coalition is preferable and still possible if and when HZDS and SNS start misbehaving.

The problem is that in the Czech and German politics Grand Coalitions or left-right power sharing are a pis aller, rather than an option of choice. In Slovakia, there are too many options and Robert Fico seems to have gone for a different one. As she notes in a forthcoming briefing for the Sussex European Institute, parties are divided into three blocs: nationalist-populist camp (SNS, HZDS), a ‘social democratic’ left inclined to a rather brute economic populism (Smer) and a centre-right camp with the usual division between liberals (SDKÚ, ANO, Free Forum) and conservatives/Christian Democrats (KDH). In Czechia the former – represented by the Communists – is less nationalist and (economics aside) less populist – and excluded from the political game. The Social Democrats – despite Paroubek’s admiration for Fico – and some old left concerns about globalization and multi-national capital do not need (or want?) to play at being rampant populists defending the people against the elite (a line more typical of the Czech right and its disparagement of liberal intellectual elites).

Karen also noted Fico’s performance in a first TV interview as PM, where he responded to criticism from the Party of European Socialist by suggesting that he was being targeted by the vested interests of multi-national companies – working though the PES, one presumes. I watched this on the net. It was indeed a rambling performance even by the less than high standards of the region and from the body language and style it was hard not to think of him as a younger Mečiar

As Karen’s newspaper article notes, he does have other coalition options, but the question Tim Haughton asked in 2002 as Fico started his political ascent still seems open. We still don’t know if he is a man to be trusted or feared.