In Slovakia, green hopes spring from a new crop of leaders

Green politics are making a surprise comeback in Slovakia, thanks to a new generation of politicians and the activism of young people.

Štrbské Pleso, Mlynická Dolina; on the left is Solisko, with already existing ski slopes. (Source: TASR)

When Slovaks cast ballots in general elections early next year, no shortage of issues will inform their decisions: corruption, far-right extremism, the state of democracy.

And for the first time in a long time: the environment.

Slovakia did not catch the so-called Green wave that swept over Western Europe in European Parliament elections in May, but Green politics are making a comeback after years in the doldrums.

“It's evident that the environmental issues resonate with society and political parties are forced to address them,” said Radek Kubala, a campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Slovakia.

To see the pace of change, consider two events that happened within six months of each other.

Last November, authorities detained 12 Greenpeace activists for five days for protesting peacefully against fossil fuels in the coal mining town of Nováky in western Slovakia.

But in March, Slovaks elected as president Zuzana Čaputová, a human rights lawyer who once saved a town from a toxic waste dump and ran on a progressive platform that included environmental issues.

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To prove her commitment to the green cause, she hired Juraj Rizman, former director of Greenpeace Slovakia, as one of her advisors.

“It’s a unique historical opportunity,” Rizman told BIRN, adding that he saw his appointment as a chance to make Slovak environmentalism less symbolic and more practical.

In EU elections in May, Slovakia sent two environmental experts to the European Parliament: Michal Wieczik and Martin Hojsík, both from a coalition of two newly formed parties, Spolu and Progressive Slovakia.

They won their seats despite occupying lower positions on the candidate list and advocating a robust agenda for Green politics at the national and European level.

“It turns out that these topics were missing in Slovakia,” said Hojsík. “We were missing a voice that there’s only one planet and we need to protect it.”

Both parties in the coalition count environmental protection as a campaign priority for next year’s parliamentary election, to be held before March. Za Ľudí, a new party started by former Slovak President Andrej Kiska, does likewise.

‘Paradigm shift’

Michal Vašečka, a sociologist from the Bratislava Policy Institute think tank, said Slovakia’s rapid modernisation — and the big changes that come with it — have pushed green issues to the fore.

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“There is a paradigm shift in the way people think,” he said. “When you stop focusing on gathering material things, you can finally pay attention to something like this.

“The West has gone through it too, but it might have been two generations ago, so they don’t really remember it now.”

These days, Slovaks take climate change personally, he added.

“Look at what really bothers most people. Everybody across the spectrum hates seeing our forests disappearing.”

Since 2017, a campaign known as “We Are the Forest” has made the deforestation of Slovakia’s once-lush hills and national parks a talking point.

It has the backing of environmental experts and celebrities, as well as around 70,000 people from across the country.

“The topic of deforestation has certainly helped people notice the problem,” said Paľo Hlubina from the Slovak Climate Initiative think tank. “Slovaks are proud of their forests and woods.”

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Environmental experts say that while the loss of trees on beloved hills has struck a chord with Slovaks, it is the action of young people that has really made politicians and the public sit up and listen.

“Organisations like Greenpeace have been working on these issues for years,” said Katarína Juríková, a campaign strategist from Greenpeace Slovakia. “But it was young people who were willing to go out on the streets, to strike. They don’t want empty words anymore. They want big changes.”

Slovak students have joined the Fridays for Future initiative, created by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. They protest in Bratislava and Košice every week.

“They created huge pressure from the public that was really hard to ignore,” Juríková said. “These young people have created a space for us to push for more radical demands, and it makes our work easier.”

Joining the battle

For the past decade, environmentalists have struggled in the face of government funding for coal mining, a thriving auto industry and corruption scandals linked to green issues.

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But things are changing fast.

Slovakia this year became the first country in the Visegrad Group of Central European states to support an EU plan for carbon neutrality by 2050, despite opposition from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

In June, the government announced a plan to end coal mining in the Horná Nitra region by 2023. Slovakia will also ban all non-reusable plastic products by 2021 and gradually phase out the use of plastic bags in shops.

Green parties have a history in Slovakia. Environmental activists played a role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in 1989 and Greens gained support in parliament in the early 1990s.

After the authoritarian rule of former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s, more pressing issues dominated local politics: building democracy, fighting corruption and joining the EU and NATO.

Fast forward almost two decades and environmental politics are again in vogue, informing the programmes of almost all the main parties contesting next year’s election.

Legions of experts and activists are joining the battle.

“I was encouraged by the European election results and by the way people got engaged with these issues,” said Liliana Rástocká, an environmental expert for the centrist Za Ľudí party.

Rástocká was formerly an activist and an expert at the environment ministry but she decided to give up her job this summer to help create a manifesto for the new party led by former President Kiska.

“What convinced me was that we don’t see this topic as some compulsory two-page addition at the back of the programme, but we really work on it all together,” she said. “Environmental issues have a very high priority here.”

She added that the party seeks to give a green edge to other policy areas including economics, justice and anti-corruption. The idea is to make green politics practical and help disadvantaged groups most affected by air pollution and lack of clear water.

Climate crisis

Hojsík, the MEP from Progressive Slovakia, was a veteran campaigner on issues ranging from coal mining and animal rights to the poor conditions in factories supplying fast fashion worldwide.

As an MEP, he plans to push for a bold response to the global climate crisis, both in Brussels and Bratislava.

“I joined politics because I felt that the question of environmental protection and the protection of life on this planet are a natural part of progressive, green politics,” he said. “It’s automatic.”

He added that individual Green parties are no longer needed as the climate crisis has become too serious for any party to ignore.

In the Presidential Palace in Bratislava, things are also changing.

One of the first things Čaputová’s new team did was get rid of the capsule coffee machines and replace the paper towels with reusable ones. They are considering keeping bees in the big public garden behind the palace.

But both Čaputová and her advisor Rizman, the former Greenpeace Slovakia director, have experience working on much bigger campaigns.

In 2016, Čaputová became the first Slovak recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, known as the “green Nobel prize”. She won it for helping residents of the small town of Pezinok fight a new landfill that was endangering their health.

Their case eventually helped change EU rules to make it easier for the public to oversee big projects affecting the environment across the bloc.

“Truth is, there is a new generation of politicians entering politics that see the issue of environmental protection much more urgently and more seriously than the previous political generations,” Rizman said.

“And the public discussion about these issues has also changed. It’s more pressing, and people have started to demand less talk and more action.”

Hlubina from the Slovak Climate Initiative said that as in the rest of Europe, Slovaks have become more aware of green issues thanks to scientific studies and media interest as well as civic movements and student protests.

“They are stronger and more visible than they were a few years ago,” he said.

As for politicians, Hlubina said the time to act is now.

“There are studies, and we have experts with experience that we can build on,” he said. “What we’re missing is the political will to push for these changes. Stopping the destruction of the environment is not a side issue. It should be taken just as seriously as economic crises.”

This article was produced by Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.