In 1997 US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously called Slovakia "the black hole of Europe". Ivan Krastev described it as "a beer-drinking version of Belarus." The country was ruled by Vladimir Meciar who is remembered for his spurning of democratic procedures, his contempt for market-oriented reforms and his idea of forming a customs union with Russia. Reformist opposition leaders had to watch passively as in 1997 Slovakia's neighbours were invited to join NATO and to start accession talks with the EU. "It seemed like the Czechs were going west and the Slovaks east or nowhere," remembers Jan Figel who later became Slovakia's chief negotiator.
The turning point came in 1998. A broad coalition, unified by opposition to Meciar and the fear of falling further behind Slovakia's neighbours, won the parliamentary elections. Despite the coalition's heterogeneous composition, including free-market liberals, former communists and Catholic conservatives, prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda managed to keep the government together for a full four-year term. He pushed through ambitious economic reforms including the introduction of a flat tax and a big privatisation programme. After parliamentary elections in 2002 Dzurinda could form another reform-oriented coalition government. Under his leadership the country acceded to both NATO and the EU in spring 2004. Read more …
After the 2006 elections, Dzurinda and his pro-reform allies would have needed Meciar's party to retain a majority, but failed to get him on board. The new ruling coalition combined all three features of what the Economist called the nightmares in ex-communist politics: populist, authoritarian and racist parties. Robert Fico's populist leftist "SMER" party, Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the radical right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS) of Jan Slota formed a coalition government and promised to transform the country. Slovakia's international image darkened. On Slota the Economist wrote:
"He is known for his intemperate remarks about the country's Roma (Gypsy) and Hungarian minorities. The former, he said, were a problem best approached with a ‘long whip in a small yard'. He once said he would like to flatten the Hungarian capital, Budapest, with a tank. His convivial lifestyle attracts attention too (he explained an anti-Hungarian remark by pleading drunkenness)."
During the election campaign, Fico had criticised the Dzurinda government for its economic policies, in particular the flat tax and the pension and health care reforms. Once in power, however, he made few changes to policies which had brought economic growth rates of above 6 percent.
Slovakia was also affected by the global economic crisis. In 2009, the economy contracted by an estimated 4.9 percent. The issue that brought the country most negative headlines, however, was the government's policies towards the Hungarian minority (representing some 10 percent of the population). The government sponsored vague and badly written amendments to the State Language Law in June 2009, leading to criticism by Slovakia's Hungarians, civil rights groups and European politicians. The BBC reported Michael Gahler, a German CDU member of the European Parliament, saying that Slovakia was "violating commonly respected standards in the EU and disregarding respective recommendations of the Council of Europe, which foresee the extended use of minority languages."
In parallel, relations with Hungary deteriorated. In August 2009, Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom was prevented from entering Slovakia to attend the unveiling ceremony of a statue of a Hungarian king. In March 2010, parliament passed a "Patriotic Act." This law, presented by Slota's SNS, required all schools to play the Slovak anthem at the beginning of every week and to display the Slovak flag, the lyrics of the anthem and the preamble of the constitution in every class room. There was a public outcry. Upon request by Fico, President Gasparovic refused to sign the law. The law was eventually passed in June in a more moderate form, not requiring the weekly playing of the national anthem in schools.
Parliamentary elections in June 2010 put Fico and his coalition partners out of government. Fico's party actually did well, but Meciar's HZDS did not get over the threshold. While Slota's SNS went from 12 percent in 2006 to 5 percent in 2010, the multi-ethnic Most/Hid Party (bridge), reached 8 percent. A new government was formed, for the first time led by a woman, Iveta Radicova. Dzurinda returned as foreign minister. The new coalition has announced to address the minority's complaints shortly.
One of the most interesting questions that emerge from the recent Slovak experience concerns the ability of populist politicians in a post-communist EU member state to rewrite the rules. In 2006 when Fico's coalition came to power there were many, in Slovakia and outside, feared the worst. By 2010 it had become apparent that despite increasing tensions with the Hungarian minority (for which in part the leadership in Budapest was responsible), the ability of people like Slota to breach European standards was limited.