In astrophysics a black hole is a region of spacetime with peculiar characteristics. Nothing (be it matter or light or particles) that falls into it can escape. It swallows everything.
One of the first times the phenomenon attracted my attention was back in 1998 when Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, called Slovakia “the black hole of Europe”.
These were harsh but true words spoken by one of the key politicians on the planet.
Slovakia, like Belarus, was a pariah of European salons, and deservedly so.
It was a wake-up call for those who did not realise that the country was drifting east – on course to become member of the customs union with Russia – while the rest of Central Europe was about to become anchored in transatlantic and European institutions.
Slovak civil society suddenly felt that liberal democrats are not alone, that the free world outside is watching and cheering pro-democratic reforms.
There was an immediate reaction as hopelessness and resignation turned into the positive agenda of politicians feeling the support of ordinary citizens.
In the same year, the tide tuned and a more outward-looking coalition government was formed, helping to restore the country on the path to the European Union and Nato.
What is of absolute importance – Slovakia might have not made it but for the United States and Western Europe.
Bucking the trend again
Today Slovakia is again bucking the trend, but this time by going against the current rise of illiberal democracy in the region.
It has an openly pro-European government. It does not allow itself to be recruited into coalitions ranting against the European Commission or the EU in general.
The Slovak republic is the only country of the Visegrad Four to belong to the eurozone and the decision to join it was not accidental or tactical – it was part of the strategic long-term plan to be at the forefront of European integration processes.
It supports the idea of eurozone reform and participates in discussions on how to make it happen.
Its EU presidency in 2016 proved that moderation and mediation with the strategically minded pro-European elite can help to avoid the looming east-west divide.
Slovakia is about to take up a one-year stint as president of the Visegrad Four, with a determination to anchor Central Europe in “Jadro Europy” – the core of Europe.
Take a look around Slovakia’s borders.
Some prime ministers are praising the qualities of Vladimir Putin, while others are putting their country on a collision course with European institutions with regards to rule of law.
Whole societies are intoxicated with delusions of grandeur for bygone times, dreaming dangerous visions of a Central and Eastern Europe that opposes Germany or the European Commission.
Around Slovakia elections are increasingly won by those who outbid their opponents to make life for immigrants more difficult by promoting a “me first” logic and a transactional attitude to European integration.
Standards of free speech are steadily deteriorating with public media turning into propaganda tools and civil society organisations critical of governments smeared and harassed.
Constitutional rules are tweaked with an intention to keep governing parties in power indefinitely.
Against this backdrop Slovakia is a shining light of liberal values.
There is no support for illiberal counter-revolution. Its youth are not fooled by euroscepticism. Support for Nato membership is growing, perhaps a consequence of the realisation of the country’s geopolitical fragility.
True, Slovakia is increasingly vulnerable. Practices from neighboring countries are setting an example for populists. The political establishment is not free of illiberal, anti-Nato and anti-EU politicians who repeat and multiply Russian propaganda.
Marian Kotleba, the chairman of the far-right People’s Party who was recently indicted for promoting racism and Nazi ideology, plans to run for the presidency next year.
Jan Kuciak’s murder exposed the failings of the Slovak state, torn by post-communist incompetence, corruption and graft.
Surprisingly, however, the country is holding strong.
The aftermath of the crisis showed that civil society is there to scrutinise the politicians. The crisis also provided opportunities for political leaders like president Andrej Kiska to show statesmanship.
The country never wavered in its pro-European course, even when undergoing political transition from Robert Fico to the current prime minister Peter Pellegrini.
Just like in 1998, Slovakia is an outlier. It could do with a helping hand from Western countries.
France and Germany could help to stop the re-emerging east-west divide by recognising the efforts of a small Central European country that does not want to follow its neighbours’ walk away from Western values.
Slovakia deserves credit for playing a moderating role in Central Europe while others seem happier to form an anti-EU and anti-Western coalition.
Doing so creates a geopolitical void that makes the region vulnerable to revisionist powers just waiting for the opportunity to weaken the West.
The likes of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron should be frequent visitors to Slovakia, to show that it is not alone in its fight to preserve liberal values.
The East-West divide could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if sensible politicians do not make the effort to overcome stereotypes and the lumping of the V4 countries together.
Central Europe is not a uniform entity just like Benelux or Scandinavian countries are not always happy to be treated as one.
Astrophysicists claim that black holes under certain circumstances might turn into neutron stars – a concentration of heavy positive matter. It is not a perfect analogy, but I strongly believe that after 20 years Slovakia has become important again.
This is a bastion of pro-European policies that, with a little help from Western allies can turn into a center of gravity and source of positive energy in this troubled corner of the European galaxy.
Jakub Wisniewski is director of the Globsec Policy Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia