The year of magical thinking in Slovakia
The shaken community
On a warm, autumn evening, Martin M. Simecka – a journalist philosopher from a dissident family – spoke to a crowd of about five thousand people assembled in front of the Parliament in Bratislava. He asked them to think of all those people around whenever they were feeling despair or losing hope. “Look around to see and remember who these people are.”
People turned around to look at their peers holding mobile phones in the air with their flashlights on. Finally, Juraj Benetin of the band Korben Dallas sang the national anthem. Earlier this year in March, when the first of these assemblies occurred, the crowd barely remembered the lyrics, now they could sing the whole anthem without hesitation.
Recent news was hanging over the demonstration, the day before eight people had been arrested in connection with a crime that has rocked Slovakia for the last nine months. Three of the arrested were accused of murdering the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. Both were shot in February this year; an event which has revived magical thinking in Slovak society.
By magical thinking, I mean that political actors no longer acted on previous scenarios. They even abandoned rationality and returned to a moment when political community had to be negotiated anew.
Politics was no longer a power game focused on counting parliamentary seats, managing strategies or anything else we attached to the concept before Jan and Martina were found on the floor of their house. The event dragged us into a state of insecurity when suddenly we had to ask questions we thought were first answered in 1989 – when the Velvet revolution decided that Slovakia would join the liberal democracies – and in 1998 – when the autocratic PM, Meciar, was removed from power which meant that Slovakia would become a member of NATO and the European Union.
So, we had to start again asking these fundamental questions touching upon the nature of the state and security of its citizens: Do we know enough about the country we live in? Why did a person who apparently knew more than most had to die? Who killed him and his partner? What if the state had been taken over by oligarchs and whoever touches their interests, has to go? Or is it mafia that became so bold to kill a journalist in his house? And finally, can we learn the truth about the execution of the journalist and who ordered it even if the names he mentioned in his work are in position of power?
In such moments, people turn to magical thinking. They wish to know where evil resides, how it is masked and who the good people are. For this, they tell each other myths.
A colleague of mine who studied political science and spent years as a parliamentary correspondent was perplexed: “I never quite understood this thing, people referring to Janko and Martinka (diminutives of their names) and treating them as national heroes as if they laid down their lives for the country,” he complained. He was right, political science could no longer explain it, but rather philosophy of community building, psychology of large groups suffering from PTSD or simply, religion.
When Martin M. Simecka asked people to look around to gain trust in those people who were present on the square, this gesture was not unlike the ritual of shaking hands in Lutheran churches. After mass, the pastor asks believers to give each other a “sign of peace”: they greet, look into each other’s eyes and maybe even resolve quarrels. The result should be a feeling that you can trust people around you as they too can have confidence with the other people within their reach, thus we form a community of trust with an obedience to rules which are evident and followed. A simple practice of social coherence.
These open-air meetings started in March as an assembly of mourners holding up the portraits of the two victims. After a set of speeches on press freedom, the first (and then every other) demonstration finished with a recital of the national anthem; the lyrics – from 1848 which depict a romantic sense of nation building – were now filled with new meanings and the old feelings of a community standing together against its oppressors were once again recalled. Essentially, it became a ritual of bonding with the state, a “we are the people” gesture.
Thus Spoke PM Fico
The practice of anthem singing was used during the Maidan protests in Kiev, too. But that was not the reason why the government circles started speaking about the “maidanisation” of the street. The “street” or the “square” entered their language to become a synonym of political forces of chaos, a destabilisation of the system and even of the end of democracy.
Facing the crowd which no longer simply mourned but started to push for demands, the senior coalition party Smer – Social Democracy (in coalition with Slovak nationalists and Slovak-Hungarian party, both of which were less affected by the Kuciak case) performed their version of magical thinking.
The decision to come up with their own narrative was captured by the words of the ex-prime minister Fico who was, due to the associated events, forced to resign. The main problem, he claimed, was that the party failed to transmit their version of the story.
Consequently, Fico became even more enraged with critical media. A few years earlier, he famously proclaimed that “some journalists were just dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes” because they did not report about the Slovak presidency to the EU Council in a favourable light. After Kuciak’s murder, the director of Reporters Without Borders (among others) suggested that Fico should make peace with journalists. Instead of making any such gestures, Fico decided to blame the media for the pressure on his government and his party.
The only place where Fico could rest and feel understood was the anti-establishment scene of conspiracy theories and social networks. There, Fico found the counter-narrative he could present:
“Let’s have a look at one of the so-called protest organisers Juraj Seliga. We see a clear connection to George Soros. Let’s look at the son of President Kiska, at a mysterious meeting of the head of the state Kiska in New York with Soros… (…) Don’t be mistaken that Juraj Seliga and some Miss Karolina Farska managed (to organise protests) with no budget and logistics from foreign sources.”
While Kuciak’s investigative work uncovering the connections between Smer party members, oligarchs connected to state procurement, local and Italian mafia using ESI funds to cover up drug dealings with their people located even at the Government office, Fico proposed his own investigative story.
He suggested that while we did not have a clue of who might have killed the journalist – and the police were working on it – he was sure that the protests were not genuine but pre-arranged. Instead of questioning what society we lived in, Fico asked us to consider who might have been so bold as to abuse the death of two people to stage a coup d’état and try to topple a legitimate government.
Armed with the sentiment that “things just happen in this region” and that post-socialist countries have continuously been a geopolitical battleground, Fico’s story gave a good alibi to those who did not join the largest protests in Slovakia since 1989, and Fico did not miss a chance to rely on “those silent people who stayed at home.”
His story was based on the ancient ideological foundations of the paranoid Left – a global oligarchy that sets the rules – and of the xenophobic Right – a rich, Jewish, New-York-based magnate who orchestrates fake civil societies, look at what is happening in Ukraine and isn’t he persona non grata in Hungary? All this was not spoken outright but present in the public discourse after Fico’s Soros “revelation”.
He thus spoke about the conspiring troika of “the media – protest organisers – and the president” (who suggested early elections or government reconstruction as possible ways out from the crisis). This way, he drew a new map for magical thinking. A map, in which good and evil were turned upside down and he – together with the silent people who stayed at home – represented democracy defending itself from the forces of non-elected exploiters who were using Jan’s death as a window of opportunity to grab power.
What comes after Soros takes over? Every social media user who has come across anti-establishment forums knows: elected politicians will lose control of the state, NGOs will bring in immigrants and a multinational society will be moulded instead: a society of slaves as Salvini once put it.
The children of Soros
Of course, Fico left all this to be finished in one’s imagination. He merely asked the president why he met Soros a couple of months ago. Actually, there were no secrets about the get together, but suggesting that the Roma program was just a pretext for a more “serious” meeting is all that is required for magical thinking to do its work. It replaces the truth with a “deeper truth”, including mythological explanations.
We have seen how the Soros narrative was employed by Viktor Orbán’s election campaign. He managed to use Soros as a powerful container for everything he stood against: liberalism, open society, globalisation and foreign influence on domestic politics.
Fico borrowed a ready-made narrative to fight against the supposed aspects of illegitimate forces trying to permeate democracy as he invoked repeatedly. The president has been his nemesis from the moment he beat Fico in direct presidential elections. The critical media tend to understand Fico as direct heir of Meciar, so there has always been a mutual mistrust. The new element is the “street” which Fico understands as a crowd manipulated by NGOs paid from undisclosed sources, often by Soros.
So, the main message of his narrative was to show that what media presented as civil society gaining confidence and taking back control – by making clear demands who should step down – was in fact a trick of the few to disguise themselves as masses, as popular will.
For Fico, it was important to use Soros – although even his party was split on the use of this trope – because it gave him the possibility to present the social conflict differently: instead of people standing against oligarchy and mafia, it was people against NGOs and the global mafia of the ultrarich.
This is similar to how Orbán, prior to the April elections, relied – among other aggressive strategies – on fake investigative journalism to fabricate evidence for the magical story of a Soros-led global network of NGOs, Fico and those party members who joined his line eagerly presented their investigations: “Look, these young leaders actually have a history! They have links to Soros through all kinds of associations and NGO work.”
They never actually proposed what these connections were or what they could mean because there was no need, often suspicion is all that is needed. A cheap but dramatic imitation of investigative work served the purpose of undermining the legitimacy of the organisers as representatives of the people. Rather, they were presented as a threat, a mere tool of someone much more powerful.
Finishing a line of reasoning or even sentences was not necessary. The anti-systemic front and the nationalist front would gladly finish them. For example, a former-right-hand man of the Slovak National Party ex-leader Jan Slota reinvented himself as a contributor to the ultraconservative Kremlin-loyal webzine Hlavne spravy. He posted several articles where he presented people from the supposed cosmopolitan-elites linked to Soros.
In this region, finding links to Soros is rather easy as the basis of civil society was to a great extent laid by him as part of the democratisation project for post-socialist countries. It is thus no surprise to find Soros-funded stipends or NGO projects co-funded by Soros’s funds in one’s CV.
Branding everyone who ever touched these sources – or sources of foreign embassies – or took a scholarship or professional training abroad – is nothing less than a project of damaging regional elites. Or, as the Polish and Hungarian governments know too well, a project of exchanging elites for loyal nationalists.
Fico likes to remind us that when he was the head of one-party absolute majority government – 2012-2016 – he never crippled the media, the judicial system or NGOs in the way his Hungarian and Polish colleagues did. However, after he used the Soros card, we know that even if he is no longer prime minister, he is willing to pull the safety brake for the sake of his career and the party, including shifting the debate from “saving the rule of law” to “saving parliamentary democracy from non-elected extra-political forces”.
These two narratives go parallel with the events in neighbouring Visegrad countries. However, in Slovakia, “saving the rule of law” is no longer an abstract idea. The double murder gave it a painfully concrete form. It breeds patriotism, brings together religious reasoning with proto-political thinking, enriches civil society by popular support as well as offering a platform for different forms of critique.
The protests were joined by several professional groups such as teachers, nurses and farmers. They have been supported by actors from the National Theatre and public intellectuals such as Martin M. Simecka, who transmitted the uncompromising language of anti-communist dissidents of truth versus lie. A kind of magical thinking at home in the region.
Zuzana Kepplova is a columnist, writer and an editor of the opinion section at the leading Slovak newspaper, SME.