Richard Sulík: A Provincial or a European Slovak Politician?

Article excerpt

Richard Sulík, a controversial Slovak political leader, embodies the conflicting nature of Slovak nationalism(s) since 1989. It has been argued that the process of post-communist transition in Central Europe has been driven by contradictory forces of liberal/illiberal, civic/ethnic and Eastern/Western nationalisms. Slovakia is no exception. Sulik's personal story and his political career shed light on these developments. This is in line with the expectations, articulated by Jonathan Hearn in this issue, that 'no matter how unique, individual, personal cases of national identity, in all their specificity, will provide clues to how more general social patterns of national identification are formed'.1 Sulik's short political career to date has reflected and shaped Slovak self-understanding.

This article takes as its point of departure Hearn's typology of 'moods', by situating its protagonist as someone who acted self-consciously 'against the flow', even paying a significant political price for his convictions (though with a clear expectation that he would 'be ultimately justified').2 Through his lived experience, murtilingualism and outlook, Sulík could be viewed as a perfect example of a modern European politician. Like a majority of Slovaks, he was initially an enthusiastic supporter of Slovakia's membership of the European Union, including its membership in the single currency. His enthusiasm turned to scepticism when his hopes about Europe as an anchor of stability were disappointed. Sulik's determined stance towards one of the defining issues of contemporary Europe - the eurozone crisis that threatens the European project at large - led to his political isolation in Slovakia, and earned him a mixture of admiration and contempt in Germany, where he spent his formative years as an adolescent. As a result of his uncompromising views on euro-rescue policies, Sulík has been criticised as a populist, or even an extreme nationalist, particularly after the October 2011 vote on the increase of the eurozone bailout fund in the Slovak Parliament, which brought down the Government, necessitating early elections. Undeterred, Sulík revelled in his Europe-wide reputation as an 'oddball',5 and though his popularity amongst Slovak voters has not increased, his political prospects may yet benefit from further deterioration of the eurozone crisis.

Nationalism and Biography in Central Europe

There is an obvious connection between biography and nationalism in the postcommunist world. Strong personalities matter for any 'imagined community',4 but during times of radical change nations are even more likely to depend on charismatic leadership. As George Schöpflin astutely observed immediately after the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe:

Almost hypnotically, people turned to personalities, virtually without regard to their political programmes, as a repository for society's hopes and desires in particular, because persons were felt to be more reliable, more authentic and thus more likely to embody what the individual wanted. In this way personalities were invested with what amounted to a suprapolitical status.5

The post-1989 ideological vacuum could not have been filled by robust institutions (which were yet to be created) or alternative ideologies (which were yet to be articulated to harness public support); it was hence filled by strong leaders, spaning from enlightened, liberal and pro-Western leaders such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and, after 1993 in the Czech Republic, to narrow-minded, chauvinistic demagogues such as Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia.6 Indeed, one of the pathologies of post-communist societies was people's proclivity to support populist leaders whose all too often rather incoherent political programs were far less important than their personal charisma. Sulik is not charismatic,7 and he is, in fact, unlikely to ever become as influential as the likes of Havel or Meciar. Yet, his story is revealing about Slovak nationalism in the way in which his position towards Europe highlighted new divisions within Slovak society. …