Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger (left, from his official website) and incoming Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (by David Sedlecky via Wikimedia Commons).

Governments in Prague and Bratislava have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a Central European democratic duo.

In the Czech Republic these days, people are getting vaccinated by the thousands. Starting this month, COVID-19 tests, which unvaccinated people now need to enter restaurants, will no longer be provided free of charge. In Slovakia, people have had to pay for COVID tests for some time now, but the rate of vaccination is slowing down. How could the first Czechoslovak president, T. G. Masaryk, think that Slovaks and Czechs, with all their cultural differences, could form a single nation?

Still, his idea of a single state, established on 28 October 1918, was correct back then. Czechoslovakia was a midsize state that neighboring Poland and Hungary had to respect. And Hitler knew very well that by dividing the country, he would subjugate the two nations more easily.

Today, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are two small states in the shifting sands of Central Europe, making themselves even smaller with their cluelessness. Poland and Hungary have challenged the EU to a fight, and because Bratislava and Prague are hesitating, they are losing relevance.

Two Prime Ministers

The outcome of the Czech parliamentary elections could give a shot of self-confidence to both our states, because for the first time in years, their governments will be politically related: right-wing and somewhat conservative, but also democratic. This distinguishes them from the radically conservative, but also authoritarian Polish and Hungarian governments.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger and his soon-to-be Czech counterpart, Petr Fiala, are expected to get along well, given that both are conservatives and men of faith. The problem is, they could also be tempted to empathize with Polish and Hungarian conservatism.

The conservative agenda in Budapest and Warsaw, however, is only a secondary phenomenon in the much more significant process of building  authoritarian regimes. These regimes have little to do with ideology and a left-wing government could enforce them just as brutally – it wouldn’t be the first time.

The Polish government is attacking democratic principles, as well as the very foundations of the European Union. They have subjugated the Polish judicial system, and when the European Court of Justice asked them to restore the judges’ independence, they said the court had no business telling them what to do, because Polish laws were above EU laws. This may be a very simplified description of what has happened, but the conclusion is really simple: Poland has ceased to respect one of the EU’s basic principles.

It is similar to – but much more serious than – the Slovak Parliament declaring “sovereignty” in 1992. The breakup of the country was the logical consequence of this act. Following the same logic – and assuming that the Polish government doesn’t change course – either Poland leaves the EU, or the EU starts breaking apart.

The Poles are damaging not only their own prospects, but also those of the rest of Central Europe. Slovaks and Czechs would therefore be well-advised to distance themselves from Poland and work more closely with Europe. Whether Heger and Fiala understand this is not so certain.

Role Models for Central Europe?

After a long time, Slovakia and the Czech Republic now have the opportunity to create a Central European democratic duo and restore the weight of former Czechoslovakia, a state that its neighbors had to respect. Masaryk would surely approve.

But this duo could also galvanize democratic opposition parties in Hungary and Poland. If they managed to win their respective parliamentary elections (due in Hungary next spring), Central Europe would cease to be a threat to democracy and to all of the EU.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic could also inspire their neighbors when it comes to dealing with a state that has been hijacked. In Slovakia, the past governments of Robert Fico took control of judicial and police bodies, and Heger has been tasked with re-separating political and judicial powers. In the Czech Republic, outgoing Prime Minister Andrej Babis turned the state into a branch of his Agrofert corporation, and now Fiala will have to sever ties between the economic and the political.

Over the last few years, corrupt populists damaged democracy in Central Europe to such a degree that we are now facing a challenge similar to that of 1989. It is no longer enough to beat the old regime. We must also carry out the much harder task of getting rid of its structures, which have sent roots into the core of the state, and of creating trustworthy democratic institutions.

If Hungarians and Poles are lucky enough to see their authoritarian regimes voluntarily give up power after losing elections, which is not a given, they will face the daunting task of reconstructing their states, including bringing to justice those who abused their power. In Slovakia, we are currently seeing how risk-laden this effort is and how strongly Fico’s “system” is fighting back. The Czechs might be in for a similar ride, even though their state was not hijacked as far away from democracy as ours was.

In a Czecho-Slovak democratic duo, this task would be simpler. If Slovaks and Czechs pass this test, they will show their neighbors the way forward. Masaryk would surely approve, but it is far from certain whether Heger and Fiala will remember him.

Martin M. Simecka is a commentator and editor at the Slovak news site Dennik N, where this article originally appeared in slightly different form.

Translated by Matus Nemeth.