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

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the United States labeled Slovakia “a black hole in the center of Europe” – an island of autocratic malaise surrounded by vibrant new democracies. The insult, uttered in 1997 by Secretary of State Madeline Albright against a country that has since joined NATO and the European Union, still hurts.

But some in the central European country, dismayed by last week’s assassination attempt on their prime minister, Robert Fico, and the political scoring frenzy that followed, including warnings of civil war, are wondering whether Ms. Albright was right. .

“We are back in a black hole; I’m not sure we ever got out of it,” said Roman Kvasnica, a prominent Slovak lawyer who denounces a political culture in which threats and personal insults are commonplace. In his own legal work, he has faced numerous threats, including a warning that he would be “shot in the head” by a tycoon accused of ordering the 2018 killing of an investigative journalist investigating government corruption.

Exasperated by his country’s divisive struggles to establish the rule of law and resist the temptations of strong leadership, the lawyer displays a portrait of Vaclav Havel, icon of democratic idealism, on the wall of his home in countryside in western Slovakia. Mr Havel was the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, the state which in 1993 split amicably between the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia.

Mr. Havel, a former playwright whose writings contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and who later served as president of the Czech Republic, recalls, Mr. Kvasnica said, the path not taken by Slovakia, which spent a much of the same period under the reign of Vladimir Meciar, an early pioneer of populism tinged with nationalism and a master in the art of fueling polarization.

Hopes that Slovak politicians could overcome their venomous feuds faded Sunday when President-elect Peter Pellegrini announced that efforts to get opposing parties to sit down together and agree on “the ground rules for decent political battles” had failed. The past few days, he said, have shown that “some politicians are simply not capable of fundamental introspection, even in the aftermath of a tragedy of this magnitude.”

Peter Kalinak, the deputy prime minister, who is leading the government in the absence of the seriously injured Mr. Fico, added to the unease by reversing officials’ previous insistence that the shooter was a “lone wolf.”

“The situation seems even worse,” Kalinak told a news conference in the capital Bratislava on Sunday. New evidence, he said, indicates “that there was some assistance in terms of hiding the evidence and that a third party acted in favor of the perpetrator.”

“This is all shocking, and for many of us it would be a lot easier if we could talk about just one person,” he added.

The only person charged so far in the case is a 71-year-old amateur poet, former coal mine worker, stonemason and supermarket security guard. Those who knew him in his hometown of Levice in central Slovakia say the man, named only as Juraj C. by authorities, oscillated between often conflicting causes and had no no strong affiliation with either of the two main political camps.

But he harbored intense grievances about the entire system, according to those who knew him, which is not uncommon in Slovakia.

Of all the Central and Eastern European countries that got rid of communist rule in 1989, Slovakia has the highest proportion of citizens who view liberal democracy as a threat to their identity and values ​​– 43 percent versus 15 percent. hundred in the neighboring Czech Republic – according to a regional opinion survey published this month by Globsec, a Bratislava-based research group. Support for Russia has declined sharply since the start of Ukraine’s full-scale invasion in 2022, but 27% of Slovaks view it as a key strategic partner, the highest in the region.

Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Bratislava, said such views highlight a deep paradox for Slovakia, which is, by many standards, a successful model of transition from communism. It has become an industrial hub for German automakers, developed a vibrant and diverse media landscape, and integrated so well into the European Union that it is the only country in the region to use its common currency, the ‘euro.

But many of its residents — particularly those living outside major cities — feel left out and resentful, Mr. Meseznikov said, and are “more vulnerable than elsewhere to conspiracy theories and narratives that liberal democracy is a threat.”

The situation is much the same in many other formerly communist countries and has allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orban to establish an increasingly authoritarian system in neighboring Hungary. But Slovak politics are particularly venomous, awash in conspiracy theories and bile.

The groundwork for this approach was laid in the 1990s, when Mr. Meciar formed what is still one of the country’s two main political blocs: an alliance of right-wing nationalists, business cronies and leftists. protesters. All of them managed to denounce their centrist and liberal opponents as enemies ready to sell out the country’s interests to the West, Mr. Meseznikov said.

“Meciar was a pioneer,” he said. “He was a typical representative of national-populism with an authoritarian approach, just like Fico.”

On the day Mr. Fico was shot, Parliament was meeting to approve an overhaul of public television to purge what his ruling party sees as an unfair bias in favor of political opponents, a revival of efforts in 1990s by Mr. Meciar to silence media criticism. .

The legislation was part of a series of measures that the European Commission warned in February risked causing “irreparable damage” to the rule of law. These include measures to limit corruption investigations and impose on non-governmental organizations what critics have denounced as Russian-style restrictions. The government opposes military aid to Ukraine and LGBTQ rights, is often at odds with the European Union and, like Mr. Orban, favors friendly relations with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

In the run-up to elections last September that returned Mr. Fico, a fixture in Slovak politics for more than two decades, to power, he and his allies took an increasingly hostile stance toward the United States and Ukraine, combined with sympathetic remarks. for Russia.

Their statements often recall a remark by Mr. Meciar who, resisting demands in the 1990s that he had to change his ways if Slovakia wanted to join the European Union, presented Russia as an alternative refuge: “if they don’t want to not from us in the European Union, the West, we will go to the East.

Dominik Zelinsky, a researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, said that despite the intensity of the current political conflict, there was no risk today that Slovakia “will become an outsider again complete”, adrift of the European Union and NATO.

But, he added, “the frameworks that society and its elites use to interpret the conflict remain the same: a choice between a Western path and a sort of bridge between East and West, as well as a choice between a liberal democracy and a liberal democracy. and an illiberal and authoritarian government.

When Mr. Fico first became prime minister in 2006, he was on the left but, needing help to form a stable government, he turned to the Slovak National Party, a nationalist group that had previously allied with Mr. Meciar.

Andrej Danko, the party leader, who is now part of the new coalition government formed by Mr. Fico after September’s elections, said the attempted assassination of Mr. Fico represented the “start of a political war.” between the two parties of the country. opposing camps.

Accused by its critics of stoking dangerous tensions and animosity toward the media, the government responded by saying that the other side had started the fight by accusing Mr. Fico and his allies of the murder of the investigative journalist in 2018.

“Not only Robert Fico, but all of us have been called murderers,” Deputy Prime Minister Kalinak told a Czech newspaper on Saturday, referring to the case. “If I used the same criteria today as I did then, I would say they were murderers.”

Iveta Radicova, a sociologist opposed to Mr. Fico and a former prime minister, said Slovakia’s woes were part of a broader crisis whose roots extend far beyond its early stumbles under Mr. Meciar.

“Many democracies are heading toward the black hole,” as countries from Hungary in the east to the Netherlands in the west succumb to the lure of national populism, she said. “This change is happening everywhere. »

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

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