Slovakia is mired in a serious political crisis. Some of Prime Minister Igor Matovic’s coalition partners have quit and others, joined by President Zuzana Caputova, are calling on him to resign, but he is staying put so far. In this interview, Slovak sociologist Michal Vasecka talked about what’s happening in Slovakia one year after elections, similarities between the “populist” Slovak and Czech prime ministers, and where this all is heading.
Ivana Svobodova: Two of the four coalition parties have called on Matovic to resign or they will leave. The reason is not different ideas, but the problematic personality of Matovic, with whom they are refusing to work. What are the difficulties?
Michal Vasecka: […] The main question is what will happen with For the People [the centrist party of former President Andrej Kiska – Transitions note], which currently is basically collapsing, falling apart, and some part of that party may still support the government. The opportunity is also still open for Matovic to try to find a way to leave his post that would make it possible for him to theoretically return as prime minister. The “wolf would be fed while the goat remains intact,” as we say. What this is about is the fact that Matovic is actually not governing politically. People have begun to comprehend that they are witnessing something like a permanent show by him, as if he is some kind of cabaret performer – he mainly posts status updates on Facebook and has no time to govern because of all the entertainment he is providing. For him, what comes first is being the center of attention, always, no matter what the cost. During this pandemic people did not grasp that something like this was even possible, and then they began to realize that it’s the aim of his functioning in office. Administering the country, governance, comes second for him. Everything stands or falls on Matovic's unpredictable behavior in these cabaret performances – we never know what he will do tomorrow, and in reality he very frequently does not know himself, either. This unpredictability is leading people to absolute desperation, because during a pandemic they need at least the elementary certainty that they know what tomorrow will bring.
Did the surprise of the Sputnik vaccine, which suddenly appeared in Slovakia without any of the coalition partners even knowing that it had been bought – was that part of the prime minister's unpredictability?
The Sputnik story was the last straw. When this government first began, many people attempted to assess its pluses and minuses. Matovic’s personality was immediately among the minuses, even when many had no suspicion as to how far that might go. The inexperience of some ministers was also considered a minus. However, at the same time, it was frequently said that they are nice people. I’ll give you an example – Environment Minister Jan Budaj. This is not a person who was prepared to govern, he’s basically an activist who seems nice to people and, unlike previous ministers, he has gone into the field. Matovic knew how to go about bringing interesting people into the government. What was said to be an unambiguous plus in the assessment of the government was the foreign policy direction of Slovakia, which was undertaken in such a way that had basically never been done before. If I am to be provocative, it was done in a way that the Czechs can only envy right now – absolutely pro-European, with a clear stance toward Moscow and China.
[…] Sputnik was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in the sense that all of the positives against which many people had been weighing Matovic’s problematic behavior were suddenly wiped out. What’s more, the prime minister undertook his Sputnik action in an absolutely shocking way. He kept the purchase of Sputnik a secret from his partners and he took a night charter flight from Bratislava to Moscow, a nightmarish action reminiscent of the night of 20–21 August 1968, when another airplane nobody knew about made a flight from Czechoslovakia to Moscow. […]
Be that as it may, last year voters elected Matovic. Those were tense elections full of the hope that Slovakia could be fixed after the murders of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, and the public saw all this evidence of the endless connections of the mafia with the state, about corruption in the justice system and the police. What kind of realizations about politics have come about in the year since the elections?
People were tired of the degree to which clientelism and corruption had flooded Slovakia during the Smer party administration, and in that atmosphere they chose Matovic for his unsophisticated anti-corruption slogan: “Just don’t steal.” If we can guarantee that there will be no more stealing in this country, everything else will fall into place. Now Slovakia has already been, for one year, part of a big experiment conducted by Matovic in which we have already empirically verified that it is not enough not to steal. Not stealing is just one prerequisite for the policies of a good leader. He also must meet the prerequisites in terms of his personality, a certain type of education, some experience, without that it doesn’t work. People also believed the slight alteration in Matovic’s behavior right before the elections. Once he understood that voter preferences were accelerating in his favor and that he could pick up undecided voters at the last minute like a snowball, he abruptly changed his behavior for about 10 days and began to behave like a very consensus-seeking and statesmanlike person. The media even wrote about it at the time: Has Igor Matovic changed? Has he grasped the challenges before him? Are we seeing the a loudmouth from the opposition reborn as a statesman? We know the answer by now: No.
Matovic is frequently spoken of as a populist. He is losing voters through his actions and his popularity is falling fast. What kind of governance is this, how can it be categorized?
It’s quite difficult to classify, because it actually does feature populist elements.
However, he is not a typical populist. He divides society into a corrupted elite and millions of people down below, but he does not do it with the kind of conviction that could be compared with, let’s say, the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement, or Salvini or Le Pen, it’s not in that style. What’s more, he does not play the ethnic card or nationalism, and he has to be given points for that, because in the past Slovakia had become accustomed to prime ministers who played the ethnic card quite frequently.
In the Czech Republic we sometimes have the feeling that Prime Minister Matovic shares common features with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, that they are both heading in the same direction. A micromanager, a chaotic person, somebody who does not respect authority, a party run as if it is his company. Do you see any features in common?
Yes to the chaos and the micromanagement. However, I must admit that in Slovakia we mainly see the differences. Matovic, in that sense, actually is an “ordinary person,” [the ruling OLaNO party's full name is Ordinary People and Independent Personalities – Transitions note], his horizons do not go beyond the district level. I’m not saying this maliciously at all, but to make a long story short, he is a person who isn’t even all that well-oriented in Bratislava. He has no taste, his horizons are limited, and it’s terribly plain to see. Babis, though, is just a bit more educated, he didn’t get through school by cheating, he speaks foreign languages. People from the Czech Republic don’t have to feel any disgust, they’ll never be startled by Babis representing the country abroad badly – never in the sense that he might not speak English well, or that he wouldn’t know how to use the right piece of flatware during a gala dinner. Babis knows who is who. Matovic does not know how to do any of that. His first visit to Brussels is, to this day, legendary in Slovakia. He took selfies on the street next to nice, expensive cars, he went to a restaurant and ate Belgian mussels and enthusiastically published the photos. In French, that little saucepan for mussels is called “la cocotte,” it was written on the dish, and Matovic was awfully amused over what those Belgians were basically eating! [Kokot is Slovak slang for “penis” – Transitions note.]
It’s the courts’ turn
Cleansing the country of corruption has been done on a big scale in Slovakia. We've seen arrests and investigations into judges, business people, police officers, and more findings about corruption from the time of former Prime Minister Robert Fico are coming up. Can this ongoing crisis of government stop all that?
An unbelievable number of people have ended up in custody, so many that several institutions were in danger of becoming paralyzed – and when it comes to the Supreme Court, that has already come to pass, by the way. At one point, so many people had been stripped of their offices or arrested on suspicion of corruption that the chief justice of the Supreme Court warned that the court was approaching the limits of its functionality. Also, in many cases, what is essential is now being achieved: some investigations are finished and now it will greatly depend on how the courts cope. So we will probably be seeing fewer arrests, which, by the way, were frequently done for the cameras to a large extent. I don’t want to say they were not justified, but after all, it’s not necessary to send 20 special forces guys to arrest one lady judge. In the case of the demonstrative arrest of the co-owner of Penta, Jaroslav Hascak, that was reminiscent of the arrest of Pablo Escobar in Latin America, at the time I said all that was missing was a tank, that would have been perfect. However, the answer to your question is: No, I think this cannot be stopped.
Michal Vasecka is a sociologist. He is the program director at the Bratislava Policy Institute and lectures at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts. He chairs the editorial board of the daily newspaper Dennik N and is Slovakia's representative to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance at the Council of Europe.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline