The (old) new Slovak government: What does Fico’s return mean for the rights of asylum seekers and the future of migration politics in Slovakia?10 min read
The September election in Slovakia signals a further shift towards social conservatism in the country. With the EU struggling to find a common ground in its migration politics, what direction will the new government take in this matter? Will the return of Robert Fico herald in a new era of heightened xenophobia, anti-migration policies, and international isolationism?
When the final votes were tallied in the snap general election in Slovakia in the morning hours of 1 October, many were left in a state of dismal shock. After falling from political grace a few years ago, the SMER-SSD party of the former three-times prime minister Robert Fico emerged as a clear winner in the polls, securing a comfortable 23%.
In the three years since his resignation as prime minister following the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, Fico has hardened his political rhetoric and skillfully utilised the power vacuum created by the implosion of the previous government to rebuild his political base.
In spite of Fico’s political history, he had managed to build a coalition with two other parties. One of these, HLAS-SD, is a social democratic party founded by a group around Peter Pellegrini, a former prime minister from Fico’s party who left SMER following a number of scandals. The third party in the emerging government, the Slovak National Party, prides itself on being the country’s oldest. The party indeed has a history of fighting for the national interests of Slovakia in Austria-Hungary in the late 19th century. However, its current political vision is far less noble. SNS is currently occupying a far-right corner of the political spectrum and its MPs are a mix of personalities famous in the country’s alt-right, pro-Putin, and conspiratorial scenes.
A missed chance and a descent into an Orban-like future
The result of the election is all the more disheartening as the other party which was predicted to be the winner of the election in the exit polls, PS (Progressive Slovakia) ran a platform that promised modernisation of the country, catching up with the EU on many social and political developments, and hoped to introduce much-needed expertise and credibility to the Slovak political scene. Progressive Slovakia, earning over 17% of the votes, shows that there indeed is a sizeable part of the population who wishes for the country to move in a more progressive direction; whether this means finally recognising the right of same-sex couples to officially register their partnership or acknowledging that climate change is a political reality that must not be downplayed and overlooked. In the days following the elections, representatives of Progressive Slovakia tried to build an alternative coalition government with the hope of preventing Fico’s return to power. However, on 10 October the efforts were proven useless when Fico announced that he had reached a coalition agreement with the two aforementioned parties.
As many have pointed out, this was an existential election for the country. Faced with the choice between a progressive modern government and the return of a conservative oligarchic party, the Slovak electorate has chosen a road that might set the country on a path similar to that traversed by Orban in neighbouring Hungary; a path that involves the slow erosion of democratic institutions, consolidation of state power in the hands of the oligarchic political elite, and a gradual descent into international isolationism.
Migration, racism, xenophobia, and the spectre of political isolationism
Sometime in early October, around 20 people crossed the southern border of Slovakia from Hungary. A small group of local citizens (predominantly women) from the nearby village of Velka Calomija decided to take justice into their own hands and round the migrants up. They produced a video of the incident which circulated widely on far-right internet forums. The video shows a group of people being forced to sit on the ground surrounded by women with tasers and dogs. The women yell orders in a mixture of Slovak, German, and Hungarian, and threaten the migrants with force if they move. The situation keeps escalating until the group of hostages decides to ignore the threats and walks away. One of the men from the group does not manage to escape and is, allegedly, hit by one of the villagers. The video was eventually picked up by the police, and the Slovak women and men are subject to criminal investigation. However, the mere fact that such a situation could occur hints at a dangerous reality connected to the growing popular legitimacy of racial violence and xenophobic outburst. Arguably, the emerging government plays an integral role in shifting the popular discourse in this direction.
Similarly to the situation of 2015-16, the EU finds itself in a moment where migration is the central topic of political discussion. With the number of asylum claims up 28% percent from last year and an increasing number of people trying to reach Europe, the EU appears to have been transformed into a ‘single-issue institution’ where migration is the only problem that needs to be addressed.
Slovakia, as a part of the EU, has not been immune to these developments. Migration has become one of the main themes of the electoral campaign. This is quite strange since Slovakia is a country with one of the lowest rates of immigration in the EU and has an equally low rate of asylum claims (both in terms of the number of requests lodged as well as those that have been granted). In spite of this evidence, virtually every single party has run an anti-immigration campaign and promised to “tackle the issue of illegal migration.” This tendency has been exacerbated by the fact that a few weeks prior to the election, following the change in migratory patterns and border enforcement levels in Southeastern Europe, Slovakia became a transit country for a few thousand people on their way towards Western Europe. Mimicking the situation from autumn 2022, Czechia and Austria reinstated border controls at their borders with Slovakia in order to curb the flow of ‘illegal migration.’
The anti-immigration stance unites all relevant parties (including the otherwise progressive Progressive Slovakia). During the election campaign, there was not a single party that advocated for an open approach to asylum and a more inclusive immigration policy. Instead, following the general xenophobic trend in the region, the parties were outdoing themselves in using vile, racist, dehumanising, and exclusionary rhetoric to talk about the people on the move, or, as they refer to them, ‘illegal migrants’, or ‘Islamic migrants.’ Driving around the country prior to the elections, one would see so many anti-immigration billboards that one could not be blamed for thinking that the country is on the brink of a demographic apocalypse. Worst of all, this anti-immigration hysteria was indirectly supported by most of the major media actors who, instead of engaging in a constructive discussion, stoked the xenophobic sentiments by reproducing the same radical, and dangerously apocalyptic, narratives.
It has been proven time and again that this kind of xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric is a powerful tool for mobilising large groups of voters. Fabricating a situation of existential threat and then presenting oneself as the only viable solution is an old political tactic. It should not have come as a surprise that, following weeks of disproportionate media coverage of migration and continuous fear mongering in the public sphere, a large proportion of the population decided to forget the uncomfortable political history of modern Slovakia and vote for those who were able to mobilise the manufactured fear the best. (As a side note, migrants were not the only ones who have been abused by the political parties across the spectrum — LGBTQ+ populations have been the target of an equally vile and hate-ridden campaign.)
What to expect from the new government
So, now that the new government is formed, what direction can we expect the country’s migration governance to actually go in? We will likely see a gradual hardening of the anti-immigration rhetoric across all state institutions. This tendency will target primarily the current wave of people on the move, but will likely draw on the history of islamophobia within the governing parties and extend to the small minority of asylum seekers hosted by the country (Robert Fico infamously remarked in 2016, when he was a prime minister, that Slovakia is a country where mosques are not welcome). Given that the ministers of culture and education will be appointed from the ranks of the far-right Slovak National Party, changes in the funding for culture, media, research, and educational programs are highly likely. This change might include an intentional reduction of support for projects that engage with themes of human rights, asylum support, or multicultural education. Furthermore, it might indicate a further move towards Orban’sHungary in constructing an official narrative of Slovakia as a historically (and proudly) white country; something that not only impacts the asylum seekers but also the sizable Roma community as well as other non-white foreigners living in the country.
Besides the possibility of a gradual shift in the mainstream discourse towards further entrenchment of xenophobia and racism, there are some immediate plans that the emergent government promised to enact. In his pre-electoral interviews, Fico has repeatedly claimed that the moment he becomes prime minister he will take control of the southern border. At the time of writing this article, the outgoing government introduced controls at the border with Hungary and it is likely to be followed by some sort of deployment of military forces in the border areas. In combination with the planned overhaul of the justice and police system, these changes would further lead to the normalisation of state violence against people on the move as well as the reduction of accountability for human rights abuses committed by the state on asylum seekers.
On the EU level, it is reasonable to expect that the new Slovak government will vocally oppose any kind of international collaboration in addressing the disproportionate responsibility of border countries like Greece and Italy. Furthermore, Slovakia will likely join Hungary in obstructing collective decisions and refusing to adopt EU-wide mechanisms for redistribution of asylum responsibility among the member states. This development was already anticipated by the Party of the European Socialists (PES), which, upon the announcement of the new Slovak government, suspended membership for both SMER and HLAS. PES justified this action by arguing that the political vision of the two parties contradicts the political vision of the European Socialists and that the coalition of social democratic parties with the far-right SNS is unacceptable.
What can be done to counter this trend?
The overall general trend at the EU level points towards ever-more exclusionary and harsh migration politics, which results in the deaths of thousands of people every year and countless instances of human rights abuses. It is, therefore, all the more worrying when a country proclaims that it wishes to enact even harsher policies in its treatment of illegalised migrants. With the control of the police, army, and judicial system falling into the hands of vocal anti-immigrant and xenophobic politicians, people on the move are likely to face an increase in unchecked violence and a lack of any meaningful legal and state support. Combined with the increasing levels of xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments among the general population, these developments might not face any meaningful popular challenge. The human rights and migrant rights NGOs will also face an uphill battle under the emerging government. Fico is known for his distrust of NGOs and is likely to follow in Orban’s footsteps and render work in the human rights sector increasingly difficult and criminalised.
It is difficult to end this article on a positive note. Nonetheless, it is vital to emphasise the urgency and importance of an engaged civil society. In a situation where the state fails to protect vulnerable groups of people and turns its back on human rights and the international right of asylum, the political pressure from an active civil society is vital in keeping the state in check. The NGOs and civil society actors in Slovakia are already overwhelmed fighting the onslaught of right-wing radicalism on all fronts. Perhaps it is the time for the international humanitarian community to consider a deeper involvement in the struggle for migrant rights in the country. Otherwise, the growing brutality of xenophobic politics in the region will continue unchecked.