POLITICIANS should observe a consensus to not let extremists enter into the mainstream, and to not use the problems of Roma living in excluded settlements as a tool to gain votes. But there are strong negative feelings towards Roma among the Slovak population and politicians fear they would lose voter support if they were to a adopt a more welcoming approach to the minority, Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst and president of the non-governmental think tank Institute for Public Affairs, said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator about the rise of extremism in Slovakia and its implications for the future.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): One month has passed since Marian Kotleba was elected regional governor of Banská Bystrica. Why do you think he was elected?
Grigorij Mesežnikov (GM): His election surprised me. Between the two [election] rounds I wrote an article in which I tried to put the fact that he made it to the second round into a wider context, and in it I wrote that his victory was practically out of the question. With the advantage of time I see that the arguments I wrote in that article have proven to be right. In Slovakia, radical forms of xenophobia are entering the mainstream. This process started some time ago and Marian Kotleba was part of it, but not the only part. The things that were considered unimaginable to enter the public discourse, mainly connected to Roma issues but also generally some things that sometimes resonate in the public statements of people who are not exactly radicals, are now slowly becoming a tolerable element. And that also goes for the relations with the Roma, and relations with minorities and people of other [sexual] orientation. There is this background of xenophobia. And then comes a politician who says basically the same thing, but in a more radical way. I think that this was the main factor. The fact that people were disappointed with the standard parties is a fact. But in my view there is another very important symptomatic fact - that this disappointment did not result in the election absence of those who participated in the first round. Instead it resulted in support for Kotleba. In my opinion his ideas and his steps were well known to most of the people who voted for him. So they supported a person with a fascist background, and they didn’t mind doing so. These people were also disappointed with the way the standard parties approach Roma problems. But for many it was just a substitute problem. The fact now was confirmed that many of the people who supported Kotleba don’t even live in the vicinity of Roma [settlements], so they have no first-hand experiences.
TSS: After the first round of the election you described a trend which might result in Kotleba’s making it into parliament in the next parliamentary elections. Could this trend be reversed?
GM: We’ll see how other parties behave. In order to be elected to parliament he needs 5 percent of the vote. The latest polls show his party at about 3.5 percent, which means it is likely to receive more public awareness, as parties with about 4 percent more often do. Kotleba will certainly use his post to present his values and to make his party more visible. For the moment the party does not really exist as a standard party, but rather as a group of people with similar ideas, who use various occasions to get visibility and media attention; be it some anniversaries of the wartime Slovak state, or some marches, or when something happens in connection with the Roma. But now that Kotleba was elected governor they have an opportunity for more standard ways too. Now the standard parties will have it much harder vis-à-vis such a competitor.
TSS: Do mainstream parties in Slovakia have a clear approach to minorities?
GM: There are two parties in Slovakia that have a clear approach to minorities - the minority parties, Most–Híd and the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK). No other parties have a programme for minorities, not even the strongest party, the ruling Smer. Of course there is a difference between them and, for instance, the Slovak National Party (SNS), which had a programme for minorities, but a very hostile one. Then there were centre-right parties that acted as if there were no minorities in Slovakia. They did not nourish nationalism, but they also did not act in line with the fact that Slovakia is a multicultural society. Roma issues unfortunately seem to have been a hard nut to crack for mainstream politicians. Perhaps with the exception of Most–Híd and SMK, parties and their representatives have tried to get attention with statements and steps that were problematic. Smer, since the very start, through its chairman [Robert Fico], tried to define itself on Roma problems by addressing people with a critical opinion on the Roma. Then there was the recent case of some SDKÚ politicians in a Roma settlement.
There should be a certain consensus in place: first, to refuse the infiltration of extremism into the mainstream. Simply to not let extremists become part of the political mainstream. Unfortunately this was violated in the 2013 regional elections, in terms of both practical steps and statements. If a politician cannot distinguish between a possibly weak leftist but still democratic candidate and an extremist, then this is a violation of such a consensus. Until then, the consensus was observed, and even the SNS was against Slovak Togetherness [Kotleba’s former party, which was banned], although for different reasons, because it was their competitor. But they tried to keep it out. The second part of the consensus should be that Roma problems should not be used for political gain. This is much harder to achieve because parties think within the framework of election cycles, which are short. Responsible politicians should really think in longer-term categories. The key thing should be solving the problems, and not the number of votes the parties can gain on Roma problems.
TSS: Why do politicians find it hard to be uncompromising about this?
GM: They obviously know that in Slovakia the aversion towards the Roma is very strong. And they fear they could lose their position if they were more welcoming towards the Roma. Besides, in Slovakia there is this popular idea that the more you take away from the Roma, the better things will be and the faster the problems will be solved. That is an incredible mistake. It contradicts every experience from other countries that tackled similar problems. The wider consensus is that people need to receive more in order for their lives to improve, to get a better education and so on. This is how the situation should be solved, rather than taking from the Roma. But the public wants taking, restriction. And politicians, since they think in the short-term categories of election cycles out of fear that they’d lose support, refrain from promoting another, more welcoming approach to the Roma. Some politicians are obviously convinced [about the contrary] too; they have their own racial and nationalist prejudices. But the main factor is voter support.
TSS: What role will this play in the presidential campaign?
GM: There are no radical nationalists among the candidates, so it doesn’t seem that any of them would want to use Roma topics. I think they will show enough common sense and won’t nourish Roma topics. If there was a nationalist, like Kotleba, who would define himself on this topic, others would have to react. But such politicians will most likely not be there. So I don’t expect Roma issues to be a high-profile campaign topic. I think the presidential campaign will be more of a plebiscite about the government. Maybe there will be something if the candidates try to blame each other for Kotleba’s success; Roma topics might come up. But it won’t take the form it would take if there was a radical nationalist [in the race].
TSS: Extremism is entering the mainstream in many European countries. Is Slovakia part of this trend, or is it unique in any way?
GM: It does follow the trend in the sense that the positions of standard parties are weakening vis-à-vis the crisis in the social area too. But the causes of xenophobia in Slovakia are different than in western Europe. Here we have no immigrants from other cultural environments; the main thing is the Roma topic. But the strengthening of nationalism in general affects Slovakia too. In the previous years we had nationalist forces of a more systemic character. SNS of course was a radical nationalist party, but although it worsened the quality of democracy and the atmosphere in the country, it was more or less sticking to the rules; we couldn’t consider it anti-systemic. Now, Kotleba’s party is against the system. If such a party makes it into parliament, then Slovakia will be more similar to, for instance, Hungary and its Jobbik party.
TSS: Will Slovakia go the way of Hungary, as many observers fear?
GM: I am more optimistic here in the sense that Kotleba’s party is unlikely to have 15 percent [like Jobbik has]. In Hungary there are specific factors, mainly strong historical revisionism in the public discourse, stronger traditions of domestic fascism, and more advanced nationalist discourse. After all, Jobbik is a professional party unlike Kotleba’s party, for now. Now there are some individual reports that Kotleba is gaining support among people with higher education. But for the moment I have not noticed any growing popularity of this party in the academic environment. Which doesn’t mean it is out of the question, however. In Hungary, Jobbik is one of the most popular parties among university youths. That is mainly due to the fact that Jobbik is not just a group of street hooligans, but it is a party that managed to build its structures over the years, it managed to group around itself various historians who draw from Hungarian historical revisionism. In Slovakia the situation is a bit more favourable from the point of view of democracy. I hope that Slovakia will not become a country where similar parties will be in such a strong position as Jobbik is in Hungary at the moment. But the situation is alarming. I don’t know whether in Hungary they had a Jobbik representative elected as governor. But I don’t think so. In this respect, Slovakia is way ahead. So my optimism does not mean we shouldn’t be cautious.