I was speaking to someone yesterday about the situation with the media in Central Europe, and we breezed, fair quickly, through the Czech Republic and Poland (free and relatively feisty, with no imminent threats to that freedom), as well as Hungary (a comparative disaster with the new media law and heavy-handed Fidesz in power). Then we got to Slovakia. I started to say that I’d heard the situation was much better over at public television under the new government and that most of the press’s woes were financial rather than political (though there has been a recent scandal over secret service wiretapping of journalists). But then I remembered about Robert Fico and the early elections scheduled for next March.
If I was a journalist in Slovakia, I think I’d be pretty worried right now about what the future might hold. As a little reminder, here’s a summary from Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report 2010 (about 2009):
The ruling political elite, courts, and regulatory bodies increased pressure on Slovak media and journalists in 2009 with more sophisticated methods, moving from verbal attacks and disparaging the journalistic profession to taking libel actions. Courts decided these disputes against the media, awarding exorbitant indemnifications to plaintiffs (mostly politicians and judges) that threatened the economic existence of individual media. These trends were reflected in the increasingly negative perception of independent media in Slovakia by domestic as well as foreign watchdog institutions. The legislation adopted in 2009 further deteriorated conditions for free competition and free performance in the journalistic profession.
But it’s not just the media that should be wary. Less than two years ago, Slovak-Hungarian relations were in a tailspin, not much of a shocker after Fico formed a coalition in 2006 that included the Slovak National Party and its infamous leader, Jan Slota. Under their “leadership,” parliament adopted a widely debated new Slovak state language law that instituted fines of up to 5,000 euros for using a minority language in official communication in places where an ethnic minority comprises than less 20 percent of the population. Fico was also given to throwing around comments about “the dangerous irredentism that increasingly breathes on us from across the Danube.” Although the current government managed to quickly restore a semblance of normality to relations with Budapest, it’s easy to see Fico returning the situation back to the depths in which he left it – especially if he chooses to take on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (not exactly known for his restraint).
I know this all didn’t take place in the distant past, but, in general, Slovakia doesn’t appear much in the news (except when it threatens to take down the euro zone). People might not be cognizant of the enormous trepidation that some Slovaks feel over the prospect of Fico’s return and even the possibility that he might win an outright majority. Their only hope at this stage is the sad state of Slovakia’s finances, as everyone (the Slovak finance ministry, the European Commission, banks, etc.) has been slashing forecasts for the country’s growth to low percentage points, if that. An unwillingness to preside by himself over an imploding economy could, one theory goes, force Fico into a coalition with strange bedfellows from the center-right that could modify his behavior.
I doubt any of Fico’s opponents are hoping the economy will tank, but it is just possible that’s what it will take to avert a showdown with Hungary.
Fico photo from Smer party website.