A Small Country in a Big Game

Over the past few years I have often found it embarrassing to say I hailed from Slovakia. Long gone was the charm offensive my country had launched at the start of the new century. The extreme right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS), a proud member of the ruling coalition led by the Social Democrat Prime Minister Robert Fico had fanned the hatred of the Hungarian minority, causing serious damage to the country’’s relations with its southern neighbour. A rekindling of ethnic conflict and a resulting destabilization at its centre is what Europe least needs. Ján Slota, the SNS leader, referred to the 600,000 Roma living in Slovakia as parasites; however, his racist election posters were banned. Alongside Viktor Orbán’’s recent electoral triumph in Hungary the extreme right-wing party Jobbik, with their dream of a resurrected Greater Hungary, has entered parliament in the Budapest government. The political scene is not the only thing these two countries, with their long and complex shared history, have in common: Slovakia, in 2005 regarded as the Central European tiger due to its strong economic performance, has since followed Hungary on the path to extreme debt and state bankruptcy. Corruption scandals have claimed the resignation of a dozen government ministers.

Instead of coming to terms with the country’’s real history, in his pursuit of a dream of the newly-confident ancient Slovaks – a new nation derived from a fictitious Slavonic Ur-Nation – the left-wing populist Prime Minister Fico pushed a patriotism bill through parliament. Nationalist statements by the three populist parties in the government coalition have cemented the power of the Right. On 19 May, during the first Gay Parade in Bratislava hundreds of neo-Nazis invaded the capital, stopping the peaceful and good-humoured march and violently attacking its participants. As there is no immigration to speak of, the aggression is directed at domestic minorities: the Roma, Jews, gays and lesbians.

Europe could no longer understand Slovakia and many Slovaks lost confidence in Europe. A permanent division of the continent seemed inevitable. How could Slovakia – a country with one of the fastest growth rates in the EU – be ruled by post-Communists who praise the pre-1989 period? I have often tried to explain to my German friends this weird and dangerous political development, which went almost unnoticed in the West.

Eventually the extreme corruption and an aggressive election campaign on the part of the ruling coalition caused a backlash and growing indignation among the citizens. History was made by the cult cartoonist Shooty, whose masterly ironic takes on Slovakia’’s everyday reality appear in the daily SME: within two weeks he collected over 70,000 euro in voluntary contributions for his humorous election billboards. He may have inaugurated a new era of non-partisan political advertising.

In spite of all predictions and partly thanks to Shooty’’s billboards, Fico’s ruling coalition suffered heavy losses in the parliamentary election on 12 June 2010. Although the quasi-Social Democrats remain by far the strongest party, they lack a majority and cannot form a government. With his party-hack demeanour and superficial media hatred Fico, the great orator, has managed to alienate many, especially young voters. The extreme nationalists have also suffered a crushing defeat. The populist HZDS of the former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has disappeared into oblivion.

There is a chance that twenty years after the fall of communism the country will have a government led by a woman. The social scientist professor Iveta Radičová, leader of the Conservative Democrats, wants to continue the austerity and stabilization programme. She has sailed to victory promising a long-term financial reorganization of the ailing state coffers and to put an end to corruption. Two new liberal-oriented parties have made inroads into parliament with a spectacular number of votes. Béla Bugár’’s Most-Híd (The Bridge), focusing on multi-cultural co-existence, has found support among many Slovaks who have had enough of the pseudo conflict between the two neighbouring countries. Richard Sulík and his neo-liberal party Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity), founded only a year ago, has received 12.1% of the vote. The media and internet-savvy businessman has garnered more support through social networking sites than anyone else.

All former opposition parties have declared their unwillingness to cooperate with the social democratic leader Fico. Four very different parties, driven by a will to power, are now negotiating so that they can form a centre-right coalition as soon as possible. The country is in crisis and urgently needs a simplified system of taxation; to develop a knowledge-based economy and a more effective state administration; and to improve the position of teachers and health workers – otherwise all our nurses will end up in Germany. There is talk of a change of direction; euphoria has replaced the dreariness of the past years.

And to top it all, Slovakia has qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever. Football has been growing in popularity for years, almost catching up with the national frenzy for ice hockey. Defender Martin Škrtel (FC Liverpool), midfield player Marek Hamšík (SSC Naples) and strikers Stanislav Šesták (Vfl Bochum) and Ján Ďurica (Hannover 96) in particular have recently strengthened the national team.

In the 18th century Slovak adventurer and bestselling author Moric Beňovský conquered Madagascar. He was an outsider who used his skills to become king. As World Cup debutants, the Slovaks are mindful of his legacy. Once again, my country has joined the game.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

The essay appeared in a German translation the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

We are grateful to Michal Hvorecký for the permission to publish this text in English.