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Toxic Political Culture Has Even Some Slovaks Calling Country ‘a Black Hole.’

Toxic Political Culture Has Even Some Slovaks Calling Country ‘a Black Hole.’


More than 1 / 4 century has handed for the reason that United States known as Slovakia a “black gap within the heart of Europe” — an island of autocratic malaise surrounded by spry new democracies. The insult, leveled in 1997 by Secretary of State Madeline Albright in opposition to a rustic that has since joined NATO and the European Union, nonetheless stings.

But some within the Central European nation, appalled by an try final week to assassinate their prime minister, Robert Fico, and the frenzy of political finger-pointing that ensued, together with warnings of civil warfare, are questioning whether or not Ms. Albright was on to one thing.

“We are again in a black gap; I’m undecided we ever obtained out of it,” mentioned Roman Kvasnica, a distinguished Slovak lawyer who denounces a political tradition during which threats and private insults are routine. In his personal authorized work he has confronted quite a few threats, together with a warning that he would get a “bullet within the head” from a tycoon charged with ordering the 2018 homicide of an investigative journalist digging into authorities corruption.

Exasperated by his nation’s divisive struggles to ascertain the rule of legislation and resist the temptations of strongman management, the lawyer shows a portrait of Vaclav Havel, an icon of democratic idealism, on the wall of his nation home in western Slovakia. Mr. Havel served as the primary president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, the state that in 1993 cut up amicably into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia.

Mr. Havel, a former playwright whose writing helped convey down the Berlin Wall and who later was president of the Czech Republic, is a reminder, Mr. Kvasnica mentioned, of the street not taken by Slovakia, which spent a lot of the identical interval below the rule of Vladimir Meciar, an early pioneer of nationalist-tinged populism and a grasp of stoking polarization.

Hopes that Slovak politicians may overcome their venomous feuds pale on Sunday when President-elect Peter Pellegrini introduced that efforts to get opposing events to sit down down collectively and agree on “fundamental guidelines for respectable political battles” had collapsed. Recent days, he mentioned, confirmed that “some politicians merely are usually not in a position to show a fundamental self-reflection, even within the aftermath of such an immense tragedy.”

Peter Kalinak, the deputy prime minister, who’s working the federal government within the absence of the critically wounded Mr. Fico, added to the unease by backing away from officers’ earlier insistence that the gunman was a “lone wolf.”

“The state of affairs appears even worse,” Mr. Kalinak mentioned Sunday at a information convention in Bratislava, the capital. New proof, he mentioned, signifies “there was some type of help when it comes to concealing the clues and {that a} third particular person acted in favor of the perpetrator.”

“All of that is surprising, and for many people it will be a lot simpler if we may discuss just one particular person,” he added.

The solely particular person to date charged within the case is a 71-year-old novice poet, former coal mine employee, stone mason and grocery store safety guard. People who knew him in his hometown, Levice, in central Slovakia, say the person, named solely as Juraj C. by officers, jumped between typically contradictory causes and had no robust affiliation with both of the 2 important political camps.

But he nursed intense grievances towards the entire system, in response to individuals who knew him, which isn’t uncommon in Slovakia.

Of all of the international locations in Central and Eastern Europe that shook off communist rule in 1989, Slovakia has the very best proportion of residents who view liberal democracy as a menace to their identification and values — 43 % in contrast with 15 % within the neighboring Czech Republic — in response to a regional opinion survey launched this month by Globsec, a analysis group based mostly in Bratislava. Support for Russia has declined sharply for the reason that begin of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, however 27 % of Slovaks see it as key strategic companion, the very best degree within the area.

Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, mentioned such views highlighted a deep paradox for Slovakia, which is by many standards a profitable mannequin of transition from communism. It has develop into a producing hub for German carmakers, developed a vibrant and numerous media panorama and develop into so effectively built-in within the European Union that it’s the solely nation within the area to make use of its widespread forex, the euro.

But a lot of its individuals — notably these dwelling outdoors massive cities — really feel left behind and resentful, Mr. Meseznikov mentioned, and are “extra weak than elsewhere to conspiracy theories and narratives that liberal democracy is a menace.”

The image is way the identical in lots of different previously communist international locations and has allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orban in neighboring Hungary to ascertain an more and more authoritarian system. But Slovakia’s politics are notably toxic, swamped by wild conspiracy theories and bile.

The foundations of this had been laid within the Nineteen Nineties when Mr. Meciar shaped what remains to be one of many nation’s two important political blocs: an alliance of right-wing nationalists, enterprise cronies and anti-establishment leftists. All thrived on denouncing their centrist and liberal opponents as enemies prepared to promote out the nation’s pursuits to the West, Mr. Meseznikov mentioned.

“Meciar was a pioneer,” he mentioned. “He was a typical consultant of nationwide populism with an authoritarian strategy, and so is Fico.”

On the day Mr. Fico was shot, Parliament was assembly to endorse an overhaul of public tv to purge what his governing party views as unfair bias in favor of political opponents, a reprise of efforts within the Nineteen Nineties by Mr. Meciar to mute media critics.

The laws was a part of a raft of measures that the European Commission in February mentioned risked doing “irreparable harm” to the rule of legislation. These embrace measures to restrict corruption investigations and impose what critics denounced as Russian-style restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. The authorities opposes navy assist to Ukraine and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, is usually at odds with the European Union and, like Mr. Orban, favors pleasant relations with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

In the run-up to the election final September that returned Mr. Fico, a fixture of Slovak politics for greater than twenty years, to energy, he and his allies took an more and more hostile stance towards the United States and Ukraine, mixed with sympathetic phrases for Russia.

Their statements typically recalled a comment by Mr. Meciar, who, resisting calls for within the Nineteen Nineties that he should change his methods if Slovakia needed to hitch the European Union, held up Russia in its place haven: “in the event that they don’t need us within the West, we’ll go East.”

Dominik Zelinsky, a researcher on the Slovak Academy of Science’s Institute for Sociology, mentioned that, regardless of the depth of the present political battle, there was no threat at this time of Slovakia once more “changing into a whole outsider” adrift from the European Union and NATO.

But, he added, “the frames that the society and its elites use to interpret the battle stay the identical: a alternative between a Western path and being one thing of a bridge between the East and the West, in addition to a alternative between liberal democracy and intolerant, authoritarian authorities.”

When Mr. Fico first grew to become prime minister in 2006, he stood on the left however, needing assist to type a secure authorities, turned to the Slovak National Party, a nationalist grouping that had earlier been allied with Mr. Meciar.

Andrej Danko, the chief of the party, which is now a part of the brand new coalition authorities shaped by Mr. Fico after the September election, mentioned that the try to assassinate Mr. Fico represented the “begin of a political warfare” between the nation’s two opposing camps.

Accused by its critics of stoking harmful tensions and animosity towards the media, the federal government has responded by asserting that the opposite aspect began the combat by blaming Mr. Fico and his allies for the 2018 homicide of the investigative journalist.

“Not solely Robert Fico, however all of us had been labeled murderers,” the deputy prime minister, Mr. Kalinak, informed a Czech newspaper on Saturday, referring to the case. “If I used the identical yardstick now as they did then, I’d say that they’re murderers.”

Iveta Radicova, a sociologist against Mr. Fico who’s a former prime minister, mentioned Slovakia’s woes had been a part of a wider disaster with roots that stretch far past its early stumbles below Mr. Meciar.

“Many democracies are headed towards the black gap,” as international locations from Hungary within the east to the Netherlands within the West succumb to the attraction of nationwide populism, she mentioned. “This shift is occurring all over the place.”

Sara Cincurova and Marek Janiga contributed reporting from Bratislava, Slovakia.

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