In the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent 1993 Velvet Divorce (which broke the synthetic Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), the Slovaks have had the tougher hand to play. They had never had a commercial tradition equal to the Czechs, and were heavily weighted down with the most obsolete of the old Soviet-style manufacturing infrastructure. The Slovaks had been the hub of the nation’s arms industry, as well, and thus suffered from the collapse in demand upon liberation. When the newly freed nation split into two republics, the Czechs had an unemployment rate of only 3%. For the Slovaks, the figure was an alarming 15%.
Whereas the new Czech Republic began under the center-right leadership of Vaclav Klaus, the center-left government of Vladimir Meciar led Slovakia. Meciar’s leadership proved both undemocratic and less stimulative of economic reform. As a result, NATO excluded Slovakia in the initial 1998 round of expansion. However, the election of reform parties in the same year brought about successful movement toward Europeanization, greater economic reform, and the rule of law — all important achievements for a nation significantly less inclined to value freedom over security than its neighbor at the time. Mikulas Dzurinda headed a Christian Democrat-style coalition from 1998-2006. Foreign investors came in. Slovakia gained membership in both NATO and the EU in 2004.*
In 2006, former communist Robert Fico and his Social Democracy party joined with Slovakian nationalists (hostile to ethnic minorities such as Hungarians) to take over control of the government. The coalition did not endure and the center-right coalition regained power in 2010. Thanks to disagreements over a European bailout fund, the government fell. In the wake of a major scandal regarding apparent evidence of corrupt activities committed by government ministers, the Slovaks decisively rejected the center-right and gave Fico enough votes to govern without other parties. Most notably, he will no longer need Slovak nationalists, which will give him greater freedom to maneuver with the European Union. His rhetoric already reflects the new circumstances as he talks up a European future for Slovakia.
On the other hand, Fico may not have a long leash with voters. He, too, has been suspected of corruption. One past incident, in which he denied that a voice on a recording was his, has led to his occasionally being referred to as “a voice similar to Fico’s.” He was potentially implicated in the current scandal, but was able to plead that he had no influence to peddle as a member of the opposition. One voter perhaps expressed a common sentiment when she said she voted for Fico because all the parties steal, but the Social Democrats steal less. Voters have not exactly plucked a Jimmy Carter-esque figure with clean hands to wipe out the lingering scent of scandal.
Slovakia has had a problem with unemployment, but Fico’s strategy is not likely to provide the solution. He has run on replacing the country’s much lauded flat tax of 19% with a progressive tax designed to increase the burden on those who earn more. He is also refusing to engage in entitlement reform such as increasing the pension age for women. In addition, Fico has indicated he will decline to continue the post-Cold War project of privatizing state assets. These promises demonstrate Fico’s mastery of manipulating public opinion through class-conscious rhetoric. He has also vowed to build a new national soccer stadium.
Rhetoric and campaign promises are one thing. Performance is another. His administration followed through on bringing Slovakia into the Eurozone in 2009. Now, he has to find a way to meet the budget requirements of the new fiscal pact. Whether he can do so with an economic strategy that may well retard growth and frighten off foreign investors remains to be seen.
Unlike several leaders of “new Europe” as Donald Rumsfeld called them, Fico’s Slovakia is strongly opposed to the United States’ efforts in Iraq. During his previous turn in office, he withdrew troops. He has also stated that he has no interest in hosting any part of an American missile shield protecting Europe.
In the case of Fico, Slovakia’s post-Meciar move to Europeanization is likely to do its work well. The young nation is doubly committed to Europe as a member of both the European Union and the Eurozone. Those memberships significantly reduce the range of discretion for a former communist leader who might otherwise entertain other options.
* Some of the background information in this report comes from Wolchik and Curry’s excellent Central & East European Politics: From Communism to Democracy.
Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.
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