We are sorry about Babiš. We aren't all like him

What has 2018 been like for Slovakia and the Czech Republic? Poor.

Czech PM Andrej Babiš.Czech PM Andrej Babiš. (Source: AP/TASR)

Petr Šabata works at Czech public-service radio.

"I just want to tell you that I will never stand down. Never. May you all remember this. Never," Czech PM Andrej Babiš told journalists recently.

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It is the statement of the year on the Czech political scene. Babiš, who is of Slovak origin, really put himself into it. His face was radiating horror.

Unfortunately, all the events happening around Babiš, a winner of the latest elections to the Chamber of Deputies, are unbeatable. The last 12 months did not bring along anything good for democracy in the Czech Republic.

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What about Slovakia? The murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová is out of the question when it comes to the evaluation of politics, although it has resulted in significant consequences. It can be said, after all, that Slovakia has fared well.

Slovakia - 4, Czechia - 1

Babiš's strong statement opposing democratic rules could be somewhat compared to Slovakia's former PM Robert Fico's legendary smirk and his threatening words about "not going" when handing his resignation letter to President Andrej Kiska.

Fico's shield was damaged this year, but Babiš is charged with fraud and all the circumstances surrounding the Stork Nest (Bocianie hniezdo) case. Furthermore, he fraudulently received EU subsidies for his hotel and conference centre in Prague and is charged with his son's alleged abduction to Crimea in an effort to prevent him from testifying in the fraud scandal. These incidents are abhorrent to democracy to the extent that, if sports terminology is used, Slovakia wins 1 – 0 in the assessment of both PMs (Slovakia's current PM Peter Pellegrini has contributed to the score).

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Kiska announced he would not run for re-election in 2019 but hinted later he would enter party politics. From Prague's view, it is incomprehensible; Kiska has coped with the political crisis following the murders of Ján Kuciak and his fianceé in an excellent manner, and he has become a symbol of Slovakia's continuing inclination towards Europe and decency in politics. He cannot just run away from a battlefield when Slovakia is finding itself in difficult times, especially since every helping hand makes a difference when promoting its interests (EU at the crossroads, Brexit, Trump, Orbán, …).

Read also: Kiska for Prime Minister? Read more 

But when we compare his performance with Czechia's President Miloš Zeman's, a halo appears above Kiska's head. Zeman defends Russia's and China's interests, causes society to split, and infests the public space with lies, hate, and vulgarism. The assessment of presidents turns out better for Slovakia. The score is now 2 – 0.

Plagiarism is another topic to consider. This time, Czechia scores a point. Two Czech ministers, Justice Minister Taťána Malá of the ruling ANO party and Labour Minister Petr Krčál of the minor ruling ČSSD party, resigned quickly. The former stood 13 days, the latter a bit longer.

If we ask whether politics is fair when ministers quit the government of the prosecuted PM for plagiarism, the reply is a no. It is not fair. Otherwise, Slovakia's Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko would not withstand even one day.

Although Radek Vondráček (ANO), Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, met with people on the EU and USA sanctions lists on his business trip to Russia, he cannot beat Russophile Danko.

"I have been demonstrating in Bratislava, and so have 20,000 citizens. No crowd," Fedor Gál, a Slovak politician and dissident, said on the Czech public radio a few days ago. "There were no gallows and no aggressive rallying cries." He reacted to Prague's demonstration on Wenceslas Square, where thousands of people have recently protested against PM Babiš - aggressively.

The same happened on August 21 of this year when marking the day of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia 50 years ago in front of the Czech public radio building.

After PM Babiš commemorated the fall of communism by laying a wreath on November 17, five minutes after midnight, demonstrators threw the wreath into a bin. They also threw away a bouquet sent by President Zeman.

Prečítajte si tiež: Slovaks celebrated the centenary of the Declaration of Slovak Nation – with Czechs Read more 

At Devín Castle, near Bratislava, PM Pellegrini and President Kiska marked the same anniversary, surprisingly, together. Slovakia - 3, Czechia - 1.

Important municipal elections have taken place in both countries this year too. The results resemble one another: new politicians will govern the capitals. Matúš Vallo was elected the mayor of Bratislava in a direct vote. Zdeněk Hríb of the Czech Pirate Party became the mayor of Prague after being voted into office by an absolute majority of councillors.

What a change from the arrogant former Prague's mayor Adriana Krnáčová (YES)! A new wave of people has taken over mayoral offices and councillor seats in Slovakia, sweeping off the ruling Smer. This new energy did not come in the Czech Republic, though. Slovakia wins 4 – 1.

We could, of course, go on, and Slovakia would win by far. It will have a balanced budget in 2019, which is praiseworthy (Czechia will have a deficit of €1.6 billion). Slovakia's relationship with the EU is, not only because of the euro, more realistic than Czechia's; only in the EU can small European countries defend their interests.

All in all, the PM charged with fraud and the dangers of Babiš' conflict of interest are worse for democracy than Danko, a poor level of governance, Smer and its awkward opposition.

Yet, when the author of these lines recently spoke of the comparisons between the two countries with a Slovak living in Prague, who is also familiar with Slovak politics, he received reassurance: "It depends on the point of view. The Czech Republic looks better from Bratislava."

Who is a bigger Kotleba?

Where do we look for the roots of the damaged democracy in the Czech Republic and Slovakia?

Some are historical and general. Democracies around the world, more or less, sicken of them: global issues such as migration, climate change, rapid technological development, disinformation campaigns driven from abroad, the power of tech giants like Facebook, Google and the like.

National governments cannot manage these problems alone, but their citizens do not expect any solutions, either. In this difficult situation, politicians can act differently. And here, (not only) a Slovak and Czech failure is occurring.

Instead of honest attempts to find solutions and cooperation, Babiš and Fico have gone for the easiest option; they are making enemies, creating fear, and polarising society.

There is a significant difference between Macron and Zeman or between Merkel and Fico (Pellegrini) – not only in the size and influence of their countries.

And so, political parties have, instead of offering a programme and capable, trustworthy personalities, become rather interested in power and benefits obtained from it. States are therefore failing in health and education (and as a result, one fifth of first-time voters ages 18 to 24 would vote for the far-right Kotleba - People's Party Our Slovakia, a survey by the Focus poll agency has shown).

And politicians, instead of coming up with solutions, are racing to see who is a bigger Kotleba than Kotleba himself (as noted by Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák in a debate on the migration compact, but it is not valid just in this case and not just in the case of Slovakia).

Take responsibility

It would not be exact to accuse only the current governments in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, or elsewhere of the deep division within societies, but their guilt is substantial.

"If we are to take a lesson learned from historical research on the fall of democracies, it would be extreme polarisation is deadly for democracy," write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two professors from Harvard University, in their How Democracies Die book. They examine in detail what events, not only in America, lead to the transition of democracy to dictatorship.

What can be done ? Calling on politicians to mend their ways counts for very little. Waiting to see how things develop is even less as the history of the 20th century, which also harmed our countries, shows.

It makes sense to take responsibility like the organisers of and protesters in the For a Decent Slovakia (Za slušné Slovensko) demonstrations, realising that "we are those who we have been waiting for".

Read also: We want a decent Slovakia, people chanted in squares Read more 

"There was a lot at stake – freedom, democracy, and decency. It is still at stake. It will always be at stake," a preface to the self-titled book, with 63 speeches given at the For a Decent Slovakia protests, reads.

The power and ethos of these demonstrations, which were called out by two murders also affecting actual politics, are full of hope. This is the only right way. Not rewriting the outcome of democratic elections but the expression of a steady civic stance, which politicians have to, like it or not, deal with.

And right here, an abysmal difference springs up between Slovakia and Czechia, where no such energy is observed.

Around November 17 of this year, when the Czech Republic went through incredible peripety caused by the scandal surrounding Babi's Stork Nest, a small sign on the pavement in front of the Czech Embassy on Hviezdoslav Square in Bratislava appeared, saying in Czech: "We are sorry about Babiš. We aren't all like him."

Thanks. We know.


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