The Change Proved To Be an Illusion by Łukasz Grzesiczak

“President Čaputová has become a lonely liberal island in the middle of a conservative revolution. It soon turned out that this ‘regime change’ was hardly any change at all,” argues the Slovak writer Michal Hvorecký.

Łukasz Grzesiczak: Zuzana Čaputová has been the Slovak President for a year and a half. How do you think she changed Slovakia and Slovak politics?

Michal Hvorecký: President Čaputová is a unique figure not only in Slovak politics, but in the entire region. She stands out through being liberal, green, open-minded, calm and deeply grounded in European values. This has made her very popular in the Czech Republic, for example, where people are joking that their country should be annexed by Slovakia.

It is admirable how quickly and professionally she took over her office. She can present herself well, also in the international arena, and she is extremely hardworking. She often mingles with the people, even now at the time of the coronavirus, which, against the background of the chaos introduced by the government, is very reassuring.

I think, however, that her political influence in Slovakia is relatively small. People like her a lot and have great confidence in her, but in my opinion, this is also to some extent due to the fact that she does not have to make particularly important and difficult decisions.

Perhaps this will change with the conflict between the President and the Prime Minister?

Prime Minister Igor Matovič has made her, which may come as a surprise, the main target of his attacks. The government is currently not coping well with the coronavirus, while the President’s popularity is growing, so Matovič is critizising her in response. This strategy has, however, strongly backfired against him. The question is how this conflict will develop.

It is also interesting to see what direction the grouping from which the President’s party, Progressive Slovakia, originated, will go. They suffered a terrible defeat in the last parliamentary elections, missing the threshold by 926 votes and now have no deputies in parliament. Now their support is at around 5 or 6%, so if they manage to avoid serious mistakes, they may enter parliament in the next elections. The President is not really seen, however, as a representative of that liberal party of Progressives. Many people wonder what will happen if she does not stand for another term, but I think that the people who voted for her in the presidential elections would be unlikely to vote for her in the parliamentary elections.

Why?

Because they do not associate her with any party. It was similar with President Andrej Kiska – he was very popular as a President, but when he founded his own party, he barely managed to enter parliament. Now his party is not doing very well either. In Slovakia, the President has some independent authority.

You speak of the President’s insignificant political influence. Does this mean that Čaputová is not successful as a politician?

No, I would not say that. Her greatest success is perhaps the way she communicates with people, in a way never seen in Slovakia before. This can be seen especially in comparison with the current Prime Minister. She assembled a professional team, she expresses her views with calm and prudence, and that is what people need now. Prime Minister Matovič is an extremely bad leader in this respect – he is happy to attack and critizise people. In contrast, Čaputová gives the impression that she is beyond all that, she does not build her career on attacks, but on calm.

Her greatest success is perhaps the way she communicates with people, in a way never seen in Slovakia before. This can be seen especially in comparison with the current Prime Minister.

She is also very successful, above all, in the area of justice. Her nominee, Mária Kolíková, is the best minister in the new government. When she took office, she was well prepared, she already had a reform proposal. Huge steps forward have been taken in the justice system. This is a sensitive point for Slovak citizens, because after the Kuciak case, people had the feeling that Slovakia was no longer a state under the rule of law. Now for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, public life is being cleansed of corruption. And as a lawyer, the President is actively following and commenting on this reform.

Now for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, public life is being cleansed of corruption. And as a lawyer, the President is actively following and commenting on this reform.

Small gestures are also important, for example, her support for culture, like she is doing during the pandemic through buying books in small bookshops or going to small theaters and thanking the actors. These are small but very strong gestures that people appreciate.

Is there anything for which she could be criticized?

I think that foreign policy could possibly be her weak point. It lacks a deeper view of the relations and connections. But these are trifles, overall, we have a very positive view of her presidency as a whole.

With Čaputová’s victory, many people saw the declaration of pro-European and pro-democratic changes in Slovakia. Meanwhile, today’s Prime Minister is a populist, the far-right-leader Marian Kotleba’s people have 8% support, Progressive Slovakia – as you have already mentioned – is not in parliament, and recently you narrowly avoided a new tightening of the abortion law. What has happened?

As I have already mentioned, people did not see Čaputová as a party representative or as some political wing, but rather as an independent personality – a lawyer, an attorney, a fighter, a human rights and environmental activist.

Igor Matovič’s victory, on the other hand, was built on a very efficient campaign, in which he responded to the need for change in Slovakia. After twelve years of Robert Fico’s rule, Matovič cried out: vote for me, I am the change. People were delighted with him, they trusted his choices as far as his team was concerned, and suddenly it turned out that they voted for Christian fundamentalists or inexperienced evangelizers. The change proved to be an illusion.

People did not see Čaputová as a party representative or as some political wing, but rather as an independent personality – a lawyer, an attorney, a fighter, a human rights and environmental activist.

President Čaputová has become a lonely liberal island in the middle of a conservative revolution. It soon turned out that this ‘regime change’ was hardly any change at all, that Boris Kollár [President of the National Council of the Slovak Republic] was perhaps even much worse than Robert Fico – that he was a corrupt and arrogant mobster. Igor Matovič was an excellent leader of the opposition, but as a representative of the executive power, he does not pass muster at all. Contrary to what he announced, he has completely failed to unite the country towards reforms.

At the moment, therefore, the government is a failure. Support for OĽaNO [Matovič’s party] is moving towards a historical minimum, their star will soon go out, but members of the former SMER, that is to say, Peter Pellegrini and his grouping, are gloating. In fact, the party does not have to do anything, and its popularity is growing. What I fear most is that after all this people in Slovakia will lose faith in change. Because the current change is a change that nobody wants.

In Slovakia the presidential election was won by a woman, in Moldova as well. In Belarus we are witnessing a women’s revolution, and in Poland women have also taken to the streets. Does this mean that women’s time is coming?

Clearly, something is happening. I think Europe is tired of male leaders along the lines of an egocentric macho – someone like Vladimír Mečiar and then Fico in Slovakia. People have had enough of that.

Boris Kollár in Slovakia is of the same ilk. Recently it turned out that two nurses who opposed harassment in a hospital lost their jobs because of him. Public opinion is outraged and fully supports the nurses. One of them worked there for 35 years, she was known and liked, and he had her thrown out just because she did not want to follow his instructions. Kollár is known for having eleven children with ten women – the macho type, an old man who rejects all kinds of feminisms.

Something is happening. I think Europe is tired of male leaders along the lines of an egocentric macho – someone like Vladimír Mečiar and then Fico in Slovakia. People have had enough of that.

And while not so long ago he got away with all this and even had a lot of support among young women, a generational change is now taking place and it is no longer like that. It is high time because what Kollár embodies is an absolutely unacceptable type of politics in the twenty-first century. People’s views are changing – it turns out that most of them no longer have a problem with civil unions or abortion, it is politicians who have a problem with such things.

In addition, young women today are very well organized, they are excellent campaigners, something is definitely changing. Although the participation of women in Slovak politics is still relatively small. We only have 32 female members of parliament out of 150.

Why?

They do not manage to get into parliament. Ironically, under Communism, there had been quotas, which were abolished as a communist relic in 1989. It seemed obvious then that democracy would bring more women into politics. This did not happen, however, and today their participation in politics in Slovakia is growing very slowly. Nevertheless, it was only 29 female members in the last parliament…

Today, the word ‘dziaders’ is becoming increasingly popular in Poland. We usually use it to describe an older man who, in public debate, exploits his privileged position over young women. Do you have your ‘dziadersi’ in Slovakia?

Of course, but probably not to the same extent as in Poland, because the Polish media market is much larger than ours.

I immediately thought of Eugen Korda, who works for the weekly magazine Týždeň. He is a journalist who has been popular for years. He wrote critically about Vladimír Mečiar, made films about him, and Mečiar even attacked him physically. At the same time, he is a typical representative of ‘old school’ guys in the style of an egocentric macho.

The public recently learned that he had a taste for disgusting remarks about women – about their legs, their buttocks. It turns out that he made vulgar sexual suggestions to women. This had not come to light for years until one of his victims revealed what happened to her. This triggered an avalanche of testimonies from other women who were victims of his similar sexist attacks, such as harassment and sexual allusions.

It was very interesting to follow the reaction of young and older journalists. The older ones defended Korda and argued that his actions were absolutely normal and that women were asking for it and enjoying themselves. Young female journalists were outraged.

What happened to the journalist?

The disclosure of those events had no effect on Eugen Korda’s career, and he did not mend his ways in the slightest. When he is on the Prague metro, he photographs women’s legs and continues to publish the photos on his Facebook profile.

I have the impression that Eugen Korda represents a generation that has not understood that the world has changed. I have personally argued with colleagues from his generation who could not understand that this is a problem. It is particularly evident in Slovakia that the older generation of journalists and columnists are unable to understand new current issues, and it is very often the latter that holds power in the media.

How do you look at Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński in Slovakia? Are you jealous of us for having politicians – will you allow me to use a cliché promoted by supporters of the Law and Justice party – who are the only ones able to look after the interests of their nation?

Paradoxically, one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest successes is the fact that Slovak nationalists and neo-fascists love Hungary. They consider Orbán’s Hungary as the model and declare that their parties will soon enjoy such support in Slovakia as Orbán in Hungary. Sometimes, however, they hear Orbán talking about Greater Hungary and are outraged that he supports the Hungarian national minority in southern Slovakia. Their love for the Hungarian Prime Minister is quite complicated.

Paradoxically, one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest successes is the fact that Slovak nationalists and neo-fascists love Hungary. They consider Orbán’s Hungary as the model.

Of course, Jarosław Kaczyński is highly regarded by this fundamentalist part of Slovak politics which looks on Poland with nostalgia.

Of course, Slovaks should look with concern at the actions of Orbán and Kaczyński, but in my opinion, the real danger comes from Russia.

In Slovakia we have a huge problem with the fact that the Russians are simply buying our politicians. An example of this is the former Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko, who travelled to Moscow more often than to Prague, obtained his doctorate there, and lobbied for Russian interests in Brussels. The same applies to the current Speaker, Boris Kollár. This is where I see great dangers for Slovakia.

As far as Hungary and Poland are concerned, Zuzana Čaputová is firmly on the side of the rule of law in the context of Warsaw and Budapest, and Prime Minister Igor Matovič is holding Slovakia on a clearly pro-European course. It should be recalled, however, that Slovakia is a small country in the European Union that does not possess a strong enough voice to have a significant impact on the direction of European policy.

Michal Hvorecký

Michal Hvorecký is a Slovak fiction writer. He is the author of books, which have been translated into twelve languages. He is a civil rights activist and a regular contributor to culture and politics to various daily papers and magazines in Central Europe. He received his Master‘s Degree at the University in Nitra. He previously served as a fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His most recent book is “Tahiti”.

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is a Polish journalist and writer publishing his texts in Czech and Polish journals.

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