May 4, 2021, 4:30 p.m.
When Igor Matovic took office as Prime Minister in March 2020, he was a hope for many Slovaks. His party came to power on an anti-corruption platform and promised to renew a political system that has been discredited by corruption, cozy ties to seedy business interests, and poor public services. The unorthodox politician who was active on social media had built an image as a tribune of the people that had become dissatisfied with the ruling elite in Slovakia.
But in April of this year, Matovic, who faced one of the weakest approval ratings of any Slovak prime minister, caught global attention when he resigned over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He grappled with a massive second wave and negotiated a secret agreement against the will of his coalition partners to import 2 million doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which lacks regulatory approval from the European Union. The Slovak Medicines Agency later declined to approve the use of the first 200,000 imported shots, stating that they “did not have the same properties and properties” as the version of Sputnik V, which received positive reviews in the British medical journal Lancet .
Matovic, under fire over the deal with Russia, resigned as prime minister to save the four-party coalition government. The pandemic may have shaped his legacy as a leader, but his own chaotic style of government also marked his year in power, creating tension within the ruling coalition and antagonizing many potential allies. Ultimately, Matovic’s resignation could signal to similar politicians in the region that a party with a well-intentioned anti-corruption agenda and grassroots support can easily stumble in the face of a crisis – with a long road to toppling.
Although Matovic remains in the government as finance minister and deputy prime minister, even members of his circle are fed up with him and attribute many of Slovakia’s current problems to his inconsistent decision-making. “He’s always been a rude and manipulative rebel, and that worked in the opposition. When he won the election, I hoped he would turn into a statesman. Well, he didn’t, ”said Jan Kroslak, a MP from Matovics’ party, the party for ordinary people and independent personalities (Olano). “In my opinion, he should consider either leaving the government and focusing on the party or withdrawing from politics altogether.”
Olano won the parliamentary elections in Slovakia in February 2020 with the slogan “Let’s beat the mafia together”. It seemed more of a protest movement than a professional party that lacked structure and a consistent agenda. The result was a surprising victory over the Direction-Social Democracy party known as Smer, which has ruled 12 of the last 14 years. Influenced by shady businessmen with ties to organized crime and led by politicians known for fighting the press, Smer aroused public disenchantment with the establishment and allowed crimes to be committed under his watch. In 2018, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were shot dead in their home, leading to mass protests that have not been seen since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
A talented speaker and passionate anti-corruption fighter, Matovic presented himself as the man who cleaned up the government after Somer’s years in office. He rode the wave of enthusiasm that brought lawyer and political newcomer Zuzana Caputova to the Slovak presidency in 2019, making her the first woman to take the post. In contrast to Caputova, Matovic offered both determination and understanding of political processes: he had spent a decade as a MP. (Matovic didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
A year later this enthusiasm burned out completely: Since last October, the approval ratings of Matovic have dropped by almost 17 points. Until April he was the least popular member of the government, with almost 84 percent of Slovaks disapproving him. Matovic’s fate began to be reversed before he even sat in the prime minister’s presidency when Slovakia recorded its first coronavirus case six days after the elections. His cabinet, filled with strong personalities from the four coalition parties, was fraught with tension from the start. Faced with the largest health crisis in the country’s brief independent history, the new government failed to pay full attention to its pledges to restore justice and transparency.
Slovakia avoided the worst of the first wave of the pandemic last spring. However, since September 2020 it has been grappling with a spike in new COVID-19 cases, which recorded one of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world earlier this year. Matovic’s reaction to the second wave was unorthodox. He became the face of the Slovak fight against the coronavirus and organized emotional press conferences almost daily. He was the first world leader to order nationwide testing of nearly all 5.5 million citizens of his country, and then took action against the EU and its coalition partners to negotiate the vaccine purchase from Russia.
In the eyes of his fellow politicians, the latter step revealed a lot about Matovic’s personality. “I don’t think he’s a Russophile, but in his eccentric and megalomaniac way he thought he would find a solution to the coronavirus,” said Irena Bihariova, leader of the Slovak Progressive Party, which has no seats but was part of parliament the anti-Smer movement. “As a result, he wasted such potential, such public trust.”
The more Matovic lost sight of the government and the public, the more irrational he seemed to become. A passionate Facebook user, he publicly criticized his own ministers, diplomats, reporters, academics and others who were Sputnik V suspects, calling them “idiots”. A joke during a radio interview that he had promised Russia the Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia on the Slovak border in exchange for the vaccines sparked a diplomatic scandal. He resigned under pressure from his coalition partners.
Matovic’s record is anything but negative. His government carried out a far-reaching purge of corrupt police, judiciary and intelligence officials, as well as crackdown on illegal businesspeople who operated with impunity under Smer. But he couldn’t find anything in common with others who opposed Smer, including coalition allies, media and independent experts, all of whom he treated as opponents. “Slovakia is a different country today,” said Andrej Stancik, an MP from Olano. “The problem with Matovic was that many of his enemies threw gauntlets at him and he reacted to everyone. … A prime minister shouldn’t spend time on that. “
The new prime minister, Eduard Heger, is more of a technocrat than Matovic – which gives Olano the chance to promote a more conciliatory face in government. “Matovic’s legacy is poor,” said Grigory Meseznikov, director of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. “People quickly realized that because of his contradicting nature, lack of diplomatic skills and authoritarianism, he is not a prime minister-type politician. He has proven that being an effective opposition player is not enough to run the country. “
Despite his resignation, Matovic does not want to take a back seat. He remains active in the national media and on Facebook, voicing concerns that he may try to overshadow Heger. And he still takes the Sputnik V campaign personally, making two unauthorized visits abroad in April, first in Moscow to meet with the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that markets Sputnik V abroad, and later in Budapest for assistance to get the vaccine inspection.
Regardless of the ultimate legacy of Olano-led governments, Matovic’s case serves as a warning to opposition parties in Central European countries ruled by strong men: After years of predictable rule with iron fists, a country led by politicians with no government experience can easily descend into chaos. “When [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski and [Viktor] Orban is gone, the Polish and Hungarian opposition, with no experience, no people and no ability to deal with internal tensions, will have the same problems governing and replacing the old state apparatus, ”said Milan Nic, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Affairs Relationships.
Furthermore, Matovic may inadvertently pave the way for the return of what he calls the Mafia. Since the 2020 election, Olano has dropped 16 points in the polls, missing both Smer and its new offshoot, the Voice party. In the event of an early election, the parties could unite to form a government with an even stronger mandate than before. “I blame Matovic for that,” said Kroslak, the Olano legislature. “With his talent and intelligence, he could easily get 40 percent support. For some reason, he feels more comfortable when more people hate him. “
Although Matovic’s resignation has kept the coalition intact for the time being, the future of the Slovak government remains uncertain. Heger could still stumble upon Matovic’s roadblocks: Olano’s unsafe platform after corruption and the former prime minister’s own ambitions.