From the legendary castle towering the city to the Blue Church and the historic city center, Pressburg (Bratislava’s name up until 1919) seems to be an underestimated gem. My first trip there, back in 2018, was a memorable experience. So was particularly the two-hour research “interaction” (as calling our encounter an interview would be an understatement) with Milan Mazurek, the then-youngest member of parliament in an EU country. A 6-foot-tall young bald man sat comfortably in his office chitchatting with his assistant while greeting me in fluent English. He most certainly did not look like the typical member of parliament: in fact, the first thing I noticed on his table was a huge box of Whey protein on top of a sports bag. Rather amiable and poised, yet somewhat confident and adamant, he went on to ascertain that I “don’t look like a liberal”, boasting about how he (literally) called out an MP for interrupting his speech. From what I could understand, “looking like a liberal” denotes a person of a particular imagined physical appearance (e.g. buttoned-up flannel shirt, hippie haircut and glasses), but also someone lacking authority or knowledge about the matters they are engaging with.
The seemingly easygoing Mazurek, however, is a rather infamous figure on the political scene of Slovakia. A candidate for the far-right Kotlebovci – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia, L’SNS) in the recent elections, Mazurek already had a prolific history of scandalous public statements. An outspoken critic of the former Center-Left government, he has built his political reputation as a brisk and uncompromising speaker, never shying away from controversial statements. Such a loudmouthed approach seems to work: in the general elections held on February 29th, Mazurek was re-elected MP with 65,921 votes, being the second most-highly voted member of his party (after its leader, Marian Kotleba). Kotleba’s party gained overall a total of 17 out of 150 seats, which is three more as compared to the last elections, making L’SNS the fourth strongest party in Slovakia.
Nevertheless, Mazurek has also experienced numerous legal issues for his behavior in and outside Parliament, which proved to be emblematic of his political character. In September 2019, he became the first MP to lose his seat in parliament due to a court ruling, after he was sentenced for hurling racist and abusive messages at the Roma minority during a radio show. In the show, Mazurek reportedly indicated that “there should be no need to invest 300 million Euros into one community, to build preschools or install sports equipment, but instead put the Gypsies to work”. Mazurek is not the only one from Kotleba’s party who was tried for hate speech: Stanislav Mizík, a member of the Slovak National Council, was however acquitted of the accusation of spreading anti-Semitic content over his Facebook profile.
Bound to success
Why would anyone vote for such representatives – one may then be tempted to ask? Apart from the abhorrent statements coming from its party members, Kotlebovci have been renowned for their social activism and day-to-day engagement with their voters. Whether it was helping the elderly (e.g. buying vehicles for nursing services) or halting an increase in the retirement age, Kotlebists have been in continuous contact with their potential electorate. The party representatives have proposed a law extending Christmas holidays, indicating the importance of “spending time with family”. Although such positions coalesce with the general predilection of far-right parties towards “family matters” and social conservatism, the party has engaged with topics that are generally not considered “far-right”, such as farming and the environment. Even if such engagements do occur, they are always discursively fitting with broader far-right ideological tenets. As for farming, for instance, in a video featuring Milan Uhrík, the party’s MEP, and Martin Beluský, L’SNS proposes a return to small-scale, family-type work, as opposed to artificial, genetically-modified foods. Such renderings of agricultural debates are emblematic of far-right approaches to farming in Eastern Europe, with Hungary’s Jobbik being one of the most vociferous supporters of small farming. Likewise, in the matter of environmental protection, the party spokespersons articulate an authentic far-right imaginary in the environmental domain. The Far-Right ecologism of Kotlebists consists of envisaging an authentic communion between Slovaks and the land in which they live. With this pastoral imagery, the party puts an emphasis on protecting the ‘homeland’ not only by defending it from immigrants, but by invoking the conservative tropes of stewardship and responsibility and love for nature. This ‘Far-Right Ecologism’ is usually imbued with an unwavering localism, putting an emphasis on small-scale, local-based and grassroots-type activities with an immediate and concrete outcome, instead of an engagement with large-scale sources of pollution and environmental harm e.g. climate change.
In terms of international cooperation, L’SNS is also well integrated in the broader (Eastern) European far-right landscape. Aside from connections with Polish far-right organizations, such as Ruch Narodowy and the The All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), the organization collaborates with far-right movements in Serbia and has unofficial contacts with the far right in Ukraine. The foreign policy positions of Kotlebovci can be summarized in anti-globalism: against Slovakia’s NATO and EU membership, the party also renders international news with a distinguishable anti-Israel bias. In its latest election program, the party also called for a “merit-based” social policy, hinting at the alleged welfare abuses of the Roma population. However, Kotlebists are also eager to support policies such as reducing the number of deputies at the National Council from 150 to 100, supporting public healthcare and putting a moratorium on tax increases. Such policy positions seem to be well received by their electorate, with strongholds in smaller towns and villages across Slovakia and, something that is not entirely unexpected in Eastern Europe, among younger voters.
Action and reaction
Two considerations are needed to grasp what is behind the now repeated electoral success of the far-right in Slovakia. The first is to understand the specific moment of the 2020 elections. The crisis instigated by the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner amplified the distrust in the formerly ruling center-left SMER-SD, forcing the resignation of then Prime Minister, Robert Fico. While drawing comparisons runs the risk of simplifying the necessarily complex contextual specificities, these elections in many ways remind us of what happened in Hungary after the 2006 Gyurcsány scandal, when the then-PM of Hungary admitted to deceiving the Hungarian public. That instigated nation-wide protests against corruption and untrustworthy politicians which laid fertile soil for the resurgence of the far-right in Hungary, then-championed by Jobbik and later emulated by the now ruling Fidesz. Simultaneously, the foreign policy momentum does not seem promising for post-socialist regimes either. With Brexit being successfully completed (though one may question the extent of the ‘success’) and the devastation reaped by the Coronavirus showing once again the internal prioritization of nation states, far-right parties have gained a much needed impetus, which now makes their foreign policy positions not as unattainable as they may have seemed just some years ago.
The second is to understand that people who vote for Kotlebovci reflect the profound and ongoing structural fissures in Slovak society, which have been reflected in the ideological domain. Besides the scandalous public appearances, Kotleba’s party has benefited from circumstances which have obviously pointed to the need for a reshuffling of the cards. That points to serious issues of an ethical nature on the posture to be taken vis-à-vis their rise, which can conduce to the weakening of democracy. The attempts to ignore Kotlebovci or their messages in the public sphere have obviously failed miserably.
While providing them an open forum for such an abominable content is perhaps too bold of an approach, one should definitely refrain from indulging in historical debates or ‘fascism’ accusations, focusing instead on their policy contributions. While the ideologically-poised content of their messages should not be underestimated (as the cases of farming or environment have shown), the only possible way to move beyond the deadlock is to build bridges: not between Kotlebovci and other political parties, but between voters who need to be brought on board for the future.
What kind of bridges? Those which are constructed by breaking off the shackles of the moral panic of a fascist gang perceived to threaten the liberal democratic order. While Milan Mazurek and his colleagues from Kotlebovci are not likely to contribute to the advancement of liberal democracy in Slovakia, one needs to understand that their activities ‘on the ground’ with those who have long been forgotten (and forsaken) by the elites have helped to alleviate the traumatic experience of ‘being left out’. To contain the far-right upsurge, in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, it is not enough just to draw their representatives into the deep waters of concrete and domain-specific policy debates. Incorporating identity politics without deepening the gap between ‘us’ and the ‘others’ (particularly along ethnic lines) can be potentially done by reviving the grassroots component of politics: exactly where the Slovakian far right has excelled. Surely enough, the ideological tenacity and adaptability of far-right parties calls for a multifaceted approach, which starts with a complex and potentially traumatic endeavor of exchanging one’s lenses with those of our adversaries.
Photo: VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP
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