SLOVAK WORD OF THE WEEK

Kamionisti

TRUCKERS are perhaps the least likely profession you would expect to lead a social movement of any type. Yet there the “kamionisti” were, blocking the streets of Slovak cities, talking to the media about the hardships brought upon them by the new toll system, gaining the support of people who have nothing in common with truck transport, and eventually forcing Prime Minister Fico to surrender to most of their demands, a feat the opposition, the media, or even Fico’s own coalition partners can only envy.

TRUCKERS are perhaps the least likely profession you would expect to lead a social movement of any type. Yet there the “kamionisti” were, blocking the streets of Slovak cities, talking to the media about the hardships brought upon them by the new toll system, gaining the support of people who have nothing in common with truck transport, and eventually forcing Prime Minister Fico to surrender to most of their demands, a feat the opposition, the media, or even Fico’s own coalition partners can only envy.

Two questions are especially interesting – why kamionisti and how come they succeeded? There are many groups in Slovakia that have a reason to be angry. Teachers have to teach from old textbooks because education minister Mikolaj mismanaged school reform. Judges with decades of experience in commercial law are being transferred to try criminal cases and vice versa, or have their office temporarily suspended altogether based on absurd disciplinary charges, if they dare stand up to Supreme Court boss Štefan Harabin or one of his henchmen in the judiciary.

Media have to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to coalition politicians for alleged defamation, not to mention that “sleazy snakes”, “prostitutes”, or “hyenas” are the prime minister’s commonly used names for journalists, for whom he authored a restrictive new press law. Policemen have to be upset with Interior Minister Kaliňák for the way he handled the case of explosive shipped to Dublin, or the escape of yet another suspect from police detention, because it makes them all the laughing stock of the country. And the list could go on and on.

So why are kamionisti the first ones to take really dramatic action? First, professionals can protest all they want, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to make people listen to you when you’re sitting in a truck. But even more importantly, the truckers had strong motivation – their principal source of income was being threatened – so they really had little to lose. Teachers get their regular pay, so do judges that don’t make a fuss, media fines are paid by publishers, and police officers can always hope that with a new minister things will get better. Judicial independence and freedom of speech are nice concepts but in a country used to all forms of totality and state dysfunction they don’t easily get people excited.

Losing your living, that’s a different matter altogether. It can easily be argued that for many people one of the principal reasons for supporting the Velvet Revolution was a desire to share the living standards of their Austrian neighbours. And that the Mečiar government fell in 1998 because people saw in him an obstacle to the country’s entry into the EU, another symbol of prosperity.

What was for the truckers a matter of sheer survival became for others an act of resistance. Slovakia sees a new corruption scandal almost every week, yet no top politician has ever ended up in jail. Coalition party bosses Slota and Mečiar enjoy a life of luxury with no credible way of explaining their wealth. It takes courts years, sometimes even decades, to decide even simple citizen disputes. People feel they need to bribe doctors to get quality treatment. A police officer can plant an actual explosive in the luggage of a passenger, let him fly off to Ireland, and nothing really happens.

All this creates a sense of tension which keeps building up, and supporting the truckers seemed to many as a good way to vent some steam. The efficient and very visible form of the protest, the approaching parliamentary elections, and the fear of frustration he helped feed, led Fico to back off and do as the truckers wanted. It’s no surprise that when you create a truckload of problems, you have to deal with the kamionisti.


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