Sme: In recent weeks, Slovakia witnessed a murder of a journalist, the ex-prime minister talked about the influence of George Soros, the abuse of EU-subsidies was uncovered, and the country did not join allies in expelling Russian spies. How does this impact the image of Slovakia?
Tomáš Valášek (TV): Things that have happened in Slovakia since the murder of Ján Kuciak and his partner have harmed the country’s image very much. In Europe, we were perceived as a positive anomaly among the Visegrad group countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). The V4 has a very bad image in the European Union as a whole; it's perceived as a group of states that have failed to show enough solidarity during the migration crisis – Visegrad has become a pejorative notion.
Slovakia was considered, unlike Poland or Hungary, as having much more stable institutions where the rule of law was not threatened and the cabinet did not try to violate courts or manipulate the election results. In the West, Slovakia was perceived as an ally in the effort to make Hungary or Poland more normal while preventing them from setting out in the opposite direction.
Sme: How did Slovakia profit from that?
TV: A possible split of Europe still cannot be ruled out. In Brussels, in Paris, in Berlin, the talk is still that about a dozen countries, or slightly more, need to be integrated more deeply. We were considered a country that would be a part of this core, which is exceptionally important for us. If we are not a part of the core, they start to perceive us as a small country on the fringe of Europe, on the border of western civilisation. This is bad for investors, as well as for the country’s image.
Sme: Is this positive perception already a matter of the past?
TV: I don’t think it’s over now. In the central Europe, alternatives are missing, fortunately for us. Relations between Poland and the rest of the EU have been improving but only slowly. After the recent election, Hungary is in a worse situation than before, and the situation in the Czech Republic is not developing positively, either. Maybe we have some remains of positive image out of persistence. It also turned out to our benefit that after the journalist’s murder, which disclosed the ties between the cabinet and organised crime, the power of civil society was demonstrated.
Brussels sees very well that unlike Hungary, where the problem with democracy is bigger and Viktor Orban got constitutional majority nevertheless, people in Slovakia made it to the streets. Through peaceful protests, they enforced the replacement of the most controversial people in the cabinet and forced the new cabinet to change its approach towards corruption.
Worked in the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London, founded the Institute for World Security. For almost four years, he was Slovak Ambassador at NATO, and currently heads the Brussels branch of the Carnegie think-tank.
Sme: Ex-PM Robert Fico spoke about George Soros, thus using the words of conspirators while earlier, he had been pro-European, at least verbally. Was this pro-European stance pretend, or forced?
TV: I don’t think this stance is forced. Everyone in a leading position who feels responsible for the fate of their country feels that Slovakia must be in the core of the European Union and in NATO. Without them, we are a really small, unimportant country at the fringe of western civilisation.
Sme: Why did ex-PM Fico talk about Soros then, and why didn't the cabinet join allies who expelled Russian spies in the Skripal case?
TV: Not even the ruling Smer party is unified on this matter. It seems that the weakest point of the chain was the PM who is not the prime minister anymore. The incumbent one and the finance and foreign ministers promote a completely different line.
Sme: Many politicians and the public feel that Britons failed to sufficiently prove that Russia is behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter so we should not expel Russian diplomats. Have Britons really shown convincing evidence to allies, or is this rather a matter of trust among allies?
TV: People don’t understand the nature of intelligence evidence. Maybe under the spell of American series where everything is conclusively solved in a laboratory within 45 minutes, we grew lazy and got used to a 100-percent force of evidence. In real life, it has never worked in this way, and never will. In practice, intelligence evidence is an imperfect mosaic put together in the best possible way and then, it is up to the sense and solidarity of allies whether they believe in the evidence or not.
There is surely good reason for scepticism: we remember how back in 2003, it turned out that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction but this doesn’t mean that we change this sound scepticism into nihilism and disbelieve any intelligence evidence.
Sme: What has convinced you Russia is guilty in this case?