Last week’s shooting of Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, is the product of a long intensification of political conflict. But beneath Slovakia’s overheated politics is a fundamental hollowness — and an impasse in the neoliberal order built in the 2000s.

Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico at the European Council summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on April 18, 2024. (Kenzo Ribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

How does a political community delineate the boundaries of legitimate political debate? For the twentieth-century German jurist Carl Schmitt, politics was defined by the distinction between friend and enemy. Conceptions of the common good — and conflicts about these conceptions — were, for Schmitt, so at odds that no rational dialogue could resolve them. These were existential questions that could only be resolved by force and, if necessary, violence.

Schmitt’s claim, though radical, raises an important question for any liberal democracy. Where is the boundary between permissible (even if disagreeable) political opinion, and what is an existential fight for the definition of a political community?

These questions came in to view last week after an assassination attempt left Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico fighting for his life. Politicians across the spectrum united in unequivocally condemning the attack against Fico, who leads the left-wing nationalist Smer (Direction) party. But this seeming show of unity concealed much deeper problems at the heart of Slovakia’s political community which has, for more than three decades, struggled to constructively accommodate various forms of dissent against the post-socialist status quo.

The roots of this lie in the depoliticized “end of history” period during which Slovak democracy came of age after the state’s creation in 1993. Victorious after the Cold War, the new liberal elite filled the ranks of the media and (mostly foreign-funded) NGO sector and crowned itself the guardian of the new political order. But when this order came under strain following brutal neoliberal reforms, leading to Fico’s first election victory in 2006, liberals increasingly began to frame political conflicts in existential terms, as struggles between good and evil, rather than accepting them as a central feature of any democracy.

Today uniting a polarized country around a shared sense of nationhood will require a significant amount of soul-searching by all those who have contributed to the delegitimization of unfashionable political views — including those of the prime minister himself. In the coming months, Slovakia will have to not so much save democracy as learn to accept, for the first time, what it entails.

Pointing Fingers

Details of the attack that shook the world on May 15 became fairly clear soon after the event. Fico had been attending a cabinet meeting in the former coal mining town of Handlová, 112 miles from capital Bratislava, as part of his promise to bring government business closer to the people. In between meetings, the premier went to greet supporters outside the local House of Culture where the government was convening. This is when the attacker, a sevety-one-year-old amateur poet and former security guard with eclectic political views, approached Fico and shot him five times, hitting his leg, hand, and stomach. It was not long before information about the attacker’s strong opposition to the government’s recent policies surfaced, leading the police and interior ministry to confirm the attack as politically motivated.

The response was immediate. Fico’s allies blamed the attack on the mainstream media’s witch hunt against the prime minister. Liberal politicians and journalists initially showed an uncharacteristically high degree of self-awareness and refused to point fingers, even if some commentators began to demand the resignation of the interior minister and head of the Slovak intelligence agency (both allies of Fico) for the alleged operational failure of Fico’s security detail.

This restraint, however, soon gave way to liberal righteousness, with many prominent figures pointing to the combative response of Fico’s allies as evidence of their toxicity. What was needed was more “civility” in politics, they insisted, apparently oblivious to an obvious flaw in their argument — that the shooter’s Facebook profile revealed his recent support for the opposition Progressive Slovakia party, the paragon of faux liberal civility. In some social media circles, it was suggested that Fico’s team had exaggerated or even staged the assassination attempt in order to justify a clampdown on civil liberties.

International media, commentariat, and conspiracists all joined in on the hype around the attack, fitting the incident into their existing narratives without showing any interest in the country in which it had taken place. Mainstream media, from Sky News and the Guardian in the UK to Der Spiegel and Politico in continental Europe, came close to blaming Fico himself, attributing the “toxic” and “polarized” atmosphere that led to the attack to the Slovak prime minister’s “extreme positions.” Right-wing culture warriors led by Andrew Tate’s brother Tristan — a one-time resident of Slovakia — speculated that Fico’s opposition to NATO’s policy in Ukraine, as well as his rejection of the recent World Health Organization pandemic accord, made him a target for the “global elite.”

Question of Legitimacy

The attack on Fico came at a time of increasing liberal frustration in Slovakia. In October 2023, Fico returned to power after three years in opposition following a successful election campaign in which his party stood on a culturally conservative but economically left-wing nationalist platform. His grip on power was further strengthened by the results of April’s presidential election, won by Fico’s ally and coalition partner Peter Pellegrini.

Fico’s first months in power had been defined by a remarkable sense of purpose. The new government imposed a windfall tax on bank profits, retained most welfare entitlements while outlining a fiscal consolidation plan that was accepted by the financial markets, and initiated a dynamic trade-oriented foreign policy focused on central and east Asia. The Special Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for prosecuting high-level corruption cases and headed by a prominent opposition politician, was disbanded and its cases transferred to regional prosecutors.

Ostensibly, this was a response to the constitutional-rights violations committed by the office under the previous government, although the office had also notably been investigating several high-ranking members of Smer. Sentences for economic crimes were lowered, but so too were sentences for minor drug-related offences. In the last couple of months, the government had drawn up plans to restructure the public broadcaster RTVS in order to gain more control over the staff appointment process.

The opposition response was haphazard. Michal Šimečka, the young leader of the centrist Progressive Slovakia, the strongest opposition party, took on board the mainstream media’s thinly veiled criticism of his early political performance and shifted to a more aggressive political tone in an effort to neutralize Fico’s policy steamroller. But this mainly involved a series of public demonstrations and hysterical fearmongering about the existential danger of Fico to Slovakia, rather than an alternative political offer with which he could speak to the country as a whole and win its support.

For large sections of the post-socialist liberal milieu, Fico became more than a political opponent — he was a public enemy, preventing the country from moving toward the future.

Take, for example, what happened on May 1, which marks both International Workers’ Day and the anniversary of Slovakia’s entry into the EU in 2004. While Fico spent the night on a shift at a car parts factory to promote new statutory bonuses for nightwork, Šimečka preached online about the benefits of EU membership. These benefits were now under threat, according to Šimečka, due to Fico’s opposition to military aid to Ukraine. For the opposition leader, Fico’s insistence on a negotiated end to the war was pulling the country away from its EU partners — and even into the orbit of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Framing legitimate political questions — such as the debate today around the EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — as existential conflicts about the country’s future has been part of the liberal playbook in Slovakia since the 1990s. It was arguably justified back then. Vladimír Mečiar took advantage of voters’ fears of market liberalization to seize power in 1992 and build an internationally isolated authoritarian regime with close links to organized crime. Under Mečiar, the secret service used to intimidate political opponents, at one point kidnapping the president’s son, and Slovakia began to lag significantly behind Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the process of European integration.

But after Mečiar was finally defeated in 1998, the postponed neoliberal reforms were eventually implemented, largely in preparation for what was now being presented as inevitable EU accession in 2004 and adoption of the euro five years later.

Once this process was completed, resulting in the transfer of a significant amount of government powers away from the state, it seemed that the purpose of the domestic post-socialist liberal project had become largely exhausted. To conceal this fact, the liberals found in Fico a new pariah who, despite having a political platform quite different from Mečiar, was now the one “pandering” to the concerns of rural Slovakia.

In so doing, he was holding the country back from full “transition” — a quintessentially post–Cold War notion, as Croatian philosopher Boris Buden has argued, according to which a formerly socialist European country like Slovakia would take up its rightful place among the “civilized” countries of the democratic West and shun its dark “Eastern” history of communism, if only it did what was expected of it by its new allies.

For large sections of the post-socialist liberal milieu, Fico became more than a political opponent — he was a public enemy, preventing the country from moving toward the future. An embattled and often isolated Fico responded by sharpening his rhetoric, increasingly attacking journalists, political opponents, and NGOs as the years passed. When journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered in 2018, this was widely seen to be a result of the toxic political environment tolerated by Fico, who was then forced to resign.

But Pellegrini’s emphatic victory in April’s presidential election confirmed that, after three years of center-right rule marked by incompetence, infighting, and falling living standards, the liberal political offer was once again not resonating with large parts of the electorate. This brought liberal rhetoric to fever pitch, turning large cities, traditionally opposed to Smer, into hostile environments for anyone publicly declaring their unwillingness to get behind the opposition without reservation. When Smer MP Erik Kaliňák was verbally abused on the streets of Bratislava days after the presidential election, Fico expressed concern that the “frustration fanned by the liberal media” will soon result in the murder of a government politician. Few took his warning seriously then.

Return to Politics?

Ten years ago, the Czech constitutional law scholar Jan Komárek argued that the accession of former socialist states to the EU contributed to the difficulties these states faced in building a “democratic culture.” The reason for this, according to Komárek, was that EU accession criteria turned parliaments of post-socialist states into “approximation machines,” transposing large volumes of EU legislation into national law, while “the political process was not expected to generate its own solutions to problems.”

This was part of a much bigger story, often captured by the “end of history” thesis, in which the new unipolar world led by the United States dramatically circumscribed the range of acceptable political choices. Much of liberal frustration in Eastern Europe today is — self-consciously or not — based on a mistaken assumption about the role liberal democracy was supposed to play after the defeat of Soviet communism. For many Slovak liberals, the revolution of 1989 was meant to entrench a free-market economy and a pro-Western geopolitical orientation, just as the socialist regime had entrenched the opposite.

The more policies were imposed from abroad, the more Slovak national politics withered from within.

To a large extent, this is what happened. But the more policies were imposed from abroad, the more Slovak national politics withered from within. Legitimacy was sought from international partners and foreign NGOs, rather than from domestic deliberation about the national interest. Hence, when Fico began to oppose NATO’s Ukraine strategy in 2022, the opposition’s biggest complaint was that he was undermining Slovakia’s “international reputation.”

The intuitive response of politicians and commentators after the assassination attempt on Fico was to urge unity. While this makes sense in the short-term, in the long-term, the opposite will be needed. Slovakia has to become more political, and embrace what political theorist Chantal Mouffe called “agonistic pluralism” — a conception of politics in which the political “other” is not an “enemy to be destroyed” but an “adversary”; someone “with whose ideas we are going to struggle but whose right to defend those ideas we will not put into question.” As Pellegrini put it lucidly following the shooting, “Slovakia needs to create the conditions for dialogue and democratic political competition.”

What does this mean in practice? Instead of constant fearmongering, liberals would do well to develop a positive vision for the country based, among other things, on an attractive economic and social program. Slovakia’s foreign policy and geopolitical orientation needs to be scrutinized and debated. Reasonable disagreement about the appropriate response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has to be accommodated, without those with reservations about NATO’s approach to the war being labeled “Russian agents.”

But Smer must change, too. If it wants to profile itself as a sovereigntist party, it has to start articulating the concrete ways in which Slovakia’s sovereignty has been hollowed out since 1989, instead of inventing its own foreign agent bogeymen. The outgoing liberal president, Zuzana Čaputová, for example, has over the course of her presidency been routinely described by Fico and his allies as “serving American interests.” The culture war, another method of keeping the political community permanently divided, which has been fanned mostly by Smer and its national-conservative partners, must be reined in.

Democracy requires a defined political community held together by bonds that transcend different conceptions of the common good. It often requires submitting to collective political choices that one may find uncomfortable or even highly objectionable. But there simply is no political community and no democracy without this kind of acceptance. Those in Slovakia who want to live in a democratic society need to accept that not every disagreeable political opinion is a threat to the political community. Refusal to respect such opinion, however, really is.

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