The Fico Threat

He has been dubbed the Slovak Putin and the European Chávez. He has shown a marked tendency to authoritarianism and formed a cabinet with extreme nationalists and the former Prime Minister Mečiar who had brought the country to the brink of dictatorship. While local elites regard Fico as a threat to democracy, ordinary citizens adore him and his Czech counterpart Paroubek looks up to him as a role model. Will the real Robert Fico please stand up?

Summing up Slovakia’’s current Prime Minister ought not be too difficult a task. Fico is a spectre from the Mečiar era. He’’s a politician who has pushed through a series of controversial bills that curtail civic liberties and restrict the activities of non-governmental organisations, the media and private companies. He is a vain egomaniac who promised to immediately rescind all the successful reforms carried out by previous governments. He is an admirer of autocratic leaders and a regular guest at Cuban Embassy receptions marking the anniversary of Castro’s revolution. He is a thug who calls journalists and opposition politicians corrupt: hyenas and idiots.

But there is something in this picture that does not quite add up. Slovakia’’s citizens have never had it so good. The country has experienced several years of impressive economic growth and it adopted the euro in January this year. And the people love their controversial premier. His colleagues abroad are green with envy and social scientists are vying to figure out how Fico manages to garner equal support from all walks of life. The Prime Minister is popular with people across all geographical regions, ages, income groups and levels of education. He is on the side of  the man in the street, he is just, decisive and direct, he speaks the truth and looks after all of Slovakia: these are some of the responses his countrymen gave in a survey conducted by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) last autumn.

There is something sinister about this mix of popularity and dictatorial tendencies, something that makes alarm bells ring about the direction Slovakia is taking. Yet a closer look reveals that things are not quite as they seem. Robert Fico is a populist of the future, someone who is willing and able to say whatever it takes to maintain his popularity, yet it is impossible to tell what he’’s really thinking and what he will do next. He may be dangerous but, then again, he may not. Since time-worn political science theories won’’t wash, new ones will have to be devised, particularly as the two most likely winners of the forthcoming Czech election, Jiří Paroubek and David Rath, are among his most ardent disciples.

Rise to the top

It was in the autumn of 1990, in the heady days following the Velvet Revolution that a young lawyer walked into the offices of Archa a small independent publishing house in Bratislava. He had an interesting proposition: his Slovak translation of the complete text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The publishers accepted and this key document, together with all its appendices, saw its first ever publication in Slovakia, thanks to the young lawyer’’s initiative.

Critics today, wary of statements extolling the positive sides of the previous regime, might be surprised to hear that the name of this man with a highly developed sense of human rights was Robert Fico. But his c.v. is full of unexpected twists, making unpredictability seem the only constant in Fico’’s rise to the top.

Before November 1989 he went to law school, joined the Communist party and was getting ready for a career serving the ruling regime whose demise he, along with the overwhelming majority of people, had no reason to anticipate or wish for. He boasted a model worker background, and as an ambitious young party member his prospects for the future seemed more than promising.

Just a few years after he translated the UN declaration, the post-revolutionary euphoria had long evaporated and the mood in Slovakia was quite different. People were frustrated by the increasing poverty, chaos and crime rate which they attributed to a surge in the number of criminals roaming the streets following Václav Havel’’s amnesty.

Fico’’s political career began in 1992 as a Member of Parliament for the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), the successor to the Communist Party that was trying to transform itself into a social democratic party. The then party chairman Peter Weiss says that Fico had always been tremendously hard-working, would study draft bills at great length, and tirelessly criss-cross the country visiting voters and that he regarded him as the great hope of the Slovak Left. He had no idea that his disciple would do things his own special way.

The first time Fico demonstrated a peculiar or rather, a cynical, approach to politics was in November 1994. Vladimír Mečiar had just won a snap election and formed a nationalist left-wing coalition. He set out to establish an authoritarian regime and unleashed a wave of purges in Parliament. His coalition pushed out opposition representatives from every office and took control of every single parliamentary committee, the National Property Fund, the TV and Radio Council etc. The horrified opposition – including the SDĽ – left Parliament in protest. The only one who stayed in the chamber was Robert Fico. He did not vote with Mečiar but unlike his protesting colleagues he observed the rage of the tyranny of the majority from inside the Parliament.

His star started to rise and by 1996 it was obvious that he was by far the most popular SDĽ politician. Peter Weiss proposed him as his successor to lead the party and Fico enjoyed the clear support of the delegates. However, he withdrew at the last minute. This odd decision has remained a mystery in Slovak politics to this day.

Following the 1998 election the SDĽ joined the government coalition formed to keep Mečiar out of power and which initiated changes aimed at leading the country towards NATO and EU membership. Right from the outset, Fico criticized some of the coalition’’s moves (for example, he was against letting the party of Slovakia’’s ethnic Hungarians join the government coalition). His criticism gradually gained force and by 1999 he founded his own party, Smer (Direction), professing Tony Blair’’s idea of a third way. He refers to himself as a pragmatist and likes to quote Deng Xiao Ping’s dictum that it does not matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.

However, Fico soon abandoned pragmatism and turned into the radical populist whose statements and slogans from this period Slovaks still remember today. To a considerable extent, the credit for this image must be given to an extravagant man by the name of Fedor Flašík. The owner of an advertising agency who had made a great deal of money through state commissions obtained under Mečiar, Flašík was in charge of Fico’’s election campaign: this flooded Slovakia with slogans that became notorious for their unprecedented aggressiveness and coarseness. We had corruption under Mečiar, now we have corruption under Dzurinda; Yes to Europe, but not with bare bums, read some of the billboards.

For a while, Robert Fico was the enfant terrible of the political scene. In the 2002 election his party came third and stayed in opposition. Fico learned his lesson, got rid of Flašík and his coarse slogans and, more importantly, started honing Smer’’s profile as a radical left-wing party. His infallible political instinct led him to victory. In 2003 Dzurinda’’s government launched a series of reforms. The shock therapy caught the Slovaks unprepared, and Fico knew it. He lashed out at the government, attacking its price increases, the privatization of gas, the de-regulation of energy prices and the social reforms which cut social security payments for the poor.

He maintained high visibility, organizing one press conference after another and supplying the media with sound bites on an almost daily basis. He made use of every bit of sleaze uncovered during Dzurinda’’s term of office – of which there was no shortage – to attack politicians of the extreme right, bent on plundering the state. He promised to undo all of Dzurinda’’s reforms if he won the election.

His moment arrived in the summer of 2006. He won a landslide victory and formed an alarming cabinet that includes both Vladimír Mečiar and Ján Slota’’s nationalists.

The party and the guests

An icy wind blows through Bratislava’s pedestrianized centre. Heading for the auction house, a couple of lone figures brave the snow blizzard  battering the old town where in the summer you can hardly pass through masses of tourists crowding the tables in cafes and restaurants that line the cobble-stoned streets. These are not art collectors but guests attending writer Rudolf Chmel’s seventieth birthday party. The sound of arias from the celebration’’s opening drifts into the street, and some two hundred people with glasses of wine stand around sporting a variety of attire, from gentlemen in smart suits and ladies in evening gowns, to artists in jumpers and worn jackets.

The entire cultural elite of Bratislava has gathered here, people who are proud of being part of the European liberal tradition and who used to support Mikuláš Dzurinda’’s government (in which Chmel served as Minister of Culture). Those who worship the national myth of ancient Slovakia and had feted Mečiar in the nineties as the founder of the independent state and have transferred their allegiance to Fico, are conspicuous by their absence. There is nothing surprising about this: the Slovak elite rejects the current Prime Minister while his allies, in their turn, ignore the artists and intellectuals.

However, the cold war seems to have eased off tonight. Chmel’’s birthday party guests include the current Minister of Culture Marek Maďarič, considered to be Fico’’s right-hand man. I have come because I don’’t like the division into Us and Them, declares Minister Maďarič to a small group of people. Nearly two generations younger than his predecessor Chmel, he cuts a dashing figure in a perfectly tailored suit and the glass of red wine, yet he seems rather tense. What is it like to be in government with Slota and Mečiar? a six-foot tall giant – one of the country’’s top visual artists, Rudolf Sikora – asks provocatively.  The coalition was necessary to stabilize our party, Smer. However, we are open to all parties after the coming election? hints the Minister.

Another prominent guest, editor of Poland’’s Gazeta Wyborcza Adam Michnik, dispenses well-meant advice, with a glass of whisky in his hand, to the Minister: Listen, Slovakia is the star of the region, don’t mess  it up. Please pass this on to Prime Minister Fico. The Minister nods: We are aware of our responsibility, just give us time.

Maďarič stays almost until midnight, discussing his government’’s policies with the intellectuals, denying Smer’’s authoritarian tendencies, explaining and defending his Prime Minister’’s actions. This is unprecedented since Fico came to power. As recently as last autumn, when Václav Havel’’s latest play, Leaving, opened in the Slovak National Theatre, not a single cabinet member showed up. He criticized us, so what was the point of us going, Minister Maďarič explains.

After midnight the crowd disperses and the atmosphere loosens up; the lamb stew is finished but the giant bottle of whisky is still half full, waiters move around topping up wine glasses and Rudolf Chmel sits down to the piano. The music, dancing and singing goes on until the small hours. Nobody talks politics any more.

Just like Putin

His alliance with extremists is only one of several of Fico’’s actions that have alienated the Slovak elite. His cabinet, backed by a parliament majority, pushed through a series of bills that tangibly affected civic liberties. The mining law, aimed at making extraction easier, restricted NGOs’’ participation in the approvals process; the expropriation bill, aimed at speeding up the government’’s motorway building plans, has affected the rights of property owners and is currently awaiting the Constitutional Court’s opinion. A new land development law, depriving communities and regions of some of their powers, was also aimed at concentrating more power in the hands of central government but, following protests from city halls, it did not get through Parliament.

Robert Fico is renowned for his tough rhetoric, which became even tougher after he came to power. African hyenas have more tact than you journalists, Fico said to his chief enemy – the media – in one of his notorious remarks. Rancorous relations between media and politicians are quite commonplace in the Czech Republic too but the Slovak version is quite unique. In the latter the mix of mutual hatred and contempt does not follow the maxim – common in democratic countries – that the politicians are usually on the losing side. The print run of the Slovak media that have taken a critical stance against the Prime Minister has gone down while his popularity has gone up. Commercial TV and radio stations have withdrawn into apolitical or neutral shells, while the state TV is wholly under the ruling coalition’’s control and abandoned by all self-respecting journalists.

The open war the Prime Minister has been waging against journalists has not deprived him of visibility. On the contrary, in Slovakia the only way you can avoid the Fico phenomenon is by selling your TV set, turning off your radio and internet and no longer going to pubs. He rules the media via press conferences that he often opens by telling the journalists off. By turning the media – instead of the political opposition – into his main rival, he has effectively marginalized the opposition. He seems to be everywhere, as if he had several doppelgangers. It would seem that the Slovaks follow his every step. One minute they see him trying to solve the gas crisis or trying to sort out the economic crisis in a series of frenzied meetings with bankers, trade unions and the local government. The next minute they see him dash to an accident site, explain to the public how a coach taking people skiing came to crash into a train, and declare national mourning.

He uses the media exclusively for his own needs, yet he avoids giving interviews. He does not participate in televised discussions with his opponents and only ever appears on his own, using the TV hosts as mere props. His on-screen persona is tough, yet those close to him claim he is gentle and gentlemanly courteous in private. The last straw in his feud with the media was his new media law which curtails freedom of expression by putting newspapers under an unnecessarily broad obligation to print responses from people who feel harmed by any information about them published in the papers, even if it was true.

Slovakia under Robert Fico is undergoing a process of gradual Putinization, says literary scholar and leading intellectual Peter Zajac summing up the situation. He started by attacking the media and has been slowly breaking their resistance. The political opposition is decimated and has recently resorted to deferential calls for dialogue. Fico has acquired an unrivalled grip on power. Just like Putin.

The infallible leader

Two and a half years since taking power Fico is stronger and more confident than ever. You only have to check his popularity ratings or watch his brief TV appearances to realize the man is a born politician. Robert Fico has a feel for the soul of Slovak society. Historian Ľubomír Lipták once defined the three pillars every Slovak politician has to build on as the national, the social and the Christian. Fico is the first politician in modern history who has met all three criteria by pursuing a well thought-out strategy.

By bringing the nationalist Ján Slota into his cabinet he took control of the national pillar. He personally epitomizes the social pillar – in his press conferences he never fails to reiterate that his government will not let ordinary people sink into poverty and suffering. Nor did  it  take him long to erect the Christian pillar: only a few days after becoming Prime Minister he visited Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec in Nitra and a few weeks later he invited representatives of all church denominations to lunch in his office and presented his programme. Fico pledged to the Slovak Catholics he would not raise the issue of registered partnership of homosexual couples or of the separation of church and state, and his government has halted sexual education in schools. As a result, his cabinet, despite including many former Communists, has enjoyed a degree of support on the part of the Catholic Church that his predecessor Dzurinda’’s government could not muster, even though the names of two of the parties in his coalition actually included the word Christian.

As all this suggests, Robert Fico is a master in the art of political tactics. Despite the odd horrified response, Fico’’s election victory and accession to power in 2006 has, paradoxically, convinced many people of the advantages of democracy. According to IVO opinion polls, the number of people in 2008 who supported the country’s post-1989 development reached a historical high level (54%) compared to the number of its critics (23%). The people’’s pride in their country has reached a record 77%.

In fact, he is a very nice person who does not like conflict and never pushes anything through without agreeing it with others, says Slovakia’’s Minister of the Interior and Smer deputy chairman Robert Kaliňák of his boss. The reason this does not always appear to be the case is that you always need a rival in politics. However, he claims that within the party the chairman never enforces any decisions without agreeing them with others first. He has exceptional political intuition and an ability to sum up a problem in a few simple sentences.

A Putin-like dictator, a strategist of genius, a gentle man of compromise who understands his countrymen. It is not easy to find the answer to the question who the real Robert Fico is. But we can get closer to the answer by looking in more detail at what has actually happened in Slovakia under the cover of endless rows and macho statements.

A generous uncle

In the run-up to the election Robert Fico repeatedly promised he would rescind the reforms launched by Dzurinda’’s government. However, the left-wing hurricane never arrived. Fico has completed a number of projects initiated by his predecessor and Slovakia has joined the Schengen zone and the Euro without any hiccups. He also deserves praise for introducing fiscal discipline that brought the state budget deficit to well under 3%. Although, given a record 10% growth in GDP, this was not difficult to achieve, Fico was sensible enough to retain most of the Ministry of Finance staff brought in by the previous incumbent, Ivan Mikloš, and despite his consistently left-wing rhetoric he has always emphasized the need to avoid excessive state debt.

Most analysts regard Fico’’s other obvious instances of meddling with the country’’s economy as harmful but not severely so. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are convinced that with these interventions Fico has demonstrated his concern for them. He abolished healthcare fees and prevented heath insurance companies from channelling their eventual profits outside the system; he introduced changes in labour law providing laid-off workers with greater compensation, increased Christmas bonuses for pensioners and financial rewards for young families with children, and stopped private gas and electricity suppliers from increasing energy bills.

However, more important are the promises he did not keep. He did not abolish the flat rate of tax, even though he threatened banks and monopolies with doing precisely that, nor did he abolish the standard rate of VAT, which he kept at 19% with the exception of medication and books where he reduced it to 10%. The list goes on. Although the Prime Minister is generally regarded as a socially generous uncle, according  to the Ineko Think Tank analysis (based on Eurostat data) the proportion of public expenditure in the GDP over the past year has sunk to the lowest level in the history of Slovakia and is now the lowest in the EU. Ineko calculates that the value of the average pension in relation to the average salary was expected in 2008 to sink to its lowest level in the history of independent Slovakia. In fact, pensions and public expenditure went up in real terms but the growth of GDP was so enormous that the proportion of state expenditure on pensioners and the poor went down. It would, therefore, be unfair to suggest claim that Fico’s government is against society. Rather, the data are proof of its pragmatism: it has given the people exactly as much as was necessary make them feel grateful without making them ask further questions.

A visit to Hugo not advisable

His foreign policy presents a similar contradiction between words and action or rather, between the self-image Fico has been cultivating and what his government is actually doing. Although, in line with his election promises and harsh criticism of the illegitimate invasion of Iraq, Fico did withdraw Slovak troops from that country, in response to the US request he doubled the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. Slovakia continues to be a loyal EU member;  Parliament adopted the Lisbon Treaty ahead of the deadline, and it now appears that his threat earlier this year to break the accession agreement by reactivating the Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear power station was nothing more than a hysterical reaction to the gas crisis.

He believes in the practical significance of the European Union, says Boris Zala, Smer’s co-founder who has been trying to reshape his party in a modern social-democratic mould. He has no illusions about Russia, despite the opposition’’s accusations of a pro-Russian orientation, Zala continues. He may well be right. Nevertheless, it was quite obviously at Russia’’s behest that the Slovak delegation tried to block the negotiations on deploying the anti-missile radar shield at last year’’s NATO summit in Bucharest. This stance made the Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra lose his temper and caused the first serious rift between Czech and Slovak foreign policy in modern history. Fico’’s position on Russia has a lot in common with that of Václav Klaus but unlike the Czech President the Slovak Prime Minister is strongly pro-European.

Interestingly, Fico filled his Ministry of Foreign Affairs with non-party members and top career diplomats with international experience. Fico’’s political ambitions have a predominantly domestic focus and he is not keen on any problems abroad. He did plan to visit Hugo Chávez but we talked him out of it, say people close to him. So what about his notorious attendance of the anniversary of the revolution at the Cuban Embassy in January last year? Oh, that’s just posturing intended to irritate the media, they say. Actually, he was sorry he had to give it a miss this year because on the very same day he held a reception for prominent politicians from all around Europe to mark the adoption of the euro.

Tyrant in parliament

However, warning signals still abound, such as Fico’’s tightening grip on power and its centralisation, as well as his lack of respect for civil liberties and rights. The Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), headed by leading intellectual Martin Bútora has also noted a deteriorating level of democracy. Bútora cites government pressure on independent energy regulating institutions, a creeping weakening of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information, reduced competencies of the Plenipotentiary for Roma Affairs among the key factors. On the other hand, it has to be noted that an opinion poll by the same institute shows that people do not perceive any deterioration in the quality of democracy.

It can definitely be said that, particularly in Parliament, Fico tends to behave like a tyrant, thinks Bútora. He despises the opposition, warns that it could end up in prison, rejects its proposals and makes it clear he does not need to rely on partners. Similar warning signals can be detected in the case of NGOs. The government has already pushed through two bills that restrict NGOs’’ rights to participate in environmental decisions. However, it has to be said that no previous Slovak government was ever very keen on NGOs.  The atmosphere is getting more oppressive and his statements give serious grounds for concern, says Charter 77 Foundation’’s lawyer Andrej Šabík, speaking for all NGOs. But the civil servants have not changed and nothing terrible – apart from the law on expropriation – has actually happened yet.

That brings us full circle: is Fico dangerous and is he much worse than the — not very impressive — Central European average? Not even one of the few Slovak Charter 77 signatories, political scientist Miroslav Kusý seems to have a clear answer to this question. Fico is a brilliant manipulator but it is public opinion he manipulates, not power. What is striking about him in the Central European context is rather how skillful he is. Unlike Paroubek, he is flexible and won’’t let himself be hobbled by left-wing ideology, Kusý reflects. And unfortunately, he does not care about human rights, which is something he has in common with all Slovak politicians. He regards them as unnecessary ballast.

The man without qualities

The comparison with Jiří Paroubek is not accidental: the Czech socialist leader is one of Fico’’s chief political friends. The Slovak Prime Minister, who does not communicate with intellectual elites and whose party, Smer, lacks young recruits because young left-wing politicians consider an alliance with the nationalists unacceptable, is happy about the restoration of good Czech-Slovak relations. We maintain lively contacts, experts from the Czech ČSSD often visit Slovakia and Fico frequently visits Jiří Paroubek, says Boris Zala, Fico’’s close party colleague and author of the party’’s programme.

The Czech socialist leader, in his turn, draws inspiration from his successful Slovak counterpart when it comes to pursuing a policy of macho sound bites and adapting his views to the latest opinion polls. Some commentators believe that Paroubek sees Fico’’s coalition as a test of the viability of ruling in coalition with extremists, which is something he is likely attempt with the Czech Communist party. That is why Paroubek defended Fico so vigorously when European socialists criticized him for forming a coalition with the radically nationalist SNS.

It is hard to tell what the Slovak situation can teach us with regard to the future of Czech politics. On the one hand, Fico’s success in keeping Mečiar and Slota on the leash and preventing any major excesses has made Europe take a more favourable view of his coalition than two years ago. On the other hand, the nationalists’’ involvement in his cabinet has most certainly contributed to the marked increase in anti-Hungarian sentiment in Slovakia.

It is even more difficult to predict, on the basis of Fico’’s rise to the top, what sort of Prime Minister Paroubek will make if he gets a second chance. While Fico’’s bark has turned out to be worse than his bite, unpredictability remains his defining characteristic. Despite the widespread repulsion caused by his rise to power, the rule of this new-style populist who lacks a clear ideological background or political goals has so far been something of a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, as Charter 77 signatory Miroslav Kusý says, It is Fico’’s unclear indistinct political background and attitudes that pose the greatest danger: it is simply impossible to predict what he will do next.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 09 March 2009. 

We are grateful to Martin M. Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.