Slovakia, the small country that most of people know because its proximity to the Czech Republic, has undergone little cultural change since the Velvet revolution of 1989. It is now known as a country with one of the fastest developing economies in Europe (with a GDP growth of 0.60) – it has even been named a Tatra tiger, a name deriving from the well renowned ski location High Tatras. The Slovaks are also excellent at hockey, and Bratislava has become the yearly bachelor party-town for young British adults.
What most people don’t know about Slovakia is that the country is slowly swallowed by political corruption, mass demonstrations and parallel political movements. Only a month ago, on the celebration of the Velvet revolution day November 17, several thousands of people gathered on the streets of main Slovakian cities to voice their disagreement with a corruption scandal so large, its occurrence no longer affords ignorance. Meanwhile, a non-governmental organisation Alliance for Family (Aliancia za Rodinu) obtained more than 400.000 signatures for a referendum which seeks to change the Constitutional law, henceforth prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting and raising children, restricting the notion of marriage to exclusively ‘one man and one woman’, and allowing children to opt out on mandatory education on sexuality and euthanasia. The two waves of opinions have since clashed on various media platforms and television discussions, where debates on the referendum remain fairly balanced so far.
Corruption scandals have become a rather common phenomenon over the past few years in Slovakian politics. In 2011, a wiretapping action carried out by the Slovak Secret Service (SIS) uncovered secret meetings of politicians, allegedly even the PM and various businessmen, who privately discussed plans to acquire money from privatisation contracts. The documents, which had actually been recorded in 2005, leaked online and triggered a nation-wide wave of protests. This resulted in thousands of people marching onto the Presidential Palace in the capital, throwing bananas and fire-crackers at the building. The scandal was named Gorilla, and for a few months it became the focus of the national political discourse. Naturally, after some time, the scandal’s popularity receded; although it mildly influenced the outcome of the parliamentary elections in 2012, the case of Gorilla has been ‘swept under the carpet’, with an occasional reference to it when journalists provocatively ask the Prime Minister Robert Fico if he ‘was present in the flat’, to which the PM, now out of habit, refuses to answer.
A more recent scandal involves a tendering procedure of a hospital in Piešťany. The Slovak MP Martin Poliačik has been kind enough to give us an overview of the course of events. After 2012 parliamentary elections, Direction replaced the members of the hospital board with their own candidates, featuring a Slovak rapper called Ego (Michal Straka). The new board cancelled a previous tender for a new CT machine, which was won by Siemens with a price of approx. €1 million, and has since declared a new tender. Out of the two contestants, the Medical Group SK won the tender, for a price €600.000 higher than the previous one. A large amount of shares of this company had previously been owned by a current Speaker of the Parliament, namely Pavol Paška. Before starting his career in politics, Mr Paška sold his shares of the company to his neighbour. After a long chain of selling, those shares of Medical Group were finally moved to Belize, meaning that it is currently impossible to see who the owners of the shares are. Because of this, Mr Paška is suspected of owning the company and making money of tenders unbeneficial to the Slovak Republic. After the scandal has been exposed, thousands of people went to the streets and called for a change in the parliament, and namely for the resignation of Mr Paška. In the end, Mr Paška resigned on both the post of Speaker and MP.
The political situation in Slovakia seems highly detrimental with respect to standards upheld at least nominally in a modern democratic country. From a cultural point of view, it exhibits even more internal problems. Slovakia is massively Catholic, as shown in a 2011 census where 61% of the population was estimated to hold Roman Catholic beliefs. This is important to highlight in the context of the upcoming referendum, organized by the Alliance for Family. This NGO claims that it has no religious, ideological or political affiliations but the majority of its affiliates and supporters are openly religious, and have been sponsored by various religious organizations. The problem is a clash within the framework of values which the Alliance attempts to operate on. Open bigotry and homophobia form part of their campaign, which is in support of what was previously dubbed the ‘referendum for the family’. The referendum posed four questions, on which the Slovaks get to vote on February 7, 2015. The questions are:
- 1. Do you agree that only the cohabitation a man and a woman can be called marriage?
- Do you agree that same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt and raise children?
- Do you agree that no other cohabitation between couples, other than marriage, should be granted particular protection, rights and duties that the legislative norms as of March 1, 2014 only grant to marriage and to spouses (namely official acknowledgement, registration as a life community in front of a public authority, the option of child adoption by the spouse of a parent)?
- Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if their parents or the children themselves do not agree with the content of the education?
Upon inspection of the Constitutional Court, the third question was deemed, to the great disappointment of the Alliance, unconstitutional. However, the other questions raised were recognized and passed in line with the constitutional law.
The opposition to the referendum voiced disapproval in many ways, namely political parties, online blogs, voices of theologians, activists and liberals, all of which criticised the nature of the referendum, and deemed it a movement against human rights. In fact, two judges from the Constitutional Court phrased their concerns, arguing that the referendum might discriminate against LGBT minorities in Slovakia. Moreover, it enables parents and children alike to opt-out of classes focusing on sexual education and euthanasia. Other concerns flagged up by critics assume that the referendum might increase the percentage of unwanted pregnancies, if the children are not subject to basic sexual education. With regards to euthanasia, the debate mainly pointed to the value of discourse, which the Alliance attempted to enforce as a one-sided option, thus causing the stagnation of education, which is already of a poor quality in Slovakia.
Far from the recent liberal announcements of Pope Francis, the Slovakian religious community largely proved itself capable of focusing on incitement of homophobia and hatred towards sexual minorities. Last Easter, the pastoral letter, issued by the bishops of the Slovak Catholic Church, referred to a ‘culture of death’ and warned against sinful ways of life in the country. Moreover, the religious community continuously attempts to boycott music festivals, like this year’s Gothoom in Nová Baňa; they also organize a March for Life (Pochod za život), which is essentially a march against abortion. Tomáš Kováčik, one of the movement’s organizers, is of the opinion that abortion should not be allowed even when the woman’s life is in danger, and many others find themselves in agreement with his argument.
While in the UK the Conservative government allows same-sex marriages, Slovakia battles basic questions of personal and human rights and freedoms. Although the ruling party is named DIRECTION – Social Democracy (SMER), it has little to do with social democracy itself, and is largely linked with left-wing populism. Moreover, the current Prime Minister, Robert Fico, is a former member of the Communist Party. The political scene in Slovakia cannot be really described according to the French notions of Left and Right – most of the political parties are self-interested entities, with SMER issuing policies resulting in harmful conditions for small businesses, low-incomers and the unemployed. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and its community carries on the fight against sexual minorities. Although situation in Slovakia is very tense, recent events raised questions and discussions about these issues. Even if the scope of the national discussion cannot be compared to a democratic one as was the case in the UK with the Scottish referendum, even Slovakia sees people becoming more vocal on both sides of the debate. This is crucial for a country aspiring to be democratic. The stigma of communism and restricted freedom of speech may not have disappeared yet, but Slovakia is on the right path.
 *In Slovakia, the SP is not a consensually nominated position which is accepted by all sides, but a nomination
made by the ruling party.