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East European Perspectives: May 29, 2002

29 May 2002, Volume  4, Number  11
SLOVAKIA'S ROBERT FICO: A MAN TO BE TRUSTED OR FEARED?

Slovakia goes to the polls this fall. Following hard on the heels of the elections come the Prague NATO summit in November and the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in December. Slovakia's chances of joining both the EU and NATO will depend on the election results and the postelection government-formation process. Much discussion has focussed on the possible return to power of the three-time prime minister and leader of Slovakia's most popular party, Vladimir Meciar (for example, Rhodes, 2001). Barring a miraculous change in the opinion polls, Meciar's party, Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), will not be able to form a majority government by itself, but it looks set to win between 20 and 30 percent of the vote, ensuring its position as the largest party in the Slovak parliament. Western politicians and diplomats fear the return of the three-time prime minister. During the third Meciar-led government (1994-98), Slovakia went from being an almost-certain first-wave entrant for NATO and the EU into becoming the "black sheep of Central Europe" (Haughton, 2001b). The threat of Meciar's return to power and the desire to find an "anybody but Meciar" candidate has led NATO and EU members to court Slovakia's most popular politician and the leader and founder of Smer (Direction), Robert Fico.

Fico is being feted in Western capitals, invited to meet with officials and experts. He was in London in December, for example, meeting a variety of officials including civil servants with expertise in fighting organized crime. In March, Fico visited Washington, again in part to meet with officials with knowledge of the fight against corruption ("Pravda", 18 March 2002). The ostensible reason for the trip, however, masked the underlining purpose of inviting Fico to the United States. Given the contrast between the cold shoulder treatment accorded to Meciar, who also visited the U.S. in March, and the "open door" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2002) shown to Smer's leader and founder at the same time, it is difficult not to conclude that Fico is being groomed by Western officials as the alternative to the three-time prime minister. The U.S. Embassy in Bratislava assisted in the preparations for the visit, which involved meetings with U.S. congressmen and officials from the State Department ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2002). Fico is seen as the palatable alternative to Meciar, but what kind of dishes is he preparing to cook up for Slovakia? Is he a man to be trusted or feared?

When Fico created Smer in late 1999, he justified the need for another political party by arguing that Slovakia needed a new face and a new direction. In a speech outlining the rationale for a new party given days before Smer was formally launched, he expressed his belief in the need for a "new political generation (not necessarily just young), one that considers politics to be a service, a duty, and not an instrument of pursuing party interests"(Fico, 1999).

Fico and his party are difficult to categorize in ideological terms, not least because he launched his party as a nonideological formation. His expressed desire is to find "pragmatic solutions, which are not colored by ideology" ("Pravda," 8 February 2001). "Slovakia does not need left- or right-wing policies," he declared in February 2000, "[but] she requires strong pragmatic politics capable of solving problems" ("Pravda," 2 February 2000). The party's political program describes the party's objectives pithily as "poriadok, spravodlivost, a stabilitu." The second and third of these are relatively easy to translate ("justice" and "stability," respectively). But the first, which can be simply translated as "order," carries both a meaning of organized according to the rules and has echoes of the so-called "normalization" period which followed the Prague Spring in 1968 (Williams, 1997).

Central to his nonideological vision is his desire to see not party hacks but experts in government ("Parlamentny kurier," June-July 2001 p. 5). Fico's desire to see professionals with expertise enter government raises questions. He has stressed that if his party is strong enough, he would like Smer to go into government and in particular hold an economics portfolio. ("Pravda," 11 December 2000). But to what extent would Fico be able to control his ministers from parliament/party headquarters? Moreover, without the authority a politician derives from being a leading party politician, usually elected by both party and electorate, would these experts have the political capital to make the necessary awkward decisions that are the bread and butter of government? And what of Fico himself? When asked in December what cabinet posts he, as someone with a legal background, would want, Fico replied interior minister or justice minister -- carefully avoiding mention of the top job (Fico, 2001). Until recently, he had used the whole gamut of convoluted language to avoid answering the question whether or he wants to be premier ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000), but in interviews with both Reuters and "Hospodarske noviny" at the end of April he confirmed what his previously thinly disguised circumlocutions had tried to conceal: his naked ambition to be the next Slovak prime minister ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2002).

Fico's belief in the need to extricate his country from ideological politics, however, sits uncomfortably with his declarations in December 2001 emphasizing his desire to emulate Tony Blair's Third Way or Gerhard Schroeder's "Neue Mitte" ("Sme," 17 December 2001). Although both the Blairite project and the Schroeder vision have eschewed the old ideologies of left and right, they are still recognizably center-left in origin, encapsulated in Blair's phrase of "traditional values in a modern setting." There are also echoes of Third Way politics in Fico's declaration that he does not want to paint his party as one promoting compromise. Indeed, in an interview in December 1999, he was at pains to emphasize his party's commitment to the "tough/harsh solutions" ("tvrde risenia") he believes Slovakia needs ("Sme," 11 December 1999), reminiscent of Blair's talk of tough choices. Perhaps the fondness for Blairite language belies Fico's own background; he was first elected to parliament as a member of the postcommunist Party of the Democratic Left (SDL).

A more cynical view might suggest Fico's sudden conversion to Third Way politics is a belief it could bolster his popularity. Smer's creator has been adept at pressing the right buttons for popularity, including anti-Roma and anti-Hungarian sentiment (Haughton 2000, Haughton 2001a). In January 2000, for instance, Smer's leader tabled an amendment to the Social Benefits Law proposing that "citizens who travel for speculative reasons to a foreign country with the aim of demanding political asylum there would, on their return to Slovakia, have their benefits payments stopped for 12 months." ("The Slovak Spectator," 24-30 January 2000). Last year, Fico lambasted the great mass of Roma "who do not want anything except to lie in bed and survive on social security" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May 2001). Fico has also attacked the main ethnic Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) for its regionally based politics. ("Pravda," 8 February 2001; "The Slovak Spectator," 31 May-6 June 1999). He is swift both to distinguish between the ethnic Hungarian population living in Slovakia and their leaders, ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000) but also to emphasize that Smer can work with SMK, as their cooperation in the eastern Slovak town of Kosice demonstrates (Fico, 2001). Nonetheless, Fico has ruled out postelection cooperation with the SMK unless that party "distances itself" from defending "a foreign country's [i.e. Hungary's] interests" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2002).

Given his talk of nonideological politics and the use of what could be described as the ethnic card, is Fico just an opportunist and/or a populist? The fact that the stress on the Third Way has been replaced by the catchy slogan "100 decisions in 100 days" on the party's website adds fuel to the opportunist/populist argument (www.strana-smer.sk, site visited 29 April 2002). The term populist is a slippery concept. Cas Mudde defined political populism as "a political style that builds upon a rigid dichotomy of 'the pure people' versus 'the corrupt elite'" (Mudde, 2000, p. 37). "Rather than being truly political," argues Mudde, "political populists are reluctantly political, considering politics a necessary evil." Fico does not fit neatly into those categories. He neither dichotomizes the Slovak populace nor sees politics as a reluctant activity. Fico himself has categorically denied being a populist. Populism for Smer's leader is proposing measures to change the Slovak national anthem or to campaign against prostitutes and homosexuals; themes which do not concern him ("Parlamentny kurier," June-July 2001, p. 8). If populism is listening to the people and reflecting their desires, Fico would plead guilty. He is keen to highlight his regular trips around Slovakia, working from noon until night to meet with his fellow citizens.

Is Fico rather an opportunist who seeks power? The best explanation of Fico's popularity lies with the unpopularity of the current Slovak government. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's government is a coalition of ideologically diverse parties incorporating former Communists, economic liberals, Christian Democrats, and ethnic Hungarians initially glued together not just by a shared loathing of Meciar but also by the desire to see Slovakia become a member of the EU and NATO. Despite the progress made by the government, broken promises, incessant infighting between the coalition partners, and more than a whiff of corruption have induced disappointment among the Slovak electorate. Slovak politics became increasingly polarized throughout the 1990s. In the one camp stands Meciar and his allies from the 1994-98 government; in the other the parties of the then-opposition who went on to become the government after the 1998 election. Most of those voters who cast their ballot for the governing parties in 1998 would never dream of voting for Meciar, but, having become disappointed with Dzurinda's government, some of their votes have been up for grabs. Fico, who has consistently topped the most trusted and most popular Slovak politician tables (Butorova et al. 2001; "Hospodarske noviny," 23 April 2002), stepped successfully into this void with his talk of new faces and a new direction for Slovak politics. Initially the party's support fluctuated between 10 and 25 percent, but it appears to have stabilized at around 15 percent (Butorova, 2001; "Pravda," 16 May 2001; "Sme," 19 April 2000 and 4 May 2001; "Pravda," 19 April 2002). Fico is not alone in attempting to plow this fertile furrow. Media magnate Pavol Rusko, dubbed "the Slovak Berlusconi," launched his own party, the New Citizens' Alliance (ANO), in April 2001, employing much the same rhetoric of new faces and new directions ("Respekt," 17-22 April 2001). Recent research conducted by Obcianske OKO suggests the message of novelty is going down best among first-time voters ("Narodna obroda," 25 April 2002).

Fico's rhetoric extolling the necessity of new faces does not accord that well with Fico himself. He is not an altogether new face in Slovak politics, having entered parliament as a deputy for the SDL in 1992. When asked in an interview whether he was a "new face," he replied by emphasizing that his entry into politics came after the tumultuous events of 1989-92 ("Parlamentny kurier," June-July 2001, p.6). Fico has been a high-profile politician since the mid-1990s. A popular and charismatic figure, he was a candidate for the party's chairmanship in 1996 but withdrew his candidacy at the last minute in favor of Lubomir Fogas, who lost to Josef Migas in the leadership election. Such an 11th-hour withdrawal bred many rumors of dirty deals, bribery, and compromising photographs. The reality appears to be more prosaic than the stories told by journalists in the bars of Bratislava: Although Fico was popular among the rank and file of SDL, he did not command much support within the higher echelons of the party and could not match the funds which could be brought to the party by Fogas or Migas ("Slovo," 16�22 June 1999).

After relinquishing his opportunity to lead SDL, he continued to receive considerable coverage in the Slovak media, thanks in part to his position as Slovakia's representative at the European Court of Human Rights from 1994 to early 2000 (he was requested to leave after forming his own political party). ("Sme," 3 March 2000) His most high-profile case was that of Frantisek Gaulieder, who was stripped of his parliamentary mandate when he announced his intention to leave HZDS in 1996. Although Gaulieder believes Fico did nothing to help his cause (Gaulieder, 2000), the case accorded Fico exposure that helped bolster his image and popularity in Slovakia ("Sme," 24 February 2000).

The reasons for Fico's departure from SDL and the governing coalition remain unclear. He has been at pains to stress his departure from SDL had nothing to do with a failure to secure a government job after the 1998 election ("Sme," 11 December 1999) despite the fact that he was still professing his wholehearted loyalty to the party until the government seats were carved up in the postelection bargaining procedure. Moreover, he declared that his ambitions lay purely in the professional sphere (i.e. in the law) ("Pravda," 11 June 1999; "Zurnal Radia Twist," 21 October 1998). He expressed his reason for leaving SDL was his unhappiness with the style of politics prevailing in the governing coalition ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000), although he failed to elaborate on this statement. Does Fico's departure rather signify his opportunistic inclinations, having identified a group of disaffected voters who would never vote for Meciar and his allies, but felt let down by the governing coalition? Fico denied that leaving SDL was an easy decision. "I do not know whether it is an easier path to found a new political party, to find the financial means for it and to travel from dawn until dusk around Slovakia in order to fulfil some kind of political ambition, or to sit quietly in SDL's parliamentary party and wait" ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000).

Stung by the inevitable criticism that Smer was no more than a one-man-band ego trip, Fico has spent much of the subsequent two and a half years building up a party apparatus. In December 1999 he was keen to assert the new party was not just his party; other leading figures in the party were also people of substance and standing ("Pravda," 17 December 1999). Given his rhetoric of the need for new faces, it would be perverse if the higher echelons of his party were populated by well-known figures, but it seems clear the other leading figures in Smer such as Dusan Caplovic, Monika Benova, and Milan Murgas remain very much in their leader's shadow ("Sme," 7 May 2001). Fico's cause has been helped greatly by the recruitment to the cause of one of the most talented media figures in Slovakia and the man who claimed to be able to produce cola from water, Fedor Flasik ("Sme," 30 April 2001).

Thanks in part to Flasik, Fico has launched an aggressive election campaign ("Sme," 5 April 2002). In early April, posters went up all around Bratislava declaring, "As they stole for Meciar, so they are stealing for Dzurinda." These billboards followed a campaign depicting three dogs. "Who," ran the slogan, "is the best defender of Slovakia's interests?" A small, scrawny-looking mutt called Miki (Dzurinda), a bulldog called Vlado (Meciar), or a large, friendly-looking "Slovak" dog called Robo (Fico)? Fico's desire to attack both Dzurinda and Meciar is clear from his TV campaign, in which Monika Benova stands in a kitchen holding up two dirty T-shirts, one emblazoned with a picture of Meciar and the other with Dzurinda. Like an advertisement for washing powder, Benova's distress for the state of her dirty laundry is only removed when Fico appears offering a new type of washing powder called "Poriadok" which will remove all the stains.

Speculation is a hazardous sport for political scientists. The question that needs to be raised, however, is what will Fico do after the elections in September 2002. Assuming Smer manages to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed to gain representation in parliament (which looks a cast-iron certainty), with whom would he and his party be prepared to form a coalition?

In the immediate aftermath of Smer's launch in 1999, there was much speculation about possible cooperation between Fico and Meciar. Although Fico has consistently refused to exclude the possibility of some form of cooperation with HZDS, stressing that "[i]t would be a great mistake" to ignore a party which has the support of one-quarter of Slovak voters ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000; "Sme," 22 May 2000), he has been categorical in his desire to exclude the possibility of cooperation with Meciar ("Pravda," 12 December 2001), declaring the HZDS with Meciar at the helm has "no coalition potential" ("Plus 7 Dni," 6 March 2000). Relations between the two party leaders have deteriorated. After meeting Fico in January 2000, Meciar declared his trust in Smer's founder, but 12 months later the HZDS's leader described Fico as a "hopeless careerist" ("Sme," 3 May 2001). In response to Fico's declaration that he would not be an "elevator to power for Mr. Meciar," the HZDS leader responded that his party would in no way be an "elevator for power for Mr. Fico" ("Sme," 22 May 2000).

Fico's desire to exclude the possibility of postelection cooperation with Meciar stems from naked self-interest. "For me it is important that as a 37-year-old politician I do not put an end to my political career," he argued, by going into a coalition with a man who is "absolutely unacceptable" in Europe ("Sme," 7 August 2001). For many within the higher echelons of both NATO and the EU, Meciar is THE bogeyman. The prospect of a HZDS-led government in Slovakia is unacceptable for both NATO and the EU. In consequence, western diplomats and politicians have latched on to Fico as an alternative to the former prime minister and have been courting him relentlessly. Slovakia's president, Rudolf Schuster, who desperately wants to secure his place in history as the head of state who took his country into the North Atlantic alliance, has hinted he would encourage a coalition to be formed which would not jeopardize Slovakia's chances ("RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2002). Smer's leader has responded by making all the right noises. Fico was keen to stress to American congressmen in March, for example, that he does not rule out postelection cooperation with anyone except Meciar ("Pravda," 16 March 2002). The view among some Western diplomats in Bratislava is that Fico, for all his populist rhetoric and vague policy prescriptions, is someone on whom the West can rely. He did, after all, state openly in Washington in March that he will not do anything to harm Slovakia's chances of joining NATO ("Pravda," 18 March 2002). Assuming the support for Slovak political parties remain at the same level until the elections (HZDS, 30.3 percent; Smer, 16.8, SMK, 13.8; Prime Minister Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic Christian Union 11.6; the Christian Democratic Movement, 5.1; and ANO, 5.1 percent, see "Pravda," 13 April 2002), it is inconceivable a majority government excluding HZDS could be formed without the participation of Robert Fico's Smer.

The West is taking a risk backing an unpredictable horse. The saving grace, however, may be Fico's ego. Fico would love to be a leading minister (ideally prime minister) at the NATO and EU summits, signing the treaties which would mark the crowning moment of 10 years of Slovak independence. It is unlikely he will want to go down in history as the man who spoiled Slovakia's chances of joining two of the Western world's best clubs.

(Dr. Tim Haughton is Lecturer in Comparative/International Politics, University of Sheffield.)


SOURCES Butorova, Z., Gyarfasova, O., Velsic, M. 2001, "Public Opinion" in Meseznikov, G., Kollar, M., Nicholson, T. (eds.), Slovakia 2000: A Global Report on the State of Society, (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs), pp. 199-232.

Fico, R., 2001, discussion with the author, London, 11 December.

Fico, R., 1999, "Rationale for a New Political Party" speech delivered to the Slovak Studies Day, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, 27 November 1999, reprinted in Williams, K., 2002, (ed.) Slovakia after Communism and Meciarism, (London: SSEES), pp. 21-4.

Gaulieder, F., 2000, interviewed by the author, Galanta, 21 June.

Haughton, T., 2000, "Fico: une nouvelle direction?" in "Regards sur l'Est," 21, May-June, pp. 24-5.

Haughton, T., 2001a, "Does Slovakia Need a Facelift?" in "Central European Review," vol. 3, no. 20, posted at (www.ce-review.org/01/20/haughton20.html).

Haughton, T., 2001b, "HZDS: The Ideology, Organisation and Support Base of Slovakia's Most Successful Party" in "Europe-Asia Studies," vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 745-769.

"Hospodarske noviny," (Bratislava), 1998-2002.

Mudde, C. 2000, "In the Name of the Peasantry, the Proletariat, and the People: Populisms in Eastern Europe" in "East European Politics and Societies," vol. 14, no.2, pp. 33-53.

"Narodna obroda," (Bratislava), 1999-2002.

"Parlamentny kurier," (Bratislava), 1999-2002.

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"Pravda," (Bratislava), 1998-2002.

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Rhodes, M. (2001), "Slovakia After Meciar: A Midterm Report" in "Problems of Post-Communism," 48, 4, (July/August 2001), pp. 3-13.

"The Slovak Spectator," (Bratislava), 1998-2002.

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Williams, K., 1997, The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics 1968-1970, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press).

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