15 November 2016

A queue for the realist left, from Slovakia


The Right Honourable Róbert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, is someone I consider to be a (fairly) successful leftist, and one whom more on the left in America and elsewhere should seek to learn from. Fico (the leader of the Direction – Social Democracy party) came to my attention a little over a year ago, in 2015, after he was mentioned on Bill Mitchell’s blog as a critic of Germany’s austerity policies which reduced Greece to the status of an ‘EU protectorate’.

Even though his early policies accommodated the EU financial and foreign-policy line to a very significant extent (including, sadly, joining the Eurozone), Fico has proven himself to be a competent steward of Slovakia’s social and business environment, as well as a staid defender of welfare-state policies which many of Europe’s other nominally ‘socialist’ or ‘social-democratic’ parties have abandoned. He built his base of support on an unabashedly populist platform, mostly by loudly condemning the business élites of his country and their enablers in the Dzurinda government for their aggressive neoliberal postures against wage labourers and the elderly.

Prior to Fico, Slovakia had a regressive flat tax on income, which Fico changed (drawing the ire of libertarians and foreign businessmen) to a rather more progressive two-tier income tax supplemented by the more Western European-standard VAT tax. Largely under the influence of his party Direction’s agitation, Slovakia also implemented a Robin Hood Tax on bank liabilities. On matters of health insurance, even though Fico was blocked from instituting a public health mandate, he nevertheless instituted punitive legal measures which would prevent private insurers from price-gouging (a component which is notably missing in Obamacare). He has also done a great deal to protect the elderly on the public pension system. On transportation, Fico has pushed for what might almost be called a distributist cost-accounting measure – raising tolls on (especially international) freight whilst not levying tolls on passenger vehicles. Unfortunately, he was able to implement this measure only after negotiating a fuel subsidy with a truckers’ association. He has made some similar compromises on austerity measures, but for the most part maintained his status as a critic of the austerity regime on the margins of Europe. In spite of these populist stances, though, Fico is still very much a left democratic socialist rather than an agrarian or a Tory. He has fought to keep food prices down in the cities (a stance which represents one of the unfortunate breaks between ‘red’ and ‘green’ in the united Czechoslovakia under Antonín Švehla).

Be that as it may, overall he has managed to implement a broad array of real, old-school leftist goals, even as the broader trend of the European Union has been towards neoliberal ‘reforms’, privatisation and marketisation, at the expense of the weakest members of society. At the end of the first Fico cabinet, Slovakia had one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world (alongside Norway, Belarus and the Czech Republic).

In terms of foreign policy, Róbert Fico has taken some truly brave and moral stands. He has been instrumental in withdrawing Slovak support from the Iraq War, a venture which he called ‘unjust and wrong’, and ‘only motivated by oil’; at the same time, he emphasised that Slovaks would serve in Afghanistan only in a non-combat capacity. Channeling the independent spirit of Canada’s ‘Red Tory’ premier John Diefenbaker, Fico refused to accommodate any part of a revamped American missile shield in his country – and has also denounced plans to build the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. He lambasted Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia’s former right-wing dictator) for committing acts of aggression against Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia. Though he was silent on the subject of the Crimea referendum, Fico has nonetheless been a vocal and unrelenting opponent of EU sanctions against Russia.

He has had to walk a fine line between preserving the Catholic, Christian culture of Slovakia in the face of unbridled immigration on the one hand, and the rise of right-wing nationalism both in Slovakia and elsewhere in Europe on the other – and many of his Western colleagues would argue that he hasn’t been very good at walking it. It is true that Fico has said some fairly harsh and uncompromising things, on the topic of Islamic immigration into Slovakia. But Fico has also unfailingly denounced vigilantism and the perpetration of violence upon immigrants in Slovakia by right-wing groups – and most of his supporters (correctly) say they want to help Islamic populations by opposing the imperialist policies which create refugee crises in the first place! As a result, many of these right-wing parties, which are driven by hatred rather than by realist concerns, want nothing to do with Fico (and the feeling is evidently mutual).

Last but not least, Fico’s strongest and most consistent base of support is in Slovakia’s far east – among one of Slovakia’s national minorities, the Rusyns of Transcarpathia. The Rusyns have a cultural and religious identity which is quite distinct from the Slovaks – linguistically, they speak a language which is on the Czechoslovak continuum but which shares many elements with Russian and Ukrainian, and which is written in Cyrillic. Religiously, they belong either to Uniate (Byzantine-Catholic) communities or, increasingly, to the Orthodox Church in the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Politically, the question of why the rural and heavily-Rusyn areas of Svidník, Stropkov and Medzilaborce in Prešovský kraj lean so overwhelmingly toward Fico is an interesting one, and I have a couple of educated guesses. The first is that these areas have a strong historical, cultural and religious affinity with Russia, to which Fico has appealed strongly with his foreign policy of ‘Slavonic solidarity’. The second may be that many Rusyns, particularly the older ones of working-class and peasant background, remember fondly the interwar arrangement and land reform under the early red-green coalition of Švehla which allowed their families to own and farm their own land rather than working for a big landlord or corporation, and therefore have warm feelings toward the populist and left-wing politics that Fico and Direction represent.

Obviously, America is not Slovakia. And left-wing realism will take on a far different shape here than there. But Fico, for all his flaws, is a good example to have in our back pocket, so that we can learn from both his failures and his successes.

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