On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

Introducing Mr Kiska… And Slovakia’s Presidential Race

Andrej Kiska: Fico's main challenger in the Presidential race

Andrej Kiska: Fico’s main challenger in the Presidential race

What with all the attention diverted one set of borders east to the Ukraine, it’s quite possible Slovakia’s Presidential Election on March 15 won’t attract too much international attention. But it is, here in Slovakia, an increasingly interesting contest and one where the virtual unknown Andrej Kiska is set for a run-in with current Prime Minister Robert Fico.

To put all those not familiar with Slovak politics in the picture: as leader of Slovakia’s governing party, Smer-SD,  Fico has had all the money behind his campaign. This is evidenced in Bratislava by numerous billboards with Fico’s resolute face. (Slovakia do US-sized advertising billboards so it can be imagined just how large that face is). Indeed, for a while this seemed to be very much a one-horse race. Early polls put Fico twenty points plus above his nearest challenger. But in January and February, Andrej Kiska has come on a pace in most polls, some of which now actually tip him to win against Fico in the second round (two of the fourteen candidates getting the most votes will go forward to a second round of voting on March 29).

Try finding information out on Andrej Kiska and it’s not easy. There’s almost nothing in English and the Slovak wikipedia page on him didn’t exist until quite recently. Even the man’s own website doesn’t give very much away.  What’s clear is that Andrej Kiska is a businessman, hailing originally from Poprad – a millionaire several times over who made his money in selling loans and since invested it, among other things, in charitable projects including the charity Dobrý Anjel and in stopping bribery in healthcare. All of which makes him something of a philanthropist. But not really a politician. Indeed, Mr Kiska has no political experience whatsoever.

He seems to be using this as his secret weapon. He comes at this election, he says, as impartial, as an independent. It could be a much-needed quality in a Slovak political scene utterly dominated by Fico’s (centre left-leaning) Smer-SD party. And political experience is of course not so necessary for a President in Slovakia, whose role is as head of state, not head of Slovak parliament. Kiska is certainly giving the Fico Presidential bid enough of a run for its money to unnerve them slightly: there have already been a few words exchanged. More are likely to follow, too, when the fourteen Presidential candidates appear on a series of TV debates beginning March 9th (Kiska is keen, he says, to not make this debate a one-to-one between him and Fico).

The Election is also interesting because if successful, Fico will no longer be able to stay Prime Minister and his party must decide who to replace him. This could mean that the new Prime Minister of the country could be Robert Kaliňák. Food for thought hey? Now, Englishmaninslovakia.com doesn’t get political but Kaliňák would be one of the strangest looking Prime Ministers in Europe was he to be given the nod (he may be a nice enough guy but those eyes are pretty intense). Then again, Kiska looks like he’s gone a few too many rounds in a boxing ring, so it’s all relative…

Robert Kaliňák

Robert Kaliňák

Kiska will also likely argue in the near future that if Fico was elected President, the power his Smer-SD party would then have (they dominated in the regional governor elections too) would be a threat to Slovakia, and that his own election as President would provide the counterbalance to Smer-SD politics.

But does Kiska really stand a chance? Well, let’s just say that the billboard pictures at the top of this blog post (see Fico, much smaller, on the next billboard up?) are not directly proportional.