In 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a famous speech inthe Romanian town of Băile Tuşnad, in which he revealed his fascination with “illiberal democracy,” citing Russia and Turkey as role models. The idea is by no means new—Fareed Zakaria popularized the phrase nearly two decades ago in an article in Foreign Affairs—but it remains relevant. Today, the rise of illiberal democracy serves as an apt description of recent political trends, not only in Hungary but also in other post-communist countries in central Europe. One may agree that in Poland, the new ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice, has been openly following the Hungarian path by attempting to take over the country’s constitutional tribunal, subordinate public media, and spread nationalist rhetoric. But in Slovakia, which had largely shaken its illiberal past, the situation today is more complicated.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose leftist-populist party Smer–Social Democracy has won all of the parliamentary elections since 2006, is often compared to Orbán, especially since Fico has become an outspoken critic of EU migration policy and has made anti-Muslim rhetoric central to his campaign for the March parliamentary elections. Fico has vowed on multiple occasions to “never bring even a single Muslim to Slovakia,” and after the terrorist attacks in Paris, he announced that he would monitor “each and every Muslim on the territory of Slovakia.” Until recently, Fico, like Orbán, headed a one-party cabinet, had a majority in the parliament, and faced a divided and lackluster opposition, which would have allowed him to at least attempt to adopt a Hungarian model.

And yet he has not done so. True, Fico lacked enough of a majority in parliament to rewrite the constitution and had to respect the politically independent president, but he did not wage war against the country’s checks and balances, nor did he try to turn the media into a bullhorn for the governing party. In fact, during Fico’s first eight years (2006–2010 and 2012–2016), he has remained very reluctant to introduce any major new reforms, even for health-care, pension, and tax systems. It seems that he has deliberately refrained from tinkering with either the country’s political institutions or with its small economy, which is integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures and predominantly led by German multinationals.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico leaves the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, February 19, 2016.
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Further unlike Orbán, Fico is not unabashedly pro-Russia, despite his sometimes firmly pro-Russian rhetoric. After some hesitation, he backed EU sanctions against Moscow. Also, although Slovakia is almost totally dependent on Russian gas, oil, and nuclear fuel, and shares several economic interests with Moscow, he has been actively searching for new measures to reduce that dependency, such as in the North-South Energy Corridors and with the Eastring gas pipeline. Further, to Russia’s disappointment, he has supported neighboring Ukraine throughout the Russia conflict by reopening its Voyany–Uzhgorod gas pipeline. With the largest transit capacity in the EU (since January 2015, its capacity has been 1,413 million cubic feet a day), the pipeline allows it to cover about one-third of Ukraine’s annual consumption and also provides the easiest and cheapest way for Kiev to buy gas from the West. Although Fico remains publicly critical of the sanctions, arguing that “the sooner they are removed, the better,” his actions do not mark a shift in his stance toward Russia. Now he is seeking to put himself in a better negotiating position over the Russian-backed Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Germany, which, if created, would deprive Slovakia of its crucial role as a major gas transit country.

A better explanation of Fico’s behavior is that he is simply a product, and a perpetuator, of an inefficient and flawed liberal democracy—not of an illiberal one. He has been using the governing party not to truly govern but to stay in power, and consequently is willing to back nearly any measure to appease his electorate rather than implement long-term solutions. At the beginning, Fico’s party, Smer–Social Democracy, was a champion of Tony Blair’s Third Way, a political philosophy focused on a pragmatic reconciliation of liberal and right-wing ideas. But the longer Fico has stayed in politics the more he has played politics. During the party’s first term, he co-governed with radical nationalists and populists from former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s party, a move that raised eyebrows in Brussels and neighboring Hungary. Now, after the parliamentary elections in March, Fico has again opened the door for the nationalists who were invited to join the four-party governing coalition, along with moderate conservatives and the Hungarian minority party, despite striking differences in these parties’ programs.

For Fico, these differences are only a marginal problem. At times, Smer–Social Democracy is conservative, even nationalistic, so long as it helps maintain its popularity among Roman Catholics. Fico has not only used harsh anti-immigration rhetoric and described himself as a protector of Slovakia against the Muslim “deluge” but also supported the traditional definition of marriage in the constitution, which excluded non-heterosexual relationships. But he has also been leftist, especially when it comes to spending money on benefits and relief. Last year, he implemented two of three social welfare improvement packages, which included, among other things, free train rides for students and seniors, a ten percent reduction in value-added tax on some goods, and an increase in the minimum wage. But this was only possible due to the country’s stable macroeconomic results, in particular, strong GDP growth (three percent in the second half of 2015) and the influx of EU structural funds. Further, these rather shallow measures did not address the country’s more pervasive social and economic problems. Despite generally good national trends, unemployment in the eastern, and poorest, part of the country remains at 15 percent, and unemployment among young Slovakians stands at 25 percent. In February, thousands of teachers and nurses took to the streets to protest low salaries (the monthly salary of Slovak teachers is one of the lowest in the EU in relation to the country’s GDP) and to call for deeper changes in the health-care and education systems. These reforms are much needed: Slovakia is dropping in the European ranking’s on quality of health care (out of 35 countries, Slovakia is 24th), and the reputation of its universities ranks near the bottom, somewhere between 600 and 800, on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Fico has not done much to tackle corruption, either. In the last four years, marred by bribery scandals involving Fico’s allies, Slovakia has dropped five places in Transparency International’s corruption index (to 50th, alongside the likes of Bahrain, Croatia, and Hungary). Corruption, nepotism, and lack of transparency, especially in public procurement tenders, are widespread, as is a general distrust of politicians. And no wonder. For eight years, Smer–Social Democracy has packed all the key governmental institutions with allies and loyalists, from the general prosecutor, who is Fico’s former classmate, to the judges, the public audit office, the regulatory authorities, and even the central bank governor. This has been accompanied by the growing political impact of businesses associated with Smer–Social Democracy.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks at a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2014.
Yves Herman / Reuters

With his political message based on a strange mixture of populism, Catholicism, and socialism, and a foreign policy subordinated to the party’s domestic needs, Fico is seen as a foreigner in European social-democratic circles, such as in the Party of European Socialists, made up of similar EU member political parties. It had already suspended Smer–Social Democracy once in 2006 for forming non-socialist coalitions (with nationalists and populists), and last year it was threatening to do so again for Fico’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Of course, from time to time, Fico is enthusiastically pro-European: Slovakia, one of the main beneficiaries of EU funds, joined the eurozone in 2009 under his premiership. Now he is again saying that his new government will respect EU values. And yet, although Slovakia has already accepted 149 Christian refugees from Iraq, he remains brazenly vocal against Germany’s role in solving the migrant crisis and against EU migrant quotas. The great discrepancy between Fico’s rhetoric and his actions may be especially troubling during Slovakia’s term as president of the EU Council in the second half of 2016. However, knowing Fico, he will most likely curb his language and actions and favor a low-key presidency.

Of course, it would be unfair to put all the blame on Fico’s shoulders. Slovakia still has a lot of catching up to do, because unlike the other Visegrad countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—Slovakia never had its own state before the twentieth century.  The first one—the separate Slovak Republic, governed by the Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso (1939–1945)—turned out to be an eager Nazi ally. In the states it belonged to, whether the Kingdom of Hungary (from the eleventh century to 1918) or Czechoslovakia (1918–1993), Slovakia was, for much of that time, the most impoverished, least developed, and least educated part of each.

In the 1990s, when other central European countries were learning to function within the market economy and starting preparations for integration with the EU and NATO, the newly independent Slovakia fell behind again, because Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s eventually authoritarian regime brought economic turmoil and isolated the country politically within Europe. That is why Slovakia only joined NATO in 2004, not five years earlier like its northern and southern neighbors. Today, Mečiar is gone, but, as former Prime Minister Iveta Radičová once told me, “Mečiarism is still alive in people … uncertainty, passiveness, individualism, dependence on the state, desire for a strong leader who will solve every single problem, all provide fertile soil for anxiety and extreme emotions.”

Fico, having learned from Mečiar’s mistakes, mostly plays by democratic rules. Nevertheless, he still borrows from Mečiar’s nationalist and socialist language in order to appeal to the rural poor, who are also often full of nostalgia for the communist era. But it seems that this time, Fico’s plans backfired and helped truly illiberal groups, such as the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia, which openly urges Slovakia’s withdrawal from the EU and NATO, to enter the parliament. Fico may have won the parliamentary elections in March with a modest tally of 28.3 percent overall, but his anti-immigrant rhetoric allowed the People’s Party Our Slovakia to take an astonishing eight percent, enough to not only gain seats for the first time, but to gain 14 out of the 150 available. An increasing drop in support for Fico—it was the lowest since his first parliamentary elections—is also another signal, after his unexpected defeat in the 2014 presidential election, of the possible end of the era of Smer–Social Democracy’s dominance of the Slovak political scene. The election was proof that its pandering agenda alienated both well-educated urban voters in the capital of Bratislava (who supported the liberal, pro-market Freedom and Solidarity Party) and outraged youth from the poorer central and eastern regions (who supported the two nationalist movements, including People’s Party Our Slovakia).

Now Fico is forming a coalition with three parties that arguably have nothing to do with each other. What Fico has proved is that even liberal democracy, if not accompanied by a positive political plan, ambitious program, and credible leaders, can lead to illiberalism.

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  • DARIUSZ KALAN is a freelance correspondent and analyst based in Bratislava. Formerly the head of the Central Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw, he has written for such publications as The National Interest and Prospect Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Dariusz_Kalan.
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