• Directory of Taiwan

Slovakia: Robert Fico's radical 100-day dash following return as PM

Since returning to office late last year, PM Robert Fico has tried to swiftly push through radical changes to the Slovak judicial system

Since returning to office late last year, PM Robert Fico has tried to swiftly push through radical changes to the Slovak judicial system

Robert Fico has not dwelt upon his recent remarkable return from the political wasteland to which he was banished after the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak ejected him from an eight-year stint as prime minister of Slovakia.

Instead, in the 100 days since his Smer party regained power, the illiberal populist has sought to rapidly push through radical changes to the judicial system, with plans for other democratic pillars also being drawn up.

His all-action performance has provoked protests and worry both at home and abroad.

But at the same time as clamping down on democracy domestically, Fico has seemingly sought to soothe some Western partners' fears that he would seek to realign Slovak foreign policy.

Support for Kyiv despite Pro-Russian rhetoric

Despite continuing to treat his domestic audience to more of the pro-Russian rhetoric that helped push Smer across the line in September's election, in practice, the Slovak premier appears to be trying to play more nicely than expected.

During a visit to the town of Uzhhorod in western Ukraine last week, the strongman performed a surprising U-turn, pledging support for Kyiv's bid for EU membership, as well as the €50-billion ($54-billion) funding package that his Hungarian ally, Viktor Orban, has been blocking.

He also promised to allow weapons from Slovak companies to continue flowing, despite an election pledge that "not one bullet" would cross the border, and even quietly agreed to collaborate on arms production.

'Trumpian' behavior

This cooperation was all the more surprising given that just days before his trip, Fico had parroted Kremlin narratives, labeling Ukraine a US fiefdom that should offer land to Russia in return for peace.

The contrast between his words and deeds was so sharp that some media outlets even questioned his mental state, says Grigorij Meseznikov from the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.

"His performances are becoming bizarre," the political scientist told DW. "Trumpian at times."

Impact on Slovakia's reputation

That has raised concerns about the impact on Slovakia's reputation among Western partners, he adds. Media reports suggest that NATO allies have stopped sharing sensitive information with Bratislava.

But some suspect that such antics could be a ruse, intended to distract attention from the new government's domestic activities.

Stopping criminal investigations into allies

The first point of business Fico has been tackling since his return as PM was to halt criminal investigations into several members of Smer's inner circle.

Police and prosecutors have been working in recent years to try to dismantle the corrupt networks that opponents claim flourished during his previous time in office. Many have been jailed; others still face charges.

Fico is pushing amendments to the criminal code that would break up the special prosecutor's office leading the chase. These amendments could also do away with NAKA, the police unit dedicated to fighting organized crime, and reduce punishments for corruption and protection for whistleblowers.

Fear of a return to a 'Mafia state'

The move has spooked Fico's opponents at home and abroad.

Tens of thousands have protested across the country over the past three months, fearful of a return of the "Mafia state" they accuse Fico of creating during his previous reign.

In its customary fashion, Brussels has expressed concern.

In mid-January, the European Parliament passed a resolution questioning the state of the rule of law in Slovakia should the changes be carried out.

But while the European Commission is stopping short of halting funds for Slovakia's fiscally-challenged state coffers, Fico is in no mood to stop.

Protests a concern for Fico

Following delays by the opposition, the coalition government used its majority in parliament in late January to agree to fast-track the bill.

Most expect it to be approved by early February, and for the Smer government to swiftly turn its attention to other targets.

"The protests are a concern for Fico," Milan Nic at the German Council on Foreign Relations told DW. "They're influencing public sentiment and discourse. Therefore, it's likely that they'll move on quickly to increase their sway over public media."

The need for speed

The pace is also being driven by concerns inside the coalition, say analysts.

Amid Fico's dash to save his allies from prosecution, questions are already being asked regarding the unity of his three-party coalition, which also includes the far-right Slovak National Party and nominally social democratic Hlas.

Pellegrini slipping in the polls

Fico's former protege Peter Pellegrini, who split from Smer amid the Kuciak scandal to form Hlas, has been a prime target of the protests.

Previously a clear favorite to win March's presidential election, his lead in the polls has been slipping as chants of "Podrztaska!" — which loosely translates as "lackey" or "minion" — have filled the streets.

Wary that the judicial bill could wreck his chances, Pellegrini is understood to be furious, and seeking to slow or moderate it.

But while installing his ally in Bratislava Castle would offer Fico control over the appointment of judges and the heads of regulatory bodies, it has become a secondary consideration, suggests Meseznikov.

"There's a sense that Fico needs to get his radical agenda achieved ASAP," he says. "There are indications of nervousness within the coalition about the steps being taken, and they're not sure how long the unity will hold."

Nic, meanwhile, asserts that it's not only the ruling coalition that needs to get its skates on: "The other question from the first 100 days is whether there will be a viable alternative," he says. "The opposition is on the spot and appears unable to step up."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan