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Rule of LawSlovakia

Is Slovakia on a fast track to illiberalism?

January 15, 2024

Since his return to power in 2023, Robert Fico has worked on swift changes to the judiciary that many see as a threat to the rule of law. Will protests on the street and opposition in parliament be enough to stop him?

A large crowd of people holding up placards and EU and Slovak flags at a protest
Since December, there have been protests in towns and cities across SlovakiaImage: Vaclav Salek/CTK/picture alliance

After voters in Slovakia ousted him during the anti-government backlash that followed the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fianceeRobert Fico spent three years in the political wilderness, battered by accusations of corruption and racketeering.

But, within days of returning to power in late October, Fico began pushing fast-track changes to the justice system that many fear pose a threat to the rule of law.

The planned changes would scrap the special prosecutor's office, which oversees high-profile corruption and organized crime cases and has jailed or is investigating dozens of figures close to Fico's Smer party.

Fico arrives at the EU-Western Balkans summit, Brussels, Belgium, December 13, 2023
Fico's haste has alarmed Slovak liberals, as well as the European CommissionImage: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Packaged in the form of amendments to the criminal code, the legislation would also limit the protection of whistleblowers and reduce sentences for financial crimes.

Opposition scrambles to block reform

Opposition parties have been desperately delaying a vote in parliament while they organize protests and possibly a constitutional challenge. The European Commission has also expressed concern.

But the chances appear slim that the opposition will be able to stop Fico from acting against the police, prosecutors, NGOs and media outlets that dismantled and investigated the corruption networks that flourished under his 2012-2018 term in office.

No major change on Slovakia's Ukraine policy

After the September 30 election, worry spiked internationally that the return to power of the nominally left-leaning Smer party would further upend Western unity regarding support for Ukraine.

Although Fico continues to echo pro-Russia rhetoric, Fico has largely refrained from causing trouble abroad, apparently happy to let Hungary's Viktor Orban take the lead in obstructing EU support for Kyiv.

People hold placards and shine cellphones to protest a government plan
Proposals include abolishing the special prosecutors' office, which handles serious crimes such as corruption, organized crime and extremismImage: Jaroslav Novak/TASR via AP/picture alliance

Analysts such as Milan Nic, an Eastern Europe and Russia specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations, suspect that that may be an effort to avoid attracting attention to what he's up to at home.

Focus on domestic policy changes

Though the previous government's pro-Western foreign policy remains largely in place, some of its main domestic policy planks are being ripped up.

The reform of the criminal code would tear down structures put in place in 2020 to clean up the "Mafia state" that the previous Smer government was accused of building.

Fico and former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak faced criminal corruption charges in 2022, before they were controversially dropped six months later.

"The only motive for this is revenge and to ensure impunity for people close to Smer," Michal Simecka, leader of the opposition Progressive Slovakia party, said in a video posted to Facebook after the government approved the amendments to the code in December.

Civil society clampdown

In October, Fico said he planned to end "the era where Slovakia was ruled by nongovernmental organizations." In a report released in December, the international human rights organization Article 19 warned that would Fico's plans would "inevitably curtail" civil society organizations' "capacity to operate freely and engage in public interest issues."

The government is also discussing plans to take control of public media and implement legislation that would clamp down on civil society by designating organizations that receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents."

Simecka, of the Progressive Slovakia party, speaks during an anti-government protest
Simecka says Fico seeks the changes for "revenge" and "to ensure impunity for people close to Smer"Image: Patrik Uhlir/CTK/picture alliance

Juraj Marusiak at the Slovak Academy of Science asserts that "the plan to reform the public media is also a threat to democratic standards."

Protests on the street

The speed at which Fico is moving has, unsurprisingly, alarmed liberals in Slovakia.

As opposition parties engage in delay tactics, large protests have been organized. Rallies across the country in December were followed on January 11 by a protest in Bratislava at which about 20,000 people chanted "Mafia, mafia."

But few anticipate that resistance on Slovakia's streets, in parliament or in court will stay Fico's hand.

"We're just a couple of months into this government's term and there are already thousands on the streets," said Andrej Matisak, an editor at the daily Pravda. "But protests are unlikely to change anything, even if the numbers were to grow to the levels seen in 2018. Fico knows that, should he be unseated again, then this time he'll go to prison."

Opposition from the presidential palace

President Zuzana Caputova, a staunch critic of the prime minister, has pledged to veto the amendment to the criminal code if parliament approves it, just as she did in early January with legislation that would give the government control of the National Statistics Office, a key institution during elections.

Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 1, 2023
President Zuzana Caputova has pledged to veto the amendment to the criminal code if parliament approves itImage: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

But the coalition government has the votes to overturn her objections, meaning that a delay is the best the head of state can manage.

What's more, Caputova is set to leave office soon anyway. Despite retaining popularity, the former liberal activist has said she will not seek a second term in March's presidential election.

Looking to the EU

That leaves Fico's opponents pinning their hopes on Brussels.

EU institutions are wary of the premier's plans. The European Commission has urged Fico to slow down with his fast-tracked reforms. In December, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders pledged on the social media platform X that "we will not hesitate to act if needed."

In a news release in December, the European Public Prosecutor's Office announced that it had concluded that "the proposed amendments ... constitute a serious risk of breaching the rule of law" and put "the Slovak government's intention to fulfill its duty to effectively protect the Union budget ... into question."

That very same question was the legal trigger for Brussels to freeze billions in funds for Hungary and Poland, and there is hope that this could yet prove enough of a threat to the Slovak prime minister to get him to back down.

In Slovakia, however, there's little confidence that the European Union's glacierlike bureaucracy will be able to disrupt Fico's dash towards illiberalism. The prime minister is keenly aware that the European Union failed for years to clamp down on serial abuse of democratic standards by his next-door neighbor, Orban, and he appears undaunted by the threat of EU action.

"The EU can't move quickly, and the government knows that," Matisak said. "They will just continue slowly boiling the frog."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe