Slovaks react with grim cynicism to Trump’s impeachment

Slovaks have a different attitude to their elected leaders than Americans.

Donald TrumpDonald Trump (Source: AP/SITA)

Decades of corrupt politics have made it hard to shock many in Slovakia. The past year alone has also been marked by scandals, centred mainly around Marian Kočner, the man who faces charges of ordering the murder of Ján Kuciak, and his dangerously close links to people in top positions in the state.

So when Donald Trump became only the third US president ever to be impeached. following accusations that he pressured Ukraine’s president to open an investigation into the son of Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, the surprising thing for many Slovaks here was that Trump’s alleged corrupt act was such a seismic event in the first place.

If a Slovak prime minister or president did what Trump is accused of, it would barely make an impression, suggested Roman Delikát, while he sold hot wine to crowds at Bratislava’s Christmas market as a volunteer on Thursday night.

“It would be a big deal for maybe three days,” Delikát said. “And then people would forget about it, because something even bigger would happen.”

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In conversations with more than a dozen Slovaks in Bratislava and Banská Bystrica yesterday, most reacted to news of Trump’s impeachment with the same cynical world-weariness with which they greet the latest scandals to upend Slovak politics.

A kind of grey zone

Július Selecký anticipated that the whole ordeal might actually help Trump win more voters. Others rather believed that nothing will change.

An easy majority supported Trump’s impeachment, but not everyone readily agreed that Trump deserved it. Some vocally supported the US president, while others suggested Trump’s conduct with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, could fall into the ambiguous area that separates overt acts of corruption from the everyday business of being the head of state.

“There is a kind of grey zone,” said Tomáš Michalík, who lives in Bratislava.

Experts say it wouldn’t be surprising if Slovaks were prepared to give political leaders a relatively wider degree of latitude in their day-to-day political behaviour, and to tolerate more corruption than in the US and in western Europe.

A different relationship to elected leaders

That much may already be evident in the way voters have responded to Slovakia’s most recent host of scandals. After the killing of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018, a national outpouring of anger forced Robert Fico to step down as prime minister. But his political party, Smer, despite connections to people involved in the scandal, could be on the doorstep of a political revival. Polls suggest it could perform well enough to stay in control of government after parliamentary elections set for February.

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“We have a different relationship to our elected leaders than people from western countries, where democracy has been established for longer and there’s a stronger civil society, and people feel outraged when their elected leader steps out of line,” said Zuzana Palovic, co-author of a recent book about Slovak history.

Palovic goes as far as to the 19th century, when today’s Slovakia was still a province of the Kingdom of Hungary. Slovaks had little choice but to accept their lot and their leaders then, she noted. Some of that influence may have ricocheted into modern times.

The pre-1989 times and also the difficult transition from totalitarianism to democracy in the 1990s have taught Slovaks to feel giving bribes, even if just chocolates and bottles of alcohol, was necessary for many social interactions.

“These are extensions of gratitude to get a service, a service that should be guaranteed for everyone without bribery,” Palovic said. “I think we are more practical in this sense. We know that corruption is a part of power and part of politics.”

Trump has his supporters in Slovakia too

Donald Trump is historically unpopular in Europe. According to one recent poll of 60,000 Europeans, only 4% said they trusted him. Slovaks fall within the trend: in a 2016 Globsec Policy Institute survey, 69 percent said they saw Trump negatively.

Still, at Bratislava’s Christmas market, more than a couple of people vocally supported Trump and rejected his impeachment out of hand.

Ľubomír, a grey-haired man who is from Bratislava and declined to give his last name, dismissed the uproar in the US over Ukraine matter-of-factly. It didn’t matter if Trump was accused of withholding USD400 million in military aid to Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign, Ľubomír said, speaking in Slovak and flanked by two friends who appeared to share his support for the US president. The US should not be giving military aid to Ukraine in the first place, he said. “‘America first — that’s great.”

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