Could Robert Fico's attempts at modernization eventually do more for Slovakia than the famed reforms of the past?by Martin Ehl 24 July 2012
Even after the first 100 days of his second term in office, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico continues to surprise. Since he has, until now, avoided any big scandals, he could afford last week an unprecedented gesture: He invited journalists to his – once off-limits – study and treated them to a glass of wine.
The Sme newspaper took the occasion to print the entire list of insults the Slovak prime minister had in the past used to describe his country's journalists, whom he now called "colleagues.” "Idiots" was among the milder ones. In a commentary, Sme assured its readers that the newspaper didn’t trust this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
On its website, the government has been boasting about how many interviews Fico has given, and my Slovak colleagues remain puzzled. Is Fico's new, friendlier approach a masterful performance or a real change?
My newspaper, Hospodarske noviny, is still waiting for a response to several requests for an interview with Fico, so we will have to do with the opinions of some experts and quotations from the Slovak media. Those have enabled us to think an almost sacrilegious thought: with the changes that he has been undertaking in Slovakia, Fico seems sincere about modernizing the country – although with methods that fans of parliamentary democracy probably won't find too appealing.
Unlike Czech and Hungarian leaders, Fico seems to know the place of his economy in the current crisis over European integration. "Regardless of whether the EU and the euro zone will be bigger or smaller, Slovakia must remain part of it," he said in an interesting interview for Tyzden magazine. At heart, Fico still probably looks to the East (Russia) for inspiration, but his first term in office and the experience of Hungary’s embattled Viktor Orban have taught him that, at least rhetorically, it's necessary to talk about the European family sticking together.
Domestically, in a way, Fico doesn't have it easy. In the recent parliamentary elections his party received a stronger mandate than expected. Now he can't blame any problems on anybody else in the coalition, because there isn't anyone else. The ruling party itself, however, is composed of several groups, whose influence Fico must balance: the formerly authentic left-wing politicians, the patriotic left, and two competing groups of entrepreneurs who make the most important decisions.
And on the horizon are the presidential elections in 2014, a post that Fico covets. The crown prince in the party and in the government is Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, a representative of one of the two business groups. Kalinak, for example, voluntarily took on one of the most vexing problems of the Slovak state: the situation of the Roma minority – not with a simple view to restriction and repression, but really as a political, economic, and social question.
The opposition has de facto ceased to exist as a balancing force. Parliament only provides a rubber stamp for the government, even though Fico in the Tyzden interview asserts that parliamentary deputies are thinking beings.
For important decisions the prime minister will directly negotiate with individual lobby or interest groups. How that will look was indicated by the establishment of a new Solidarity and Development Council, which includes representatives of unions, religious organizations, and nonprofits, and employers, entrepreneurs, retirees, and academics.
Lest we have any illusions, one Slovak expert told me, “Procedurally, this modernization of Slovakia won't be pretty." Though more associated with rightist views, this expert had surprisingly been invited by Fico's government to tackle a pressing problem.
Fico basically bypasses parliament, and he works only with the opposition where it suits him. Friendly business groups will take their tithe. But the result doesn't have to be a decimated country.
Whether under pressure from external (the euro crisis) or internal forces (the business sphere and voters) Fico and his people might be able to push forward the solutions to Slovakia's problems.
If they succeed in this attempt at modernization, in the annals of the young state's history they could even surpass in significance the internationally famous reforms of former Finance Minister Ivan Miklos and his boss, former Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, whose achievements have now been sullied by bribery scandals.