A couple of months ago, during a big debate on fascism in Bratislava’s Old Market Hall the philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, darling of the Central European youth, declared: “Hitler wasn’t corrupt. Stalin wasn’t corrupt.” People in the audience shouted: “He was! And so was Stalin!” But true to form, Gaspár Miklós Tamás would not let that stop him. He continued: “No he wasn’t. He was worse than that. The fight against corruption always ends up as a fight against democracy. And yes, I know that I’m swimming against the tide.”
The shadow of a particularly repellent chapter of our history—Slovakia’s wartime dalliance with Hitler—has been hanging over my country since the last election. It has been embraced by thick-necked young men who were able to gain seats in the parliament partly thanks to the skillful way in which their campaign exploited the fear of an alien invasion as well as the corruption of the system, an argument that has, in fact, been a fascist staple. Corruption and the fight against corruption has certainly become the most powerful driver of Slovakia’s public life, as every political reversal in the history of Slovak politics after 1989 has been accompanied by corruption scandals.
All Governments Promised Zero Tolerance in Cases of Corruption, Nothing Happened
In 2001, Vladimír Mečiar’s folk-hero aura faded for good when it was revealed how extensively he had lined his pockets thanks to his political power. His challenger and political rival Mikuláš Dzurinda took office promising zero tolerance, but later, during his second term of office, the rot also set in within his own government. Eventually his lot were caught out in 2001 by a scandal known by the bizarre name of “Gorilla” – after a leaked secret police file, dating a few years back and containing transcripts of conversations secretly recorded in a safe house. They were recordings of encounters between emissaries of oligarchs and politicians, which basically amounted to oligarchs’ instructions to politicians.
This leak unleashed unprecedented anger among the people, who had until then been patiently bearing the heavy burden of neoliberal reforms. In January 2012, the country was swept by mass protests and nobody knew where this eruption of popular anger might lead. But then, just as unexpectedly as they began, the protests came to an end, and with them the era of Mikuláš Dzurinda.
You might have thought that the heated public response to Gorilla was bound to have frightened the entire political class for years to come. However, it was more akin to an alcoholic’s first encounter with delirium tremens. He knows it is high time he stopped drinking, but he no longer has control over it. When Robert Fico became prime minister, he declared that “the slightest suspicion of corruption or cronyism would be sufficient for him to dismiss any government minister within three minutes.”
The fight against corruption has certainly become the most powerful driver of public life, as every political reversal in the history of Slovak politics after 1989 has been accompanied by corruption scandals.
In fact, Robert Fico has not managed to fire a single minister tarred with the suspicion of corruption for many years, let alone within three minutes, least of all his Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, the second most powerful man in the country after the prime minister. This once-charming young man with dark eyes and a black goatee has demonstrably profited from business links to crooks or the Mafia. Is the fact that he has enough material to compromise his entire ruling party the only reason he has remainedin his post for this long?
Corruption Has Been Cementend Into the System of Governance
Be that as it may, even if he wanted to, the prime minister is clearly unable to dismiss either him or the chief of police and other officials in charge, or untie the hands of the police and open to public scrutiny the financial mechanism that is taking over the state—from the big oligarchs to petty Mafiosi—because in that case he would have to dismiss himself, too. Corruption has been cemented into Slovakia’s system of governance so firmly there is no way to uproot it.
The scandal of the apartment complex known as “Bonaparte” on the Castle Hill, where both Kaliňák and Fico own flats, has had great symbolic significance. This is where these politicians have their headquarters, it is their home. A very small careless step led to the leaking of the scandal: an ordinary transaction carried out in a Slovak bank rather than in the safety of an offshore haven. Just like Al Capone, who was tripped up by innocuous tax evasion, a trifle to which the black economy’s big player paid no attention.
The opposition started to mobilize the people to vent their anger under the windows of the luxury complex. The prime minister warned them that they were sowing the wind and would reap the whirlwind, keeping mum about what he himself had sown. Opposition leaders had a small stage built outside the flats and invited bands to play. Refreshment stalls appeared. Still, it did not last long. The government rode out the grumbling under their windows and the public lost interest.
Robert Fico has not managed to fire a single minister tarred with the suspicion of corruption for many years, least of all his Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, the second most powerful man in the country after the prime minister.
Actually, Gáspár Miklós Tamás is right: corruption is not the worst thing that can happen in Slovakia. However horrible it may sound, revolting against a corrupt regime has always been ultimately more dangerous than the corruption itself. Corruption is just one face of cynical politics, although it is very humiliating to tolerate it passively.
The Emperor Fico Has No Clothes
On 18 April, months after the protests outside the Bonaparte complex had quietly died down, two secondary school students, a boy and a girl, still children really, convened an anti-corruption rally and the largest square in Bratislava was filled with a crowd that seemed to have been waiting exactly for this. The students demanded the same thing as many before them: the dismissal of the minister of interior and the chief of police. People marched in the driving rain and stood around in an icy wind, exhilarated by the great turnout.
Corruption is not the worst thing that can happen in Slovakia. However horrible it may sound, revolting against a corrupt regime has always been ultimately more dangerous than the corruption itself.
It was as if the nasty cold weather had unleashed the spirit of November 1989. The fascists crept into their burrows and for the first time in years the square came alive with European flags. The government response followed a day later. Prime Minister Fico made conciliatory noises about respecting citizens. Others pointed out that it was unseemly to conduct politics in the streets – a regrettable, cardinal error! After all, politics was born in the streets or rather—and here is a key difference—in public squares (rather than outside the front door of someone’s house or flat, which in fact constitutes a symbolic threat of violence).
That is why two secondary school students frightened Robert Fico more than the entire opposition. A child has pointed a finger and said out loud what everyone knew. The Emperor has no clothes. It does not matter that many people have said it before, because it is not what is said that matters but who says it. As long as it was just members of parliament, watchdogs, and journalists, Robert Fico knew he was dealing just with the usual suspects whose numbers would never grow. And even if they did, their ranks would be swelled by fascists, or people saying more or less the same things as the fascists. Most people would not trust them, so he had nothing to fear. Yet, when eighteen-year-olds start to speak out, everyone is swept along. A “children’s” protest has the advantage that it can attack corruption from a different position: not that of grown-ups who feel robbed, and feel humiliated for letting themselves be robbed to boot, but that of people who do not even have anything they could be robbed of yet, who have just looked around and have rejected cynicism.
Yet, when eighteen-year-olds start to speak out, everyone is swept along. A “children’s” protest has the advantage that it can attack corruption from a different position: not that of grown-ups who feel robbed, and feel humiliated for letting themselves be robbed to boot, but that of people who do not even have anything they could be robbed of yet, who have just looked around and have rejected cynicism.
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