- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Back in April, high school teenagers led thousands of protesters to the streets in Slovakia to protest corruption, and to demand that the interior minister, Robert Kalinak, resign. Kalinak, a close political ally of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, has business ties with a real estate developer who is being investigated for fraud.
But Kalinak did not step down. And so, on Monday, the teenagers returned to the streets of Bratislava to protest corruption again, chanting, “Kalinak, resign” and “Leave our state alone.” Slovak media estimated anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 were in attendance. There were also protests in the eastern Slovak city of Kosice, where an estimated 2,000 took to the streets.
“The system currently works in a way that makes some people untouchable, and it allows people to enter politics only to make money,” 18-year-old David Straka, one of the organizers of the protests, told local media.
There was speculation prior to the first protest that Straka and his fellow organizer, Karolina Farska, would not be able to garner enough support. But the protesters were up against other, slightly different challenges the second time around: disinformation and disappointment.
Slovak disinformation outlets — websites that push out conspiracy theories and flat out untruths — of which there are, according to Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC, roughly 100 on the internet, are typically supportive of causes critical of mainstream politicians and institutions, Daniel Milo, an analyst with that institution, explained to Foreign Policy. But they were against the protests even before the first one got started, because the organizers were adamant that these protests were about fighting corruption and upholding rule of law, and not about xenophobia or breaking the system.
Far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia leader, Marian Kotleba, who normally draws support from disinformation outlets, discouraged people from going to the marches. That the far-right wanted people to stay home, Milo said, is “a clear sign of how afraid these political actors are of genuine protests which are not related to these anti-system policies in society.”
Before the April protest, disinformation outlets worked to convince the public that those taking part in the street demonstrations were dangerous, Katarina Klingova, another GLOBSEC analyst, explained. Some websites insinuated that the teenagers were connected to the breach of a military facility earlier in the year and were therefore armed and dangerous. Others warned that they would become Slovakia’s Euro Maidan — a reference to the protests that shook Ukraine in 2013 and 2014.
Given that Slovakia was not transformed into Ukraine after April’s protest, a slightly different tack was taken before Monday’s demonstration. This time, the students — who have clearly said they’re not agents of any party — were painted as political puppets. Some outlets argued they were paid by the United States, or dismissed them as international elites, disconnected from and disassociated with the people of Slovakia.
But what the teenagers tapped into the popular mood in Slovakia, where 66 percent of the people want liberal democracy to continue, according to GLOBSEC. They just want more direct control of that liberal democratic government.
And so thousands came back on Monday.
Still, there’s the troubling reality that Kalinak didn’t step down the first time, and that it doesn’t seem likely he will now, either. The distinct possibility remains that nothing changes, and that the protesters become disappointed, disenchanted, and discouraged.
Andrej Matisak, a journalist based in Slovakia, said Monday’s efforts showed they might be able to keep the pressure on and “keep the flame” alive.
“Perhaps they might,” Matisak said. “And they have to if they want to achieve something. I think it was unrealistic to expect that after one protest somebody will step down.
Matisak said the protesters should focus on getting the interior minister, Kalinak, to step down, rather than going after Fico, the prime minister, who has announced anti-corruption initiatives.
While many are rightly skeptical of Fico’s efforts, Matisak suggested it would be better to give the prime minister a chance to follow through.
“If he is not able to deliver even on modest promises,” Matisak said, “it might be a welcome ammunition for the next protests.”
Photo credit: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images