Across Europe, democracy is under threat. Hungary, the poster child for democratic backsliding in the European Union, just took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, a body made up of member countries’ Cabinet ministers. A new EU Parliament and executive branch, the European Commission, are taking shape after consequential elections that pulled the bloc notably closer toward the far right. EU candidate countries Georgia and Serbia are shifting unequivocally towards autocracy, with the Georgian government pushing through a string of anti-democratic legislation and the Serbian ruling party sweeping in unfair elections. Meanwhile, the Russian armed forces have opened new fronts in the Kremlin’s war to destroy Ukraine.

In the shadow of this roiling polycrisis in Europe, one country’s troubles have steadily accumulated without adequate attention. Since Prime Minister Robert Fico took office in October, Slovakia’s democracy has faced a grave and sweeping assault from his government, ranging from the subversion of the judicial system to the silencing of media and civil society. The attempted assassination of Fico in May shocked the public. Although the shooter’s motives seem to be wide-ranging, the attack directed a spotlight on the violent consequences of the deepening polarization in Slovak society. Instead of being interpreted as a call for national unity, the attempted assassination has escalated the incendiary rhetoric that Fico and his allies had begun during their campaign.

But the tragic event can and should provide a moment to take stock of Slovakia’s rapid backsliding on democracy in recent months. It is also an opportunity for the EU to be more proactive in safeguarding democratic standards in the bloc by coaxing the Slovak government to change its current course.

Experts have likened Slovak democracy to a pendulum, swinging back and forth between pro- and anti-democratic forces. In the last 20 years, bouts of rule by illiberal populists have been interrupted by brief democratic breakthroughs, as when mass protests in 2018 following the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova ousted Fico from power for the second time. Despite these oscillations, Slovakia has maintained closer economic ties with Russia compared to its Central European neighbors, developing a dependence on Russian gas that has gotten it in hot water with the EU.

After being reelected prime minister on a populist platform for a fourth (nonconsecutive) term starting last October, Fico turned almost immediately to dismantling the country’s institutional checks and balances, an illiberal playbook carried out most acutely by Viktor Orban in Hungary during the past 14 years. In Slovakia, Fico was able to fast-track changes to the penal code in December that served to scrap a vital anti-corruption office while several of his fellow Smer party members were under investigation for misuse of EU funds.

Threats to Corruption Fight and Independent Judiciary

The changes not only endanger Slovakia’s fight against corruption, but they also have cast a shadow over the independence of Slovak courts. The Constitutional Court contested provisions of the new penal code earlier this year, prompting a round of threats that Fico’s government has wielded against other high courts that dare stand up to it. But with Fico’s ally Peter Pellegrini in the president’s office as of June, there is now a path to pack the court in Fico’s favor for future rulings, as the president appoints the chair of the Constitutional Court.

Independent media also have faced mounting threats from the government. New measures last month effectively put public radio and television under government control. And, in the wake of the disturbing attack on Fico, the government proposed two additional draft laws, which would allow officials to curtail reporting that is critical of the government and restrict journalists’ access to information.

The near-fatal attack on Fico has only exacerbated fissures in Slovak society and created a tense backdrop for that democracy’s next battle: a foreign agents law. The bill, modeled on a 2017 Hungarian law struck down by the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, in 2021 – and echoing a 2012 Russian law that started the trend — would permit the government to fine and even shut down NGOs that fail to report foreign financial support, even in amounts as small as 5,000 euros. Though still in draft form (and now delayed as the parliament’s summer recess nears), the law has nevertheless allowed officials to discredit civil society with rhetorical attacks that already began during last year’s election campaign. If passed, it would be a direct assault on the independence and efficacy of a key pillar of democratic systems.

Tense discussions of the foreign agents law in the capital Bratislava have obscured associated threats of foreign interference in Slovakia. Credible reports of Hungarian and Russian meddling in Slovakia’s elections in recent years, including in the 2023 and 2024 elections, have cast doubt on electoral integrity and the legitimacy of the candidates involved, including Fico. The prevalence of pro-Russian propaganda – perhaps to a greater degree than ever, even in a country that traditionally has viewed Russia more favorably than most of its Central European neighbors — has brought additional scrutiny to other links between Slovakia and Russia. Slovakia’s draft foreign agents law also mirrors the recently passed law in Georgia that brought widespread public protest, international condemnation, and biting international sanctions.

With Fico making a slow recovery but returning to public engagements, the future of the country’s leadership and its overall direction remain in limbo. With EU parliamentary elections done, this is a good time to reflect on yet another case of democracy under threat and for European institutions and Europe’s leaders to demonstrate fresh resolve to defend rule of law and democracy.

The Need for a Strong, Principled Response

Given the EU’s evident failure in stalling and correcting democratic backsliding in Hungary, a concerted and proactive effort to push back against the Slovak government’s attacks on democratic institutions would be a welcome reversal for the whole union. A strong, principled response would quell fears that Hungary’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, which began July 1 and runs through the end of the year, could undermine the bloc’s ongoing efforts to counter democratic backsliding in its ranks.

Once jockeying for key posts concludes in Brussels after the June EU parliamentary election (the top three posts have been named, but more to come), the new European Commission must act quickly by launching infringement proceedings against Slovakia for each of these anti-democratic laws. But for Slovakia to feel the heat immediately, the Commission should also consider freezing at least a portion of the country’s “cohesion” funds as soon as possible. The money is intended to level the  economic and fiscal playing field across the Union for lower-income member States, and would amount to €12.8 billion for Slovakia from 2021 to 2027. For Hungary, the Commission waited until 2022 to take such serious action. For Slovakia, given the magnitude and pace of its decline, there is no time to waste.

Turnout for the EU parliamentary elections hit a record high in Slovakia (albeit still comparatively low within the EU), and the opposition Progressive Slovakia edged out Fico’s Smer party, suggesting that a portion of Slovak society wants to remain a part of the European community and would welcome the bloc’s checks on its antidemocratic leaders. Thousands of Slovakia’s citizens have turned to the streets in recent months to protest the government’s barrage against democratic institutions, reminding the EU that democracy still has a broad base of support in Slovakia if it acts now.

For Slovaks, meeting this moment will require renewed efforts to work across party lines and build unity in favor of a stronger democratic future for their country, one in which corrupt individuals are held to account, free democratic debate flourishes, and independent institutions safeguard the rights of all.

IMAGE: People take part in a demonstration in front of the Slovak parliament in Bratislava, Slovakia, on February 7, 2024, to protest criminal code reforms set to be passed despite sharp criticism from the European Union. The changes, which prompted a wave of anti-government protests, include easing the penalties for corruption and economic offences in this country of 5.4 million, which is a member of NATO as well as the EU. (Photo by VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images)