Professor Haughton on Fico Assassination Attempt: Polarization Boosts Charged Political Climate in Slovakia

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a press conference after their meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on July 27, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

In an illuminating interview Professor Tim Haughton assessed the recent assassination attempt targeting Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico and underlined that the camp around Fico has pushed numerous polarizing narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Dr. Tim Haughton, Professor of Comparative and European Politics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability, and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham, stated that the camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. “This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia,” he noted, highlighting the environment that led to the assassination attempt targeting Fico.

In an illuminating interview he gave, on Friday, to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), sheds light on the complex and evolving political landscape of Slovakia. With a deep understanding of Central and Eastern European politics, Professor Haughton provides insightful analysis on the rise of radical right and far-right movements, the influence of populism, and the role of national identity and immigration in shaping political rhetoric. He discusses the significant impact of Robert Fico’s leadership, the challenges facing Slovak democracy, and the broader implications for European politics.

Professor Haughton begins by addressing the characteristics of radical right parties in Slovakia, noting the historical roots of the Slovak National Party and the more recent emergence of neo-fascist parties like those led by Marian Kotleba and Republika. He emphasizes the shift in focus from ethnic Hungarians to non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis, aligning these parties with broader European trends.

Regarding Robert Fico, Professor Haughton highlights the nuanced nature of his political stance, combining leftist economic policies with nationalist rhetoric. According to him, this complexity makes it difficult to categorize Fico simply as a far-right populist. Professor Haughton also delves into the polarization of Slovak politics, exacerbated by populist narratives and the divisive rhetoric surrounding the war in Ukraine.

The assassination attempt on Fico and its aftermath underscore the fragility of democracy and the deep-seated tensions within Slovak society. Professor Haughton discusses the influence of Russian disinformation, the significance of journalist Jan Kuciak’s murder, and the broader discontent with liberal democracy. Through his thoughtful analysis, Professor Haughton paints a comprehensive picture of the challenges and dynamics at play in Slovakia, offering valuable perspectives on the region’s political future.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Tim Haughton with minor edits.

A Strong Stance Against Muslim Immigration Creates a Common Cause

Hungarian government’s anti-immigration billboard says “STOP the refugees” in Budapest, Hungary on April 4, 2018.

Professor Haughton, thank you so very much for joining our interview series. Let me start with the first question. What are the main characteristics of the radical right and far-right movements in Slovakia, and how do they compare to similar movements in other European countries?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Slovakia has a number of radical right parties and movements. For example, the Slovak National Party, which has been a significant political force in Slovakia for the past 30 years, actually traces its roots back to the 19th century. This party has consistently maintained a radical right agenda.

In more recent times, particularly in the past decade, we have seen the emergence of parties that could be labeled as neo-fascist. These include the party led by Marian Kotleba and the party that split off to form Republika. These parties have a much sharper and stronger nationalist message and a more discriminatory stance towards specific minorities.

When comparing these Slovak parties to other radical right parties across Europe, there are notable similarities. Many radical right parties, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have historically focused their criticism on neighboring countries or ethnic groups. For instance, the Slovak National Party has been very critical of ethnic Hungarians in the past. However, this focus has shifted more towards a common criticism of non-European elements, particularly in response to the migration crisis. This has included a strong stance against Muslim immigration into Slovakia, or even the perceived threat of it. This shift aligns these Slovak parties with many other radical right parties in Europe, creating a common cause among them.

How has Robert Fico’s leadership influenced the rise of populism and far-right politics in Slovakia? Additionally, how significant a role, do you think, populism played in the assassination attempt on the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico?

Tim Haughton: I should probably stress at the outset that, while I appreciate speaking to the European Center for Populism Studies, I am not the biggest fan of the term "populism" as a label. I prefer examining populist appeals rather than labeling particular politicians or parties as populist.

When considering broad populist appeals, such as the notion of a pure nation versus a corrupt elite, these have been utilized by Robert Fico over time. It’s also important to note that there have been increasing links between Robert Fico and parties or politicians known for using populist appeals. Fico has certainly played a role in promoting these messages in Slovakia.

Regarding the shooting involving Fico and the role of populist appeals, two key points are worth emphasizing. First, we can distinguish between the individual who was arrested and his motivations, which appeared to center on criticism of Robert Fico’s domestic policies, particularly changes to the state broadcaster. This was highlighted in the video he shared on social media.

Second, it’s essential to understand the broader context of Slovak politics, which has become highly polarized in recent times. The camp around Robert Fico has pushed numerous narratives that could be categorized under the populism label. This polarization has contributed to the charged political atmosphere in Slovakia.

PM Fico and His Party Can Not Be Classified As Far-Right

Protesters hold signs during an anti-government demonstration demanding a change in government in Bratislava, Slovakia on March 16, 2018. Photo: Ventura.

What is the role of immigration and national identity in the political rhetoric of Slovakia’s far-right parties? How do they use these issues to gain support, and what strategies have populist and far-right parties in Slovakia used to gain and maintain political power? How effective have these strategies been?

Tim Haughton: Firstly, I want to emphasize that I wouldn’t classify Robert Fico’s party as far-right. When discussing other parties that fit that description, the theme of immigration is very important. For these radical right parties, it’s not just about actual immigration but often a perceived threat or worry about its cultural and political impact on Slovakia.

This fear of the outside, or fear of the other, is something that far-right parties and politicians have exploited. However, it’s also crucial to note that their appeal hinges significantly on domestic issues. They rally support by focusing on what they perceive as the negative impacts of liberals and progressives on Slovak politics. This opposition to liberal and progressive agendas has been a significant rallying point for the far-right in Slovakia.

In your article ‘The Return of Robert Fico,’ you argued that the fate of democracy was at risk with the ‘Orbanization’ of Slovakia. Can you please elaborate on the future of Slovakian democracy after the assassination attempt?

Tim Haughton: In that particular article, my remarks referred to observations about Orbanization and the situation in Slovakia. Since the election, specifically, we have seen the creation of a government that has implemented measures which conflict with our understanding of liberal democracy. For example, there have been changes to the criminal code, efforts to alter the state broadcaster, and measures that have impacted funding for the NGO sector. This indicates a movement in a concerning direction.

I want to emphasize both the immediate and longer-term reactions to these developments. Initially, I was very concerned because several key politicians close to Fico blamed liberals and progressives, exacerbating the polarization of Slovak society. Efforts by leaders like incoming President Peter Pellegrini and current President Zuzana Čaputová to encourage unity among political party leaders were snubbed by several politicians, which was worrying.

In the last few days, however, the situation appears to have calmed somewhat, which is slightly reassuring. Nevertheless, Slovak politics is at a critical juncture, heavily influenced by Robert Fico himself. He has been the dominant figure in Slovak politics for the past 20 years and controls his political party. Currently, there are differing voices within his party on how to respond to recent events. Some, like the de facto Prime Minister Robert Kaliňák, advocate for a pragmatic approach, while others, like politician Ľuboš Blaha, push a more pro-Russian stance.

Slovakia’s future direction depends significantly on the language and rhetoric used by politicians around Fico. Although the rhetoric has recently toned down, making me feel a bit more optimistic, it’s challenging to judge the situation so soon after these events.

Slovakia Can Not Be Described As a “Black Hole” in Central Europe

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Slovakia a ‘black hole in the center of Europe’ back in 1997. What do you think of this characterization? Does Slovakia still deserve to be labeled as the black hole in the center of Europe?

Tim Haughton: It’s worth emphasizing that Albright came up with that label during the time when Vladimir Mečiar and his government were in power. At that time, Slovakia wasn’t invited to begin accession negotiations to join the European Union in 1997, unlike the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It seemed as if Slovakia was diverging in a different direction, so the label may have been reasonably apt then.

However, it’s important to note that Slovakia has been a member of the European Union for 20 years now. It is more integrated into European structures than some of its Visegrád-4 Group partners. For instance, Slovakia is part of the eurozone, which is not true for all neighboring states. Thus, Slovakia is very much part of the European mainstream.

There have been some recent question marks since Fico took power, particularly regarding Slovakia’s stance on the war in Ukraine. The country has shifted from being a strong advocate and supporter of Ukraine to becoming critical of military involvement under Fico. While this indicates that Slovakia may be currently less aligned with the ideological core of the EU, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a "black hole" in Central Europe.

Strong Polarization of Politics in Slovakia

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

What does the assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico tell us about the political culture, the level of polarization, and populism in Slovakia?

Tim Haughton: So again, I would distinguish between the actual event itself and the reaction to it, which is important. Regarding the event itself, according to what we know about the individual who was arrested and charged for the assassination attempt, he seems to have been motivated by a strong political disagreement with Fico. However, various images and narratives about this individual have circulated on social media, making it difficult to say definitively.

More broadly, the reaction to these events highlights the strong polarization of politics in Slovakia. The country is quite divided. I was reading an article today that examined polling data on a range of political questions and policies introduced by the Fico government. It is very clear that there are significant numbers of people who strongly support the government’s agenda and those who strongly oppose it. What’s striking about this polarization is the strong overlap between the groups in favor of particular measures. This division underscores the significant polarization in Slovak society.

Interior Minister Matus Estok stated that the country was ‘on the doorstep of a civil war’ right after the shooting, suggesting that the assassination attempt on the prime minister confirmed this. Do you believe Slovakia, a member of the European Union and NATO, is truly on the brink of a civil war, or do you find this assertion a bit far-fetched?

Tim Haughton: I don’t think that particular characterization is accurate. Slovakia is a country where there are tensions and strong differences of opinion, but it’s much too strong to suggest that the country is on the verge of civil war. That phrase was uttered in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and was likely driven more by emotional reaction than by careful judgment. While Slovak society is divided, I don’t believe it is accurate to depict it as on the brink of civil war.

Senior officials in Fico’s governing Smer party have accused liberal journalists and opposition politicians of motivating the shooter to open fire. Rudolf Huliak, an ally of the government from the far-right Slovak National Party, claimed progressives and journalists “have Robert Fico’s blood on their hands.” Is there any truth in these accusations?

Tim Haughton: Obviously, that’s a very emotive phrasing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to use such language. If we step back and look at it in a more scholarly way, we can see that polarization in Slovak society has stemmed from the rhetoric and language used by both sides of the political spectrum. The liberal progressive media is very critical of the steps taken by Robert Fico, arguing that it is their right as journalists to call out what they see as wrong and to highlight the harmful actions taken by the Fico government.

However, there are critical voices and certain politicians who assert that we need to stop Robert Fico. We must be careful with this rhetoric, as it can be interpreted as providing some justification for what happened. I don’t think that’s true. This heightened rhetoric creates a context in which the stakes of politics seem much higher, contributing to the polarization of Slovak society and politics.

It Is Challenging to Categorize Fico Definitively

Mr. Fico is pushing a strongly contested overhaul of the judiciary to limit the scope of corruption investigations, reshape the national broadcasting system to purge what the government calls liberal bias, and crack down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, LGBTQ rights, and the power of the European Union, while favoring friendly relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Do you agree that all these points indicate that Fico is a far-right populist leader par excellence or not?

Tim Haughton: I would not classify Robert Fico as a far-right populist politician. Reflecting on his political career and policies, it is challenging to categorize him definitively. At the core of Fico and his party, Smer, are leftist economic policies focused on the welfare state and supporting the poorer segments of society. Many of his socioeconomic measures, such as free travel for pensioners and increased pensions, have populist characteristics but are fundamentally left-leaning.

In recent years, particularly since the migration crisis in 2015, Fico has adopted more nationalist rhetoric. This shift is also reflected in the evolution of his party’s name. Originally called just Smer (meaning "Direction"), it briefly adopted the name Smer – Tretia Cesta (Direction – Third Way), echoing the era of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. In the mid-2000s, it became Smer – Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Social Democracy), emphasizing its social democratic roots. Recently, it has been rebranded as Smer – Slovenská Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Slovak Social Democracy), which conveys both a Slovak version of social democracy and a stronger national emphasis.

This combination of leftist economics, nationalist appeal, and Fico’s leadership makes it difficult to classify his policies neatly. While my explanation may be lengthy, it underscores the complexity of Fico’s political stance. It is essential to recognize this nuance and understand that Robert Fico is not a far-right politician.

Russia Plays Substantial Role in Shaping Debate in Slovakia

An elderly lady is looking at the advertising newspaper of the presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini ahead of elections in Bratislava, Slovakia on April 2, 2024. Photo: Shutterstock.

How have pro-Russian media and the issue of Ukraine shaped Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: Regarding the war in Ukraine, it became a significant theme in domestic Slovak politics leading up to the elections. Robert Fico’s criticism of Western military involvement in the war played an important role in his re-election in 2023. While domestic factors were primarily at play in his 2023 campaign, the Ukraine war did have some influence.

Since taking power, Fico has implemented policies such as halting Slovakia’s military contributions to the war in Ukraine, stating that not another bullet would be sent. However, he has emphasized his support for Ukraine’s reconstruction and economic recovery. For instance, there was a meeting about a month ago in Michalovce, in the far east of Slovakia, where ministers from both the Slovak and Ukrainian governments agreed on deals regarding infrastructure, energy, and other areas.

Opponents of Robert Fico, particularly from the progressive side, have criticized his stance as moving Slovakia away from the European mainstream. They advocate for a stronger pro-Ukrainian position. This division was evident during the Presidential elections in Slovakia earlier this year, highlighting the differing views on military involvement in Ukraine.

Regarding Russia and Russian disinformation, numerous studies suggest that disinformation from Russian sources is influential in Slovakia. A significant number of Slovaks get their news from alternative media sources, many of which are believed to be influenced by Russian interests and funding. This impact on the media sphere translates into people’s views and attitudes, affecting actual politics. While it is challenging to provide concrete scholarly evidence for these influences, there seems to be a substantial role played by Russia in shaping debate and discussion in certain sections of the media. Additionally, Russian influence on social media platforms is also believed to be significant.

In 2018, Fico had to resign as prime minister in the face of enormous street protests following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating government corruption, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. What has been the significance of Kuciak’s murder in Slovakian politics?

Tim Haughton: It was a very significant event with major consequences. It led directly to Robert Fico resigning as Prime Minister in 2018, although he remained the leader of his party. This event also played a crucial role in the defeat of Smer in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Broadly speaking, it has been a pivotal moment often used by anti-Fico forces to mobilize and rally support.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, there were major demonstrations on the streets of Slovakia. The campaign "For a Decent Slovakia" became significant in mobilizing anti-Fico sentiment. This event was also instrumental in bringing together opposition forces after the 2020 election to form a government. It remains a key event in Slovak history, frequently invoked to rally anti-Fico forces. Even six years later, it still has significant resonance.

The Sense of Disappointment with Democracy Is Quite Widespread

Lastly, according to The New York Times, Slovakia has the highest proportion of citizens who view liberal democracy as a threat to their identity and values among all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that shook off communist rule in 1989. Additionally, 27 percent of Slovaks see Russia as a key strategic partner, the highest level in the region. What does this tell us about the political culture of Slovakia compared to other Central and Eastern European countries?

Tim Haughton: This situation highlights some important factors. A significant proportion of the population in Slovakia feels that the system hasn’t delivered or hasn’t delivered well enough for them. This indicates that we need to be aware of the threats and dangers to democracy, as it is fragile in many respects—not just in Slovakia, but in many other countries across the region and even across Europe as a whole.

Concerns about the state of democracy are widespread. The data from Slovakia illustrates underlying tensions, problems, and challenges that many European countries face. The sense of disappointment with democracy is quite widespread. However, I don’t want to exaggerate or suggest that all democracies in Europe are on the verge of collapsing. Rather, it’s important to recognize that a significant portion of the population is dissatisfied with what democracies are delivering.

In Slovakia, this dissatisfaction is particularly evident. When large segments of the electorate are unhappy with the current political system, they may be more open to the appeals of politicians advocating for changes, whether minor or more extensive.

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