THE FICO government was always going to have problems internationally on three fronts: the socialist Smer party's fiscal irresponsibility and dodgy sponsors; Vladimír Mečiar's attempts to subvert the judiciary and commandeer the secret service; and Ján Slota's lowbrow ethnic thuggery.
The government's first fiscal vows - to tax dividends and to raise rates selectively on foreign monopolies - gave the impression that little thought had been given to whether Fico's populist promises would work in practice. When they turned out to be against EU rules, they were quietly dropped, but the impression remained that the government was poorly prepared for the challenges of governance.
That impression has returned full force in recent weeks with the government's petulant response to suggestions that it take a stand on the attacks and insults that have poisoned Slovak and Hungarian relations since the beginning of August. Incredibly, Fico appears to have underestimated the effect that the presence of Slota's far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) in the government would have on international opinion. Or perhaps he was just surprised by the speed at which the clouds rolled in.
Nevertheless, to say, as Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš did on August 30, that Slovakia is the victim of an international conspiracy supported by Hungarian politicians, or as Fico did that Slovakia needs no urging to know how to deal with extremists, is to betray a lamentable ignorance of world opinion, and how to cultivate it.
Over the past decade, Ján Slota has hurled every possible insult at Slovakia's ethnic minorities, from his recipe of a "long whip and small courtyard" for dealing with the country's Roma, to his proposal that Slovaks level Budapest with tanks, not to mention recent reports of his spitting on the Hungarian-speaking patrons of a Bratislava pub, or his envy, expressed in Die Presse, of the Czechs for having deported the Sudeten Germans after World War II (whereas Slovakia did not evict its ethnic Hungarians).
Few politicians would have invited such a Neanderthal to form a government, but even supposing that Fico couldn't have avoided it, a strategy for defusing the inevitable condemnation ought to have been his first task on taking office. Instead, we've seen indignation and belligerence rather than political common sense. When a young girl was beaten up in Nitra for speaking Hungarian, Fico's response should have been to deplore such violence unequivocally, rather than to say that it could have happened anywhere in the world. The Slovak prime minister didn't get around to distancing himself from extremism until the August 29 anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising, by which time a pair of men had been arrested for holding up a sign saying "Death to Hungarians" at a football match in Banská Bystrica, and a young man had been beaten up in Sládkovičovo, again allegedly for speaking Hungarian.
The delay in the Slovak government's response was, quite naturally, used to advantage by the Hungarian government and Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian politicians. Hungarian Coalition Party leader Béla Bugár said he was giving the Slovak government two weeks to defuse the anti-Hungarian mood before appealing to EU bodies to intervene. Hannes Swoboda, the vice-president of the club of socialists in the European Parliament, also zeroed in on Fico's inactivity. "These incidents can damage Slovakia if the government doesn't take an early and very clear stand," he said, adding that Slovakia had to do something by the end of August or possibly face a resolution from the European Parliament. Hungary summoned Slovakia's ambassador to Budapest, Juraj Migaš, and handed him a note of protest.
Had Fico made his August 29 denunciation of extremism two weeks earlier, following the first round of Hungarian flag-burning and anti-Hungarian banners, he would not have exposed his country to such gleeful criticism from its southern neighbour and the euro-socialists. The irony is that the Slovak police have actually taken a very hard line against the hooligans from the outset of the latest row, criminally prosecuting the authors of the "Death to Hungarians" banner and acting quickly on the assaults that were reported. But as Fico seems unable to grasp, it's important not only to act but also to appear to be acting.
It's bad enough if Fico's reticence on the tiff with the Hungarians is rooted in ignorance of how to comport himself while in coalition with Slota. It's even worse if he has just been playing to Slovak voters and feigning indifference to the demands of Slovakia's former masters. Because while ignorance of how to govern can be healed, populism in a leader is inevitably a more dangerous ailment, both for himself and the country he governs.
The most curious aspect of the recent row is that Slota, apart from a pair of sotto voce interviews with foreign newspapers, has been completely silent and has avoided pouring oil on the fire. How much longer he can remain so - this self-confessed drinker of "one or five" beers in public in his home town of Žilina - is a matter of considerable speculation. Because if it's this bad with Slota keeping mum, how much worse will it get when he finally escapes his handlers and ties one on?
On the other hand, the most ominous feature of Bratislava vs Budapest 2006 has been Fico's behaviour and public statements. Less than a decade ago, another Slovak leader was answering foreign criticism of government policy by saying, like Fico last week, that "we are a sovereign government in a sovereign state". His name was Vladimír Mečiar, and he too was extolling Slovakia as a "sovereign, self-determining and free state", and warning the US not to "force our hand with statements and political notices that are incompetent".
To have dropped the ball so badly and not issued a categorical statement condemning extremism weeks ago, when it would have done no harm and possibly a great deal of good, was born either of incompetence or of resentment at being confronted. Neither alternative is good news, just as neither comes as a surprise.
By Tom Nicholson
4. Sep 2006 at 0:00