When the Polish writer Witold Szabłowski tried, at an event in London we both attended earlier this year, to describe the feeling shared by many people in countries bordering Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, he reached for the image of a hen house being circled by a fox. It was an apt metaphor: the fox quietly huffing and puffing, prowling menacingly, tightening the noose. Beyond the fence, the house of our neighbours lies ransacked; we watch from a distance, our own houses still quiet. But the tension and restlessness inside them has mounted like a pressure cooker.
Ahead of Slovakia’s election last Saturday, the unease among pro-democracy voters was intense. Now the results are in and we watch in sadness, as parties sympathetic to Russia set about trying to form a coalition government.
Slovakia’s border with Ukraine may be short, barely 60 miles in length, but we lived under Russia’s thumb as one of the countries forcibly incorporated into the eastern bloc for more than 40 years. Long enough to leave a deep mark on several generations, but, as it turns out, too short for a large part of the country’s population to remember how terrible it was.
The Smer-SD party came top, winning 23% of the vote. Smer is defined by one man: three-time prime minister and former communist Robert Fico. Fico, who looks set to govern for a fourth time if he can assemble a coalition, is a populist nationalist who makes no secret of his friendliness with the Kremlin, his pro-Russian orientation or the fact that his role model is the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. He speaks publicly about not sending “another bullet” in military aid to Ukraine, cutting funding for NGOs, replacing the president of the police and the attorney general and taking on Brussels.
We have endured five years of political crisis since 2018, when the respected journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered after investigating corruption in Slovak politics. Fico had to resign after the country erupted in mass demonstrations. Charges against him for ties to criminal organisations were eventually dropped.
All of this has exhausted people and rocked public trust in government, institutions and in parliamentary democracy. Yet why, at a time when we feel so fearful about what has happened to Ukraine, would so many Slovak voters want Fico and Smer back in power – leaving us exposed to manipulation, if not worse, by Moscow?
Fico’s law-and-order rhetoric (despite a number of Smer politicians facing corruption charges) plus promises of higher pensions and a halt to the influx of imaginary migrants, no doubt played well with many older voters and people struggling with the cost of living. Even the centrist and pro-European parties jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon. The Hlas party, led by a former Fico ally, and now kingmakers, erected billboards proclaiming: “Stop illegal migration”. We need more migrants to fill vacancies in manufacturing and healthcare but for now we are mostly a transit country for migrants heading for Germany.
Fico’s voters are often those who lived their entire working lives under socialism in occupied Czechoslovakia and later during the wild 1990s under Vladimír Mečiar, when corruption was so rampant Madeleine Albright called Slovakia “the black hole of Europe”.
The country endured a return to corruption during the 10 years of Fico’s government (from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018) and the gradual creep of mafia activity into business and politics. Yet people’s memories appear to have been erased: their children and grandchildren watch helplessly as the clock is turned backwards. Their idea of Slovakia as a tolerant country whose values belong to modern western Europe has vanished.
Disinformation, much of it originating from Kremlin-affiliated entities, is helping to wipe our collective memory. Slovakia is the most conspiratorially minded country in Europe, with 54% of the population believing in conspiracy theories. Just before the election, I heard a group of older women discussing how the Progressive Slovakia party was planning to sell children to “transvestites” and to compulsorily expropriate flats in order that migrants could be accommodated.
In pre-election political mobilisation campaigns young people were urged to go out and vote. Many of them are now going out and packing their bags. Brain drain has long been a problem for us in this country, but now it is no longer just an economic pull.
According to the OECD, 19% of students leave Slovakia to study abroad, compared to the EU average of 4%. At some faculties of Masaryk University in Brno, for example, you will hear more Slovak than Czech. I fear that many of these talented, educated young people will not return home. They see studying abroad as a ticket to life abroad.
More and more pro-western, liberal-oriented people of working age are talking about heading off too. In many cases they have higher education qualifications, live in the larger cities and speak several languages. They may run a business, work for an NGO or have a profession in which they can find a job abroad. What binds them is that they are likely to have voted for liberal democratic parties, especially Progressive Slovakia, which is led by Michal Šimečka, a 39-year-old vice-president of the European parliament with a degree from Oxford. Progressive Slovakia came second in the parliamentary elections with just under 18% of the vote.
Better jobs and higher salaries may be a motivating force. Anecdotally, however, people say they are leaving because they do not want to live in a country whose values have been so disfigured. They are rightly disgusted by corruption, the rise of neo-fascist parties, the dysfunctional courts, the conspiracies, the radical conservatism on social issues, the stagnant reforms, the homophobia and intolerance. The western, liberal world in which they had hoped to develop their potential is receding from them with each new government.
Members of the LGBTIQ+ community and other minorities are also leaving – out of fear. The murder of two young men outside a gay bar in October 2022 did nothing to change the prevailing intolerance; if anything, it made attitudes even more rigid and people from this community no longer feel safe.
It is clear that many young people in Poland are also considering their future, but only a negligible part of the Polish population sides with Russia over Ukraine. In Slovakia, in spite of our historical experience more than 50% of the population leans towards Russia.
I am not surprised that my two teenage sons are considering joining the exodus of Slovakian students. After this election we are encouraging them to do so even more. If the situation in Slovakia deteriorates, at least they will have a chance to live in a country where they can develop their potential in safety. The word “safety” is new, but now firmly resident in our family vocabulary. Behind the flimsy fence of our country, a dangerous wolf is destroying the neighbours, their land and all that lives in it. Our fox is already in the house and has left the door wide open.
Monika Kompaníková is a Slovakian writer and books editor at Denník N. Her 2010 novel Boat Number Five was made into the movie Little Harbour
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