Street protests have more impact than you might think. They have turned the country’s prime minister into the country’s prime fighter against corruption. Again.
Even though he still maintains, at least in public, that the demands of the protesting crowd do not concern him or his cabinet, he has once again tried to take advantage of the topic they have raised: corruption.
This time around, Robert Fico has not stopped at medical metaphors (corruption is cancer), but has assigned a special Government’s Office department to tackle corruption, directly under his remit, and put an “absolute professional with the trust of all governments” at its helm. Fico has also met with representatives of NGOs for whom he had previously expressed nothing but contempt, and recently even held a seminar at his office about the fight against corruption.
Meanwhile, the crowds in the squares, and not only in Bratislava, chant: investigate Gorilla and cut Kaliňák loose.
Fico is trying to apply a time-proven political strategy – to turn the tables by throwing his own efforts to fight corruption to the protesters, and to the public, as bait. But a single seminar at the Government’s Office comes across as a rather pitiful effort when contrasted with the demands of the thousands who took to the streets again this week.
The usual political strategies do not work so well when their intended targets are not MPs or other politicians, but normal people. Fico might have learned how to deflect the unpredictable Igor Matovič, but that is not a skill he can apply here.
Ruling politicians, so embedded in their own world, are facing forces that do not fit into their House-of-Cards-like schemes. Their cynical attitude to public affairs, and to life itself, has limited effect against angry young women and men who have not yet developed the immunity of cynicism.
Inoculation against hope is not compulsory, and every generation has its idealists who will never build up immunity to youthful enthusiasm and righteous anger. But for many of them it is just a matter of time: their system will harden, and they will conform – or leave. Who will take up responsibility for another generation immune to idealism?
The prime minister has long since developed complete immunity to hope. With supreme cynicism, he downplays the intentions of the protesters and their cause. In an op-ed in the Hospodárske Noviny daily before the second protest, he suggested that the students should instead rise up against extremism, the “real evil” – as if to suggest that corruption is not really evil, and is not a prime reason for extremism finding sympathetic ears across the generations.
What is more, Fico has also mocked the march and its organisers. He has repeatedly compared attendance at the anti-corruption marches with a May 1 gathering organised by his ruling Smer party (and followed by a concert by a popular Czech band), saying that Smer managed to do this “without the support of the media”. This is laughable. For one thing, it neglects to mention that the Smer event was a widely advertised promotional event paid for by the extremely well-endowed (at taxpayer expense) ruling party.
Experienced activist Juraj Rizman argues, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator, that the goals that the students have set out for their protest might be too ambitious. That makes sense from the reasonable perspective of a man who has led campaigns and succeeded. But there is something else to this case.
It is common across cultures, regardless of their era, to celebrate the energy and enthusiasm of youth. Is it wise to ask an 18-year-old to be realistic? Do we not want our kids to think big, to dream big? Or should we ask the doctor to inoculate them against such nonsense, so that they can skip it like mumps and need never suffer the pain of disappointment?
Yes, the absence of Robert Kaliňák from the cabinet would definitely help cleanse Slovakia’s body politic, but the protests would still make perfect sense even if that were never to happen. Maybe that is where some prospect of redemption lies for Slovakia: in the hope that the energy and the enthusiasm of the youngsters carrying the banner “The deed is happening” will be contagious enough to infect their parents, their teachers, and everyone around them.