The issue of democratic backsliding has been the topic of much discussion in recent years. There is general agreement that in the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) the quality of democracy has been declining. (Stanley 2019a; Bochsler & Juon 2020) Some have described the processes as a case of ethnopopulism. (Vachudova 2020) It has been noted that the most extreme examples of democratic backsliding seem to be Poland and Hungary, while others have urged to look beyond these two examples. (Cianetti, Dawson & Hanley 2018) This article does look beyond Poland and Hungary, in order to attempt to provide teachable lessons from Slovakia’s own experience with illiberalism under Vladimír Mečiar.

Slovakia engaged in a struggle with illiberalism in the period following the Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce. Ultimately, the country changed course, with the 1998 election being a turning point, as large civil society mobilisation and opposition party cooperation defeated V. Mečiar and laid the foundations for a better quality of democracy. (Bútorová & Bútora 2019) This article asks the question of what may be learned from Slovakia’s experiences with illiberalism. There are several reasons for choosing to focus on Slovakia; firstly, there are many neighbouring countries which are experiencing issues with democracy. Secondly, Slovakia is a Slavic country, with similar culture and history to many countries of the region. Thirdly, Slovakia has experienced both communism and the post-communist transition, just as the other backsliding countries have.

Democratic Backsliding

The concept of democratic backsliding is notable for its breadth. Essentially, it refers to the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy. (Bermeo 2016) However, a myriad of political institutions which sustain democracy, as such the term embraces multiple processes. (Bermeo 2016) The speed backsliding occurs is also important, with it involving “relatively fine-grained degrees of change”. (Waldner & Lust 2018) Sitter and Bakke (2019) synthesise groups of literature to define democratic backsliding as “a process of deliberate, intended actions on the part of a democratically elected government, designed to gradually undermine the fundamental rules of the game in an existing democracy”. It is also important to note that, as backsliding “entails a deterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance”, it can occur in different regime types; in democratic regimes, it is a decline in the quality of democracy; in autocracies, it is a decline in democratic qualities of governance. (Waldner & Lust 2018) Bermeo (2016) identified six major varieties of democratic backsliding:

(1) open-ended coups d’état;

(2) promissory coups;

(3) executive coups;

(4) executive aggrandisement;

(5) election-day vote fraud; and

(6) strategic harassment and manipulation.

In modern times, open-ended coups d’état, executive coups and election-day vote fraud are being replaced by promissory coups, executive aggrandizement and strategic harassment and manipulation.

The extent of backsliding has produced some interesting approaches. Different conceptualisations exist, including “illiberal turns” and “illiberal swerves”, in which the former represents more permanent political changes. (Bustikova & Guasti 2017) According to this approach, for a country’s sequence of swerves to become a turn, three conditions must be satisfied: 1) executive aggrandisement; 2) contested sovereignty which increases polarisation; 3) the dominant party winning two consecutive elections. (Bustikova & Guasti 2017)

The techniques of democratic backsliding, politicians often turn the tools of government against the system itself. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) elected autocrats subvert democracy by using the institutions of democracy to gradually and subtly kill it. Such methods include packing or weaponising the courts, buying off the media and the private sector or bullying them into silence, and rewriting the rules of po litics so as the field is tilted against opponents. (Levitsky & Ziblatt 2018) As de monstrated below, all of these tactics are present in the historical Slovakia case, but also in the contemporary cases of backsliding.

The Slovak Case

Slovakia was a difficult case of post-communist transition, said to be always hovering on the verge of regression to authoritarianism. (Harris & Henderson 2019: 182) In ge neral, there was agreement that Slovakia struggled for democracy in the early years of independence, with the country being considered a case of the triumph of national populism (Carpenter 1997). The subversion of democracy discussed by Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) can be seen in Slovakia when politics was dominated by V. Mečiar. Regarding rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents, these can be seen most clearly in the institutional changes which diminished the “role of the Central Electoral Commission (Ústredná volebná komisia, ÚVK), practically eliminated coalitions of parties from the electoral contest, and excluded the private mass media from the electoral campaigning”. (Malová & Učeň 1999) The media more generally was a target for the government who sought to compel journalists to tell the “truth” about Slovakia, levelled pressure on journalists and diverted money away from minority publications to translations of government favourable outlets. (Leff 1996: 115) This was combined with suspicious links between V. Mečiar and investors which bought media outlets. (Školkay 1996)

Other institutional changes included a 5% threshold for each party within a coalition and further scope for large-scale intervention by different state organs in the electoral process and, given that loyal HZDS (Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko) supporters staffed these agencies, the ruling party had essentially created a certain space for manipulating electoral results. (Malová & Učeň 1999) Furthermore, changes were made regarding signatures, each party was to submit a declaration that the party had at least 10,000 members – a rule also applied to each of the parties seeking to form an electoral coalition. (Malová & Učeň 1999) Such institutional changes clearly represent moves by the V. Mečiar government to make it harder for any potential opposition to act effectively as an opposition inside the structures of the political system.

Regarding the judiciary, there was surprise that V. Mečiar had decided to create a constitutional court. However, the right to nominate Constitutional Court judges belonged to the president, before the parliament had managed to nominate a president V. Mečiar simply picked the judges himself. (Boulanger 2000) On paper the court

Combatting Illiberalism in the Heart of Europe: Lessons from Slovakia 109

could have been expected to be an ally to V. Mečiar; the president of the court, Milan Čič, was from V. Mečiar’s party, Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), but in practice party solidarity did not survive the move to the bench. (Boulanger 2000) However, the fact that the court did not behave in the predicted way does not change the fact that the V. Mečiar government clearly tried to build a favourable judiciary.

Despite evidence of barriers being erected to the detriment of any opposition in Slovakia, the country was able to change direction regardless of these impediments. The results of the 1998 election signalled that the tide was turning in favour of the opposition to V. Mečiar’s nationalist authoritarianism. After this election, Abrahám (2002) identified several relevant long-term factors, such as the history, political culture and legacy of the Communist regime, and short-term factors, such as contingencies of post-communist transformation and international pressure exerted on V. Mečiar’s regime. The importance of the mobilisation of civil society through free media, non-governmental organizations, and civic associations were also noted, as was the dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s international isolation and fear of being excluded from transatlantic Western institutions. (Abrahám 2002)

A key factor was that in rejecting the nationalism of the ruling party, minorities were embraced, the inclusive step of including Hungarians in the coalition was a po werful one. (Krause 2003) The competence and professionalism of the Hungarian politicians in government was an important element in shifting Slovak opinions, as was the ability of the coalition to stay together once in government. The role of Mikuláš Dzurinda in holding the coalition together has been noted, as has the importance of a united front in the face of such a nationalist authoritarian threat. (Krause 2003)

EU conditionality was central to deciding the outcome of this struggle. As Pridham (2002) outlined, developments in the first few years after the change in power in 1998 suggested that “this event was a turning-point both in the country’s relations with the EU and in its own democratisation path. It is clear, too, that these two basic questions are closely linked and that Brussels’ demands of democratic conditionality have had a direct and not inconsiderable impact here and have, by and large, acted as a spur to democratic consolidation.”

Furthermore, he argues that the EU yardsticks for accession served as both a target for Slovakia and an explanation which helped to nullify opposition to such changes.

The results of the 2002 election showed that both democratic consolidation had taken place and that the Slovak people had rejected the attempted comeback of nationalist authoritarianism which, represented by V. Mečiar, had dominated Slovakia between 1994–1998. (Krause 2003) Generally, the country did change direction, but nothing is ever straightforward and in certain moments, for example the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, Slovakia has shown itself to be imperfect, but all countries are. Elections are often still framed as liberals against populists, but the existentiality of them has subsided and Slovakia achieved its aims of NATO and EU membership, overcoming V. Mečiar’s stranglehold on power.

Backsliding in the Heart of Europe

This article focuses on the Visegrad group, as they are the closest to Slovakia in many ways, they also include two prime examples of democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, as well as one case of concern in the Czech Republic. Other democracies in the broader region have also been the cause for some concern, especially Serbia. (See e.g. Pavlović 2020) Perhaps lessons learned from the case of Slovakia will be relevant and useful for other nations, but the focus here remains on the Visegrad four, to avoid spreading the research so thin as to be useless. Therefore, this section considers the backsliding which is currently occurring in Central Europe, before the next section highlights how the Slovak experience could provide lessons to assist these cases and their struggle with deteriorating democracies.

The cases of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are somewhat different from the case of Slovakia where V. Mečiar’s attempt to establish a nationalist, cent ralised and illiberal political system failed as a result of domestic and international pressure. However, this occurred before Slovakia’s accession to the EU, giving the EU significant leverage in thwarting it. (Bustikova & Guasti 2017) On the other hand, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had been considered consolidated democracies. As early as 1998 it was judged that for most observers Poland and Hungary had already “passed the point of no return”, meaning that an authoritarian reversal in these states was considered to be unlikely. (Ekiert & Kubik 1998) According to research by Szawie, undertaken a decade after Ekiert and Kubik had already concluded that Poland had passed the point of no return: “The analyses suggest that Polish democracy is consolidated, stable and persistent. However, support for democratic government is hardly enthusiastic”. (Szawiel 2009) The Czech Republic was considered a classic consolidated democracy (Mansfeldová & Guasti 2010), others were more guarded but still concluded that there was no need to suspect the harbouring of latent anti-democratic sentiments (Dryzek & Holmes 2000). In fact, discussions had begun on why theorists had been so pessimistic, as by the end of the 1990s most transformation researchers agreed that “many of Eastern Europe’s new democracies had been consolidated”, a feeling which only increased when, in 2004, “ten countries culminated their consolidation with membership of the European Union”. (Merkel 2008)

The supposedly consolidated nature of the Polish and Hungarian democracies made the large-scale backsliding which occurred in these countries something of a shock. Since winning a landslide election in 2010, the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán has dismantled checks and balances; skewed the electoral process in its own favour; extended partisan control over state agencies; and developed a harshly anti-liberal ideology, which is used to de-legitimise left-wing and liberal competitors as foreign to the national community. (Cianetti, Dawson & Hanley 2018) In Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), a party said to have a Christian conservative-national ideology comparable to that of Fidesz, won a decisive election victory and an absolute majority in parliament

Combatting Illiberalism in the Heart of Europe: Lessons from Slovakia 111

in 2015. (Cianetti, Dawson & Hanley 2018) Following this sweeping electoral victory, PiS have dramatically eroded liberal democracy. (Vachudova 2020)

There were concerns regarding the acquisition of media by local oligarchs and corrupt dealings between politics and business, but developments in the Czech Republic and Slovakia were adjudged to be closer to S. Berlusconi’s Italy than V. Orbán’s Hungary. (Bakke & Sitter 2020)

Indeed, private interests, and the entrenchment of these private interests, may represent an alternative route to democratic backsliding, this is particularly relevant to the Czech Republic, where the party systems is fragmented and/or where a strong socially conservative right is weak or absent. (Cianetti, Dawson & Hanley 2018) Despite not reaching the levels of Hungary, or even Poland, the rise of The ANO (YES) movement in the Czech Republic is also of interest. It was founded in 2011 and led by the billionaire Andrej Babiš, breaking through in the October 2013 elections, receiving 18.65% of the vote, taking votes from both established right-wing and left-wing parties to become the second largest grouping in the country. (Hanley & Vachudova 2018) The main message of ANO was that the established parties were incompetent and corrupt, that A. Babiš promised to run the state “efficiently” like a business. (Hanley & Vachudova 2018) Then in October 2017, ANO won 29.6% of the vote, receiving more than twice as much as the next most successful party, the centre right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who won 11.3%. (Hanley & Vachudova 2018) A. Babiš then used the political power he had acquired to weaken his business opponents and exploit his media power to weaken the senior coalition partner (Social Democrats). (Guasti 2020)

The techniques employed in Poland and Hungary align with what Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) described. As such the state-run media was a target of both, as editorial boards and oversight organs were filled with loyal appointees creating what some called “a veritable government propaganda machine”. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) Generally, control of the media has been central to the policies of both V. Orbán and Kaczyński. (Sata & Karolewski 2020) In the Czech Republic and Slovakia state-run media remained quite balanced, but the acquisition of newspapers and media companies by local oligarchs and investment groups did cause concern. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) In Slovakia, the Penta group bought a large share of Petit Press in 2014, but later sold down to a minority; in Czechia the Agrofert group, founded by Andrej Babiš, bought MAFRA, one of the biggest Czech publishing houses. A. Babiš would later be caught on tape colluding with a journalist from one of the MAFRA newspapers to smear political opponents. (Bakke & Sitter 2020)

Another central element in both Poland and Hungary was attacks on checks and balances, the independence of the judiciary, and control of public administration. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) Poland and Hungary both made changes to the electoral systems and auxiliary electoral bodies, while PiS lacked the ability to make changes on the scale of Fidesz, both tilted the playing field in their favour. (Sata & Karolewski 2020) The Czech Republic and Slovakia have had some controversies over electoral reforms, but a Fidesz-style seizer of the entire process has not occurred. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) The fact that some democratic backsliding has occurred in Central Europe seems beyond question. However, the question of how severe the backsliding is remains, whether this can be considered an illiberal turn or an illiberal swerve and what the future holds remains of the upmost salience. Bustikova and Guasti (2017) outlined that for illi beral swerving to become a full illiberal turn several key conditions would need to recur over at least two electoral cycles. As of 2017, Hungary had fulfilled most of these conditions, whereas the Polish PiS had been only partially successful, some swerving had occurred in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but there was considered to be some distance before constituting an illiberal turn. (Bustikova & Guasti 2017) However, it was predicted that were Fidesz in Hungary, PiS in Poland and ANO in the Czech Republic to decisively win another election, they would implement irreversible changes that would take these countries out of the orbit of European democracies. (Bustikova & Guasti 2017)

The 2019 elections saw PiS victorious, allowing the continuation of the development of their model. This model led to a specific kind of backsliding in Poland and has been termed conservative autocracy. (Magyar & Madlovics 2020) In Hungary, the democratic backsliding has been presented as a case of patronal autocracy, (Magyar & Madlovics 2020) or even a paradigmatic case of the mafia state (Magyar & Vásárhelyi 2017). The situation in the Czech Republic is far less serious than that of Poland and Hungary, with discussions focused on Czech democracy in crisis (Lorenz & Formánková 2020) and of the ongoing conflict between technocratic populism and liberal democracy (Guasti, 2020). Nevertheless, it can be seen that certain damage to democracy has occurred in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the next section deals with what lessons for the future can be drawn from these events and the historical success of Slovakia in combating similar issues.

Lessons for the Future

There are quite considerable concerns over the present realities of Poland and Hungary, some concerns of the present situation of the Czech Republic, and significant apprehension regarding the future trajectory of these countries. This article asks the question of what may be learned from Slovakia’s experiences with illiberalism. The issue of what can be done about democratic backsliding has generated much interest, with some arguing that more can be done to maximise the effectiveness of existing judicial tools. (Blauberger & Kelemen 2017) Similarly, the May 2018 proposal of the European Commission regarding financial conditionality would improve the speed and likelihood of sanctions but still had some flaws. (Blauberger & van Hüllen 2021) Conversely, others have argued that even material sanctions cannot be relied upon, with social pressure an important element. (Sedelmeier 2017)

Rather than relying on a theoretical discussion or focusing on different elements, e.g. judicial versus social pressure, it may be more fruitful to consider a case of illibera lism which has already changed course. The culturally and historically similar Slovak case may well provide lessons which are more applicable to the extreme cases of Poland and Hungary, or the less concerning case of Czechia. In order to methodologically assess the lessons for the future based on the Slovak case, first the similarities through time and space are considered, then the lessons of an inclusive and united front, international pressure and a watershed moment are reflected upon.

Similarities Through Time and Space

The similarities between the countries of Central Europe are a matter of fact. However, the value of comparing Slovakia under V. Mečiar with modern cases does not simply lie in the kind of Orientalist thinking which paints all nations and peoples of a distant region as one and the same. Rather the fact is that many of the ways which the V. Mečiar government undermined democracy mirror the ways in which the current regimes in Poland and Hungary, and to a lesser extent the Czech Republic, have done so. This is important because the general consensus was that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were consolidated democracies, before they then backslid. On the other hand, Slovakia entered their own illiberal period almost immediately following the Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce. As Bogaards (2018) noted, it was not so long ago that scholars were trying to explain the unexpected consolidation of democracy in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, yet this quickly shifted to trying to reconcile the mismatch between positive assessments of the solidity of Hungarian democracy up to 2010, and the empirical reality of contemporary Hungarian politics since then.

The fact that two similar situations have developed, even involving the use of similar techniques, in different countries of the same region in different time periods perhaps ought to lead to some reflection. Perhaps the status of consolidated democracy does not mean as much as was once thought, given that some incredibly well-established democracies have faced issues in recent years (Norris 2017), this is highly plausible. Conversely, perhaps in the rush to classify the newly emerging democracies as consolidated, or otherwise, there was not the level of caution which one may expect to be applied.

The processes which were employed in Poland and Hungary were considered a case of ethnopopulism (Vachudova 2020), as has the Slovak case. The extreme sensitivity of the Slovak population to the perceived threat of the Hungarians proving to be fertile ground for an aggressive nationalism to develop. (Ferencei 2020) Interestingly, this proved to be much stronger in central and northwest Slovakia where there was a lack of Hungarian-speaking citizens. (Ferencei 2020) Similarly, the refugee crisis in Europe led to public discussions about the threat that Muslim refugees pose to the Christian identity of the continent, especially in the new accession countries in Central Europe, in what some have called Islamophobia without Muslims. (Goździak & Márton 2018) Kaczyński decried the “external oppression” and the “breaking of the sovereignty of the people”, while V. Orbán spoke of the loss of a “common European homeland” and explicitly blamed the political, economic and intellectual leaders for this loss, “who are trying to reshape Europe against the will of the people of Europe”. (Csehi & Zgut 2021) That ethnopopulism can still appeal in other times and spaces is perhaps not that surprising, that it seems to be particularly well received where the feared minority is absent certainly requires more attention.

The weakening of courts, tilting of electoral rules towards the government, the taking over of private media and the repurposing of public media have all been noted in the present cases of backsliding and the historical case of illiberalism in Slovakia. There is reason to believe that future episodes may well follow the same path, at least in terms of techniques. This is an important lesson as it allows for hyper vigilance in vulnerable areas. However, what may prove to be more of an issue is communicating that early alarm to the general populace, who may perhaps not see any evidence of change at the early stage when these changes are still relatively easily reversible.

Inclusive and United Front

Perhaps the most important lesson which Slovakia might provide for the future of backsliding democracies in Central Europe is that of inclusivity and unity. Slovakia defeated the V. Mečiar government with an inclusive and unified front combined with an active free press and civil society. The lesson is one which does not seem to have been received in Poland. There have been large protests from civil society, on October 3, 2016, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of over 140 cities and villages in Poland to protest the abortion ban in Poland, this came to be called the Czarny Protest. (Narkowicz 2016) There were multiple protests against the governance of PiS, one of the most notable was a round of protests in Warsaw and other cities organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), sparked by the exclusion of an opposition deputy following his own protests over media laws. (Szczerbiak 2017) However, this civil activity has not translated well to the establish political parties. Despite Poland’s main opposition parties having formed two coalition blocs to vie for left-leaning and centrist votes ahead of the 2019 elections (Meczkowska & Plucinska 2019), this did little to paper over the reality of a fragmented opposition. The fragmented reality of Polish politics drew criticism and mockery from certain circles, as illustrated by figure 1. This fragmented and weak opposition has continued to help the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, Civic Platform (PO) has set out policy plans and calls for broad coalition to oust the government. (Tilles 2021)


Figure 1: How to Vote in Poland (Stanley 2019b)

In Hungary, the dispersed opposition parties were also unable to join forces, being overshadowed by independent unions and increasingly active civic groups. (Krasztev & Van Til 2015: 28) In January 2011, One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary (Milla) organised a rally of 10,000; on March 15 and October 23, this number had grown to 30,000 and 70,000, respectively. (Krasztev & Van Til 2015: 28) In January 2012, around 100,000 people protested the new constitution and the rise of autocracy on the streets of Budapest. (Krasztev & Van Til 2015: 28) However, such protests cannot hope to achieve much while the opposition within the political structures are so teethless. Since 2010 there has been the development of an asymmetrical power structure between the government and the opposition, one that has become a permanent characteristic of the Hungarian political landscape. (Várnagy & Ilonszki 2018) The radical transformation of the Hungarian political system from “a balanced power structure and bipolar politics with homogeneous opposition to a dominant government and heterogeneous opposition” constituted the deconstruction of the parliamentary opposition. (Várnagy & Ilonszki 2018) In such a context it is hard for the opposition to oppose the government in any meaningful sense.

The Czech Republic also saw attempts to undermine horizontal accountability and the rule of law which was met with large scale protests. (Guasti 2020) A Million Moments for Democracy (MMD), called “the most important initiative that has mobi116 lized crowds of the size unseen since 1989”, was launched on Facebook on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, 2017. (Guasti 2020) Attempts to alter the social contract were also met with public protests and demands of accountability. (Guasti 2020) The governing coalitions and opposition of the Czech Republic have long been said to be weak and fragmented, both with their own internal divisions – hampering responses to crises such as the economic crisis. (Guasti & Mansfeldová 2018) The lesson has not really been learned in any of the Visegrad countries, as oppositions still remain largely fragmented and ineffectual. In the future the opposition must embrace more broadly, be more inclusive and present a more united front in the face of elected would-be autocrats. This remains easier said than done, of course. International Pressure

The third lesson is one which is out of the control of the oppositions within the countries of Central Europe, that of the importance of international pressure. Alone it is undoubtedly insufficient, but pressure from the international community and risking exclusion from transatlantic Western institutions both had an impact and provided a cover under which domestic politicians could make the required changes to avoid this exclusion. However, it seems that the democratic backsliding of the present time may in fact represent a potential existential crisis for the EU. (Sitter & Bakke 2019) The importance of the international element in defeating illiberalism in Slovakia cannot be overstated, but there are questions remaining over whether there is any potential for this to be repeated in the future with Poland and Hungary, as well as potentially the Czech Republic.

NATO remains rather uninterested in the quality of democracy of its member states, as the relationship with Turkey illustrates. Furthermore, the US is more likely to be concerned about curtailing Russia’s involvement in the region than strengthening democracy. This leaves bilateral relations and the EU as the main potential sources of international pressure. This presents a problem as one of the main explanations for the backsliding in the region is the incapacity of the European Union to secure democracy once pre-accession incentives weaken. (Bochsler & Juon 2020) This issue returns again and again. Some argue that the issues lie in EU enlargement law (Kochenov 2008), while others have noted that after accession the EU’s political leverage significantly weakens following accession (Kartal 2014).

Material sanctions have been judged as difficult to use, as a result it has been suggested that EU institutions ought to primarily resort to instruments based on social pressure, including the Commission’s Rule of Law Framework, its Justice Scoreboard, and the Council’s dialogue to promote and safeguard the rule of law, to confront breaches of liberal democratic principles in the member states. (Sedelmeier 2017) It is also not all bad news, the relative success of EU pressure in the case of Romania suggests that it can still sometimes be a fruitful endeavour. (Sedelmeier 2014) However, there are signs that the European political landscape is changing and it may make it harder to achieve such results in the future. The development of the Polish-Hungarian coalition, which at the EU level involves the offering of reciprocal protection and has invariably aimed to prevent meaningful sanctions against backsliding (Holesch & Kyriazi 2020), suggests that in the future it may be harder for the EU to act against backsliding member states. Poland and Hungary, beyond their interdependence, have been said to form the origin and the core of the current “illiberal bloc”. (Nyyssönen 2018) The two countries provide each other with learning, of backsliding measures and techniques, and domestic legitimation, through the endorsement of a key international ally. (Holesch & Kyriazi 2020) It must be noted that such developments are not only occurring in Poland and Hungary or even within the EU, this is a part of a broader observable trend in which heavily nationalist and illiberal leaders from Putin to Trump, from V. Orbán to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from M. Le Pen to M. Salvini, benefit from one another’s existence. (Öniş & Kutlay 2020)

The importance of international pressure is one of the main lessons in combatting illiberalism from the Slovak case, yet it seems that perhaps this has also been noted by the backsliding nations of the contemporary period. As there are signs that V. Orbán and Kaczyński are not necessarily interested in copying the Brexit strategy, V. Orbán especially wants to be an integral part of a process in which the EU is transformed from within and evolved into a different kind of entity. (Öniş & Kutlay 2020) In the future international pressure is not likely to lose its salience in combatting illiberalism, but it seems that the fight will be aggressively brought to the institutions which helped to defeat Slovakian illiberalism in the 1990s. This is an area which ought to be watched closely in the future.

Watershed Moment

The fact that things tend to get worse before they get better and that even after a turning point vigilance is required, is an inconvenient one. Nevertheless, in Slovakia the si tuation proceeded to worsen until the seriousness was undeniable and the country truly appreciated what was at stake. As previously stated, the 1998 elections are considered a breakthrough. (Ferencei 2020) As such, the 1998 election changed the trajectory of the country, but it was a watershed moment – the beginning of a new direction, not arriving at the destination of perfect democracy. The results of the 2002 election were taken to show that both democratic consolidation had taken place and that the Slovak people had rejected the attempted comeback of nationalist authoritarianism which had dominated Slovakia between 1994–1998. (Krause 2003)

Given everything which has occurred in the other, supposedly consolidated, democracies of the region, it seems unlikely that Slovakia was truly consolidated in any meaningful sense in 2002. However, there was no return of V. Mečiar or even his style of governance without him. Nevertheless, the country and its citizens must remain diligent against any future deterioration of democracy. Perhaps that is why the buying up of certain media outlets caused such alarm (Bakke & Sitter 2020), but this is healthy, as it seems to indicate that this lesson has been learned. This may also play into the advice of Cianetti, Dawson and Hanley (2018), who advocate for the better integration of illiberal socio-economic structures, including oligarchical structures or corrupt networks. They also suggest re-examining the trade-offs between democratic stability and democratic quality. (Cianetti, Dawson & Hanley 2018) Such broadening of the current approach to democratic backsliding may allow for improved understanding of the danger signs, as well as better guarding against it occurring in the future.

Issues remain, it would be wrong to present Slovakia as an example of flawless democracy. Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes”, also engaging in the kind of populist discourse around the migration crisis which was seen in Poland and Hungary. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) The February 2018 murder of Ján Kuciak, a young Slovak data investigative journalist and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, in their home in Slovakia is of particular concern. (Školkay 2019) The investigation at the time indicated that it was a contract killing, raising questions over who was really behind the silencing of the investigative journalist. J. Kuciak had been working on an article about embezzlement of EU funds and alleged links between Italian mafia and top Smer politicians. Slovak businessman Marián Kočner was indicted for having ordered the murders in 2019. (Bakke & Sitter 2020) M. Kočner and his associate were found not guilty of masterminding the killings, but M. Kočner was sentenced to 19 years in prison for forging $75 million worth of promissory notes (The Slovak Spectator). Such issues do indicate that the role of illiberal socio-economic structures, such as oligarchical structures, really do warrant closer inspection.

What countries battling illiberalism or democratic backsliding can, and should, take from continued problems in Slovakia is that the struggle is never over. Continued vigilance is required, it will be necessary and while a watershed moment will provide excellent inspiration for writers, it ultimately only indicates a turning of the tide. It categorically does not represent the end of the struggle against illiberalism and this will continue, perhaps indefinitely.


This article has focused on the growing trend of democratic backsliding and tendencies towards illiberalism in Central Europe, asking the question of what may be learned from Slovakia’s experiences with illiberalism. Firstly, democratic backsliding as a concept was outlined before discussing the Slovak case. Subsequently, the present-day backsliding in the heart of Europe was outlined. Finally, some lessons for the future were considered. It seems that the similarities through time and space are highly notable. The inclusive and united front which the Slovak opposition was able to achieve still eludes the presently backsliding nations, but is perhaps the most important lesson from the Slovak case. The role of international pressure was central to defeating illibe ralism in Slovakia and will likely be so in any successful defeating of illiberalism again in the future. The watershed moment of the 1998 election in Slovakia was important and should not be disregarded, but it ultimately only indicated a turning of the tide. It categorically did not represent the end of the struggle against illiberalism.

In the future, it may be more fruitful to learn from real cases of democratic problems and solutions in similar countries, rather than approaching such issues from purely abstract theoretical positions. Indeed, the case of Slovakia had relevant lessons for the presently backsliding countries of Poland and Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic to a lesser extent. Naturally, knowing the lessons which Slovakia can provide and knowing how to apply them are different things. It is one thing to suggest that the oppositions should be inclusive and united and quite another to actually achieve such a feat. Future research may analyse how countries have achieved such things in order to provide further valuable lessons to countries struggling with democratic backsliding and/or illiberalism.


Abrahám, Samuel 2002. “The End of Illiberal Democracy in Slovakia?” Eurozine. 12 August 2002. (; last accessed 2021.07.15.)

Bakke, Elisabeth and Sitter, Nick 2020. “The EU’s Enfants Terribles: Democratic Backsliding in Central Europe since 2010.” Perspectives on Politics, 1–16.

Bermeo, Nancy 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, 27 (1): 5–19.

Blauberger, Michael and van Hüllen, Vera 2021. “Conditionality of EU Funds: An Instrument to Enforce EU Fundamental Values?” Journal of European Integration, 43 (1): 1–16.

Blauberger, Michael and Kelemen, Daniel R. 2017. “Can Courts Rescue National Democracy? Judicial Safeguards against Democratic Backsliding in the EU.” Journal of European Public Policy, 24 (3): 321–336.

Bochsler, Daniel and Juon, Andreas 2020. “Authoritarian Footprints in Central and Eastern Europe.” East European Politics, 36 (2): 167–187.

Bogaards, Matthijs 2018. “De-Democratization in Hungary: Diffusely Defective Democracy.” Democratization, 25 (8): 1481–1499.

Boulanger, Christian 2000. “Judicial Authority in Post-Authoritarian Societies: The Cases of Germany, Hungary and Slovakia.” Law and Society Annual Meeting, Miami, Florida, 26–29.

Bustikova, Lenka and Guasti, Petra 2017. “The Illiberal Turn or Swerve in Central Europe?” Politics and Governance, 5 (4): 166–176.

Bútorová, Zora and Bútora, Martin 2019. “The Pendulum Swing of Slovakia’s Democracy.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, 86 (1): 83–112.

Carpenter, Michael 1997. “Slovakia and the Triumph of Nationalist Populism.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 30 (2): 205–219.

Cianetti, Licia – Dawson, James – Hanley, Seán 2018. “Rethinking ‘Democratic Backsliding’ in Central and Eastern Europe – Looking beyond Hungary and Poland.” East European Politics, 34 (3): 243–256.

120 Judas Everett

Csehi, Robert and Zgut, Edit 2021. “‘We Won’t Let Brussels Dictate Us’: Eurosceptic Populism in Hungary and Poland.” European Politics and Society, 22 (1): 53–68.

Dryzek, John S. and Holmes, Leslie 2000. “The Real World of Civic Republicanism: Making Democracy Work in Poland and the Czech Republic.” Europe-Asia Studies, 52 (6): 1043–1068.

Ekiert, Grzegorz and Kubik, Jan 1998. “Contentious Politics in New Democracies: East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, 1989-93.” World Politics, 50 (4): 547–581.

Ferencei, Lucia 2020. “The Ethnopolitics of the HZDS-SNS-ZRS Coalition Government in Slovakia from 1994 to 1998.” Border and Regional Studies, 8 (4): 161–185.

Goździak, Elżbieta M. and Márton, Péter 2018. “Where the Wild Things Are: Fear of Islam and the Anti-Refugee Rhetoric in Hungary and in Poland.” Central and Eastern European Migration Review, 7 (2): 125–151.

Guasti, Petra 2020. “Populism in Power and Democracy: Democratic Decay and Resilience in the Czech Republic (2013–2020).” Politics and Governance, 8 (4): 473–484.

Guasti, Petra and Mansfeldová, Zdenka 2018. “Weak Governments and Divided Opposition in Times of Crisis.” Opposition Parties in European Legislatures. Routledge, 133-149.

Hanley, Seán and Vachudova, Milada Anna 2018. “Understanding the Illiberal Turn: Democratic Backsliding in the Czech Republic.” East European Politics, 34 (3): 276–296.

Harris, Erika and Henderson, Karen 2019. “Slovakia since 1989.” Central and Southeast European Politics Since 1989, 182–203.

Holesch, Adam and Kyriazi, Anna 2020. “Democratic Backsliding in the European Union: The Role of the Hungarian-Polish Coalition.” East European Politics, 1–20.

Kartal, Mert 2014. “Accounting for the Bad Apples: The EU’s Impact on National Corruption before and after Accession.” Journal of European Public Policy, 21 (6): 941–959.

Kochenov, Dimitry 2008. “EU Enlargement and the Failure of Conditionality: Pre-Accession Conditionality in the Fields of Democracy and the Rule of Law.” European Monographs 59. Austin, Alphen aan den Rijn; The Netherlands, Frederick, MD, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, Kluwer Law International. Sold and distributed in North, Central, and South America by Aspen Publishers.

Krasztev, Péter and Jon Van Til 2015. “The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy.” Central European University Press.

Krause, Kevin Deegan 2003. “Slovakia’s Second Transition.” Journal of Democracy, 14 (2): 65–79.

Leff, Carol Skalnik 1996. “The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation versus State. Nations of the Modern World.” Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press.

Levitsky, Steven and Ziblatt, Daniel 2018. “How Democracies Die.” First edition. New York, Crown.

Lorenz, Astrid and Formánková, Hana 2020. “Czech Democracy in Crisis.” Springer.

Magyar, Bálint, and Madlovics, Bálint 2020. “The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework.” Budapest, New York, Central European University Press.

Magyar, Bálint and Vásárhelyi, Júlia (eds.) 2017. “Twenty-Five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State.” Budapest, CEU Press.

Malová, Darina and Učeň, Peter 1999. “Slovakia.” European Journal of Political Research, 36 (3–4): 497–506.

Combatting Illiberalism in the Heart of Europe: Lessons from Slovakia 121

Meczkowska, Angelika and Plucinska, Joanna 2019. “Poland’s Fragmented Opposition Coalesces into Left, Center Blocs.” Reuters, 18 July 2019. ( article/us-poland-politics-opposition-idUSKCN1UD2H6; last accessed 2021.07.13.)

Merkel, Wolfgang 2008. “Plausible Theory, Unexpected Results: The Rapid Democratic Consolidation in Central and Eastern Europe.” Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall: Transitions, state break-up and democratic politics in Central Europe and Germany. BWV Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 57-76.

Narkowicz, Kasia 2016. “Czarny Protest: How Polish Women Took to the Streets.” Open Democracy. 11 October 2016. (; last accessed: 2021.07.13.)

Norris, Pippa 2017. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” The Journal of Democracy, April 2017.

Nyyssönen, Heino 2018. “The East Is Different, Isn’t It?–Poland and Hungary in Search of Prestige.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 26 (3): 258–269.

Öniş, Ziya and Kutlay, Mustafa 2020. “Reverse Transformation? Global Shifts, the Core-Periphery Divide and the Future of the EU.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 28 (2): 197–215.

Pavlović, Dušan 2020. “The Political Economy behind the Gradual Demise of Democratic Institutions in Serbia.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 20 (1): 19–39.

Pridham, Geoffrey 2002. “The European Union’s Democratic Conditionality and Domestic Politics in Slovakia: The Mečiar and Dzurinda Governments Compared.” Europe-Asia Studies, 54 (2): 203–227.

Sata, Robert and Karolewski, Ireneusz Pawel 2020. “Caesarean Politics in Hungary and Poland.” East European Politics, 36 (2): 206–225.

Sedelmeier, Ulrich 2014. “Anchoring Democracy from Above? The European Union and Democratic Backsliding in Hungary and Romania after Accession: Anchoring Democracy from Above?” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 52 (1): 105–121.

Sedelmeier, Ulrich 2017. “Political Safeguards against Democratic Backsliding in the EU: The Limits of Material Sanctions and the Scope of Social Pressure.” Journal of European Public Policy, 24 (3): 337–351.

Sitter, Nick and Bakke, Elisabeth 2019. “Democratic Backsliding in the European Union.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

Školkay, Andrej 1996. “Journalists, Political Elites and the Post�communist Public: The Case of Slovakia.” The Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 12 (4): 61–81.

Školkay, Andrej 2019. “What Does the Murder of a Journalist, and Follow-up Events, Tell Us about Freedom of the Press and Politics in a European Country?” Central European Journal of Communication, 12 (22): 25–43.

Stanley, Ben 2019a. “Backsliding Away? The Quality of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.” Journal of Contemporary European Research, 15 (4): 343–353.

122 Judas Everett

Stanley, Ben 2019b. “Guide To Polish Voting (2019 Edition) Https://T.Co/XDbIpbAPEh.” Tweet. @bdstanley (blog). 20 March 2019. ( 1108345783189938177)

Szawiel, Tadeusz 2009. “Democratic Consolidation in Poland: Support for Democracy, Civil Society and the Party System.” Polish Sociological Review, No. 168: 483–506.

Szczerbiak, Aleks 2017. “Poland’s Parliamentary Crisis Could Reach a Tipping Point by Mid-January.” LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog.

The Slovak Spectator 2021. “Kočner Sentenced to 19 Years in Prison.” 12 January 2021. (; last accessed 2021.07.14.)

Tilles, Daniel 2021. “Polish Opposition Sets out Policy Plans and Calls for Broad Coalition to Oust Government.” Notes From Poland Blog. 6 February 2021. (https://notesfrompoland. com/2021/02/06/polish-opposition-sets-out-policy-plans-and-calls-for-broad-coalition-to-oust-government/; last accessed 2021.07.14.)

Vachudova, Milada Anna 2020. “Ethnopopulism and Democratic Backsliding in Central Europe.” East European Politics, 36 (3): 318–340.

Várnagy, Réka and Ilonszki, Gabriella 2018. “The de (Con) Struction of Parliamentary Opposition.” In: De Giorgi, Elisabetta and Ilonszki, Gabriella (eds.): Opposition Parties in European Legislatures: Conflict or Consensus? Routledge.

Waldner, David and Lust, Ellen 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, 21 (1): 93–113.

Combatting Illiberalism in the Heart of Europe: Lessons from Slovakia 123