Aliaksei, you have been working for several years on Slovak populist parties. Can you briefly tell us about their similarities to—and differences from—those in the other Central European countries?
Slovakia is an extremely interesting case that has a tradition of being a regional outlier. Overall, the country has performed very impressively in the three decades since 1989. In the ’90s it used to be called the “black hole of Europe” because of its democratic backsliding. However, it caught up with regional standards and, in some respects, even surpassed former “star pupils” of transition like Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In 2015 Slovakia participated in the Visegrád Four rebellion against the EU system of refugee quotas. The government and most political parties could not avoid the temptation of tapping into the anti-migrant agenda. This could be explained in part by the parallel rise of the radical right and overall public sentiment. Mainstream parties probably felt that the fringe could easily steal votes from them here, which had the cumulative effect of shifting political discourse to the right.
However, much of the Slovak political establishment has traditionally had pro-EU attitudes. This is due in no small part to the experience of the ’90s, when Slovakia was almost left behind because of its democratic backsliding. Soon after the Visegrád Four’s anti-migration démarche, Robert Fico’s government tried to distance itself somewhat from “illiberal” Hungary and Poland, declaring that the Visegrád Group was not an alternative to the EU and that Slovakia wanted to be at the “core“ of European integration—whatever that means.
Generally speaking, Slovakia is not free from right-wing populism, some of which looks quite dangerous. However, it seems that there is somewhat less space for national identity-driven politics here. Poland and Hungary, for instance, both have powerful traditions of combining messianism with self-victimization, an unsavory cocktail that sometimes tastes very Russian. This allows politicians to tap into nationalist grievance narratives, often centered on memory politics or so-called “beached diasporas”—that is, ethnic kin separated by new state borders. Slovak history is complicated and sometimes tragic, but one political advantage it probably has is not having such legacies of messianism/self-victimization.
How is the anti-Muslim agenda of the Slovak far right constructed?
In this sense, the country is no outlier at all. All Central European voters live in the shadow of the so-called imaginary migrant, the Muslim they have never met but whom they know for sure is very dangerous. At the start of the election cycle, the far right begins feeding the voter images of “no-go zones” in Western cities, spicing them with vague memories of the Ottoman Turk that date back to the 1526 Battle of Mohács or the Siege of Vienna. Then everybody just forgets about it, because, as Hungary’s Two-Tailed Dog Party once put it, the chances of meeting an actual migrant from the Middle East here are comparable to the odds of meeting a UFO.
In Slovakia, the very tiny Muslim community (around 5,000) is very well integrated and practically invisible. These are people with college degrees or successful entrepreneurs whose intellectual and social capital is probably much higher than that of the average far-right voter. The integration problems that Muslim communities suffer in post-colonial Western countries are very serious and should not be overlooked, but they simply do not exist here.
There are two parallel realities that practically do not intersect: the life of the tiny Slovak Muslim community and political and media discourse on Islam. In our recent study, we argued that, while actual Muslims are a non-issue in Slovakia, images of Islam become proxies or focal points for a much broader “culture war” between the more diversity-oriented liberals and progressives and those who favor a more culturally protectionist approach. The far right plugs into this. Sometimes it happens in very comical ways, as when they try to securitize consumption habits like the eating of kebab, which is a popular student snack in Slovakia. This is why we named our study “The Slovakebab.”
How is the rise of the Slovak far right connected to broader geopolitical questions such as Visegrád regionalism and perceptions of the EU and Russia?
One important thing to remember about the Visegrád Four is that they do not and cannot have a unified stance on Russia. You could argue that the diversity in the V4 reflects the broader diversity in the EU. By the way, this also pushes the Kremlin to adapt its influence strategies to local cultural and political contexts.
In general, Slovakia is divided. Younger and more educated people tend to be more skeptical toward Putin’s Russia. Unlike in Poland, this does not stem from history and identity, but rather from being better informed about the fact that it is a corrupt and authoritarian regime.
At the same time, many Slovaks remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s hybrid operations due to a cultural legacy of Russophile pan-Slavism, which easily translates into political sympathies toward today’s Russia. As far as the extreme right in particular is concerned, the geopolitics is pretty clear. NATO is a “criminal organization” and the EU is a “prison of the peoples” that is responsible for bringing into white Christian Europe Muslims, gays, multiculturalists, Zionists, Sorosists, Banderites, globalists, and countless other enemies of the nation that in far-right party manifestos tend to be mentioned in the same paragraph.
Fear of the proverbial “Homosharia” marks the discursive strategy of populism, which constructs a radical frontier between the good “people” and the sinister globalist elites who want to destroy it through the hydra of multiple enemies. On the other hand, the traditional adversaries, which have always been the neighboring nations, are conspicuously absent from this discourse. This is a phenomenon that researchers, for better or for worse, have dubbed ethnopopulism. At least for the time being, the far right groups in the region can stop seeing each other as the main threat and focus on the migrant Other that unites them.
In this context, Russia is typically presented as a benign player, a white Christian Slavic power that is supposed to offer some sort of alternative to the corrupt and decadent West. This view has a long tradition in Slovakia. Its nineteenth-century national revivalists, who were at the origins of Slovak national identity-building, looked up to Russia even though they had personally never visited it, only dreamed of it. Something similar is happening to Slovak Russophiles in the twenty-first century. They are dreaming of a country they have very poor knowledge of.
You have been working on Russia, too, especially on the rise of the notion of civilization in Russian political discourse and on the Eurasian construction. How would you articulate both? Is Eurasian regionalism a securitization of Russian identity?
I think it is. That is, if by “securitization” we mean not being able to part with its previous identity as an empire and trying to preserve some sort of an empire at all costs. The term “Eurasian” has a very long and complex pedigree. As we know, connections between different people who call themselves “Eurasianist” are sometimes constructed artificially. Eurasian regionalism as announced by Putin in 2011 pretended to be a purely economic project that even claimed to draw inspiration from the experience of the European Communities. However, this turned out to be little more than a façade. The real meaning of the so-called “Eurasian Union” was not economic cooperation or reconciliation between nations, as it was in the case of European integration. It was Russia’s quest for status and recognition. Moscow wanted the West to recognize it as a hegemon in the post-Soviet space, which it saw as its natural and legitimate sphere of influence.
In the meantime, Russian nationalism and revisionism were gaining momentum. Note that post-Soviet Russia started out in 1991 with the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This was an obvious allusion to the British Commonwealth and the general idea of saying goodbye to your empire. A quarter of a century later, imperial irredentism triumphed, with the “Crimea is ours” slogan warming the hearts of millions of Russians. Russia was unable to part with its old identity as an empire, and this is where the notion of civilization came in. The Russians fell back on the very old narrative of being a unique civilization to which Western norms and rules did not apply. Human rights would not apply fully here—so, for example, people with a different sexual orientation would not be treated equally. Standards for democracy would not apply, because Russia had its own unique version of “sovereign” democracy. International norms, particularly those that require respecting the sovereignty of smaller states, would also not apply.
The EU, for example, is built on the principles of democratic multilateralism. It renounces traditional great power politics and great power management, as we call it in IR. European institutions are designed to allow even the smallest members to have a say in the decision-making process. For instance, last year Cyprus was blocking EU sanctions on Belarus. The EU’s so-called “illiberal axis,” Poland and Hungary, can cooperate and block Brussels’ sanctions against one or the other. This understanding of “international democracy,” which empowers smaller players, is completely alien to Russia, which is convinced that only great powers or “civilizations” can have real sovereignty. Practically, this is a revolt against the liberal democratic international order embodied by the EU and its rules. I think this is where studies of civilizationism as an ideology of national exceptionalism overlap with studies of populism, because populism is also a revolt against the existing political order and its established norms.
The pandemic has changed our collective vision of our bodies’ safety and accelerated the biopoliticization of our societies. How do you think this transformative event will impact populist narratives in Central Europe?
Right now, this is one of the most interesting questions in political science, to which unfortunately I have no ready-made answer! Overall, I would say that, so far, the pandemic has had a very paradoxical, non-linear effect on politics in the broadest sense of the word.
Some very interesting trends have surfaced in terms of how the value of human life was reframed—the so-called grievability of life. Sometimes the reactions were quite shocking. In Belarus, for example, some regime representatives adopted a social Darwinist rhetoric, arguing that the virus was simply “nature’s way of regulating the human population.” At the same time, the pandemic became a moment of truth for Belarus’ regime. Apparently, its COVID-19 denial and crisis mismanagement were one of the triggers of the 2020 Belarus protests. Overall, authoritarian and “hybrid” regimes reacted in a variety of ways, ranging from blunt denial of the pandemic to strategic use thereof through what researchers have described as “selective securitization” or “selective voluntarism.”
In terms of political discourse, one interesting trend I noticed in Central Europe was the framing of the pandemic as a vindication of earlier anti-globalist theses. Some Polish and Czech Euroskeptic conservatives did not spare words in explaining how the virus had finally exposed the weakness and hypocrisy of the liberal-globalist model, the implausibility of the “Europe of open borders,” and the dangers of disregarding national identity and “traditional values.” This new outrage at liberal globalization was linked to traditional Others of which the right had always been suspicious, such as multiculturalism, migration, and secularism. Now it was all the fault of liberal-progressivist hubris, which pushed humanity too far away from the time-tested structures of social life. I call this pandemic-inspired narrative anti-Promethean.
Our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you position yourself on the concept of illiberalism? Do you see it as bringing new conceptual elements into the discussion compared to national-populism, populism, or authoritarianism?
The term has had a very exciting career: it has migrated from academia into political discourse and back again, but now with a somewhat different meaning.
I first came across the term “illiberal democracy” as a student, while reading Fareed Zakaria’s famous 2003 book. This was long before Viktor Orbán gave his seminal Tusnádfürdő speech (2014) and snatched the term from political scientists. I think it is important to understand that, in the original analysis, “illiberal” did not necessarily mean subversion of the democratic process. There have been societies where the ruling elite espoused more liberal views than the broader public, and this could result in a hybrid or dictatorial regime.
For Orbán “illiberal democracy” became an ideologeme that he used to legitimize what some researchers call the “post-Communist mafia state.” I think there is a key difference we should keep in mind. Espousing “non-liberal” (e.g., socially conservative) views is one thing. Subverting democracy as a framework for competitive politics, where different political ideologies contend with each other, is quite another. This is a quintessential distinction, and I am very happy to see that experts have been pointing this out.
I did a comprehensive study of Orbán’s speeches at some point and came to the conclusion that he had managed to formulate a populist ideology. I use the term populist because this ideology is built by drawing a radical frontier between the “people” (or the nation) and its multiple “enemies.” This is the same discursive strategy that I described above in relation to the Slovak far right. Orbán’s political rhetoric uses the label of “liberalism” to discursively construct a generalized negative Other. As students of Hungary have pointed out, the label is used to lump together very different and potentially conflicting ideologies, such as social liberalism and economic neoliberalism. This may look paradoxical when viewed from an American campus, where neoliberals and social progressivists are likely to be natural enemies. However, Orbán’s rhetoric lumps them together and this works somehow.
On the other hand, as we argued in our recent comparative study, much of this looks very similar to the ideology of Putin’s Russia. National self-victimization, a revolt against the Western “liberals,” and a yearning for “genuine” sovereignty are clearly ideologemes that Moscow and Budapest share. So perhaps it is not fair to give Orbán all the credit for this ideological entrepreneurship. Many of the things that Central European “illiberals” are trying to say have already been said by their Russian friends.
Dr. Aliaksei Kazharski received his PhD from Comenius University in Bratislava (Slovakia) in 2015. As a doctoral student, he spent time as a guest researcher at the University of Oslo (Norway), University of Tartu (Estonia) and the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (Austria). He has also been a visiting researcher at the University of Vienna and has worked as a researcher and lecturer at Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic) and Comenius University in Bratislava. Aliaksei’s doctoral dissertation was published by Central European University Press as a monograph in 2019 (Eurasian Integration and the Russian World: Regionalism as an Identitary Enterprise). He has also contributed to the work of regional think tanks and debate platforms such as the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and Visegrad Insight. Aliaksei’s main areas of research have been Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, regionalism and regional integration, and identity in international relations. He has published his scholarship on these subjects in Geopolitics, Problems of Post-Communism and other academic journals with an international impact.