Slovak President Optimistic about Democracy, but Warns about Russian Misinformation

During a visit to the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová reminded the Stanford community that the stakes of the war in Ukraine are high and will impact democracies far beyond Eastern and Central Europe.
Michael McFaul listens to President Zuzana Čaputová speak during the Q&A portion of her fireside chat at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Michael McFaul listens to President Zuzana Čaputová speak during the Q&A portion of her fireside chat at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University on February 2, 2024.

On February 2, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and The Europe Center (TEC) were honored to host a discussion with Zuzana Čaputová, President of the Slovak Republic, that was moderated by Michael McFaul, director of FSI, and which included introductory remarks by Anna Grzymała-Busse, director of TEC.

Čaputová, both the youngest and first female president of Slovakia, is a very different kind of leader in a country that also looks very different now than it did thirty years ago. Čaputová was 16 in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe and distinctly remembers the realities of life under an oppressive government.

Reflecting on that time, she explained, “It taught me how a totalitarian regime works, and what it means to live in freedom. Back then, it was illegal to say what we really thought. So, we lived in two parallel worlds. A public one where everyone was just pretending, and an authentic one, which was private.”

Now the leader of democratic Slovakia, she expressed gratitude that she was able to experience life in both the communist and democratic worlds, because it has left her with a keen sense of the difference between freedom and “un-freedom,” and the tools would-be dictators use to limit civil liberties. 

Putin has tried to divide us. But now we are stronger and more united, and this is an important message to him.
Zuzana Čaputová
President of the Slovak Republic

Democracy and Truth vs. Authoritarianism and Lies

With an eye turned towards the current war in Ukraine and renewed Russian aggression, Čaputová sees a clear throughline between the lessons of the past and the challenges of the present. While the USSR may no longer control the airwaves and broadcast media of Slovakia, anti-democratic messages are being widely spread across social media with little oversight or repercussions against bad actors and extremists.

“Russian propaganda is huge in Slovakia, and according to our services, Russia is in an information war with Slovakia,” Čaputová warned. “This is a strong influence and the manipulation, especially before elections, is very strong.” 

Democracy, on the other hand, must be built on the truth, Čaputová reminded the audience. “If we accept in our politics and among politicians the Kremlin’s attitude that ‘nothing is true and everything is possible,’ our democracy will die. And this is an important message for our era, in which it is common for even democratic politicians to over promise or simply lie.”

To this end, Čaputová called for more action to curtail mis- and disinformation on social media and digital spaces. “It's not about censorship,” she assured, reminding the audience that, having grown up in communist Czechoslovakia, “I know what real censorship is.” But she also asserted that more must be done to balance rights and responsibilities, because “to ignore this problem is dangerous.”


Ukraine and the Frontlines of Democracy

Nowhere are the stakes of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, truth and lies, more clear than in Slovakia’s neighbor, Ukraine, where Putin’s full-scale invasion is approaching its second year.

Speaking of her multiple visits to the war-torn country, President Čaputová recalled, “It was the most emotional experience during my mandate as president. I met with the families and parents whose children were kidnapped. I met women who were objects of sexual abuse by Russian soldiers. I visited hospitals where many young men were injured and doctors cried. I will never forget this, and that’s why we must be active and never forget the situation and help Ukraine.”

While European countries have remained proactive in their support for Ukraine, domestic political squabbling in the United States has stalled additional funding in the House and Senate.

Acknowledging that the war in Ukraine may feel increasingly far away to everyday Americans, FSI Director Michael McFaul asked Čaputová, “What’s the right way for Americans to think about the Russian threat today?”

Starting locally, Čaputová affirmed that Russian aggression was a direct threat to Slovakia and its sovereignty. Despite Slovakia being a member of NATO since 2004, in December 2021, Putin demanded a veto on the shape of the NATO presence on the alliance’s eastern flank, mere months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“The alliance is absolutely crucial,” said Čaputová, “and the Slovak people better understand the advantages of our membership now.” As in Ukraine, Putin’s attempts to control the narrative and sway public opinion have fallen short in Slovakia.

“Putin has tried to divide us in terms of our NATO and EU membership. But now we are stronger and more united, and this is an important message to him,” says Čaputová.

This is also the message she hopes Americans and Western political leaders take from the experiences of Ukraine and its neighbors.

“This is not only about the Ukrainians,” Čaputová told McFaul. “It’s about universal values like international law, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty. It’s that world, the world of Putin, against the whole democratic world.”

While the success of authoritarians anywhere threatens democracies everywhere. Čaputová reminded the audience that these threats are particularly keen for young democracies like Slovakia, where the roots of democracy and civic institutions have not had time to grow as deeply yet as in older democracies. To these established democracies, Čaputová asked that they not turn away or leave behind their younger peers.

Addressing Americans directly, she added, “I hope that democracy and all important democratic values win in the U.S. this year. You need it. And we need it.”


Slovakia Looking Forward

Even as a young democracy, Slovakia is making strides to strengthen its civic culture and develop into a committed, trusted partner in Europe and beyond. In her introductory remarks, Anna Grzymała-Busse reminded the audience how much Slovakia has changed in just a few years.

“At the time Zuzana Čaputová stepped into the presidential race, Slovakia was ruled by corruption scandals, shady dealings, and was reckoning with the assassination of the young journalist who had uncovered these crimes. But her integrity, experience and fundamental commitment to honesty and to democracy gave her a huge victory in that election with close to 60% of the vote,” Grzymala-Busse said.

Democracy is not a one-off achievement, but a never-ending process of self-improvement exercised in our everyday lives.
Zuzana Čaputová
President of the Slovak Republic

For Čaputová, the rule of law was, and continues to be, the main priority of her policies. And as she looks around Slovakia, she is encouraged by what she sees. 

"The public mobilization of civil society fills me with optimism,” she told the audience, “And it gives me reason to believe that, regardless of the pressures, democracy in Central and Eastern Europe will remain.”

While those pressures are real, Čaputová and her government are actively working to tackle other fundamental policy challenges facing Slovakia. A public interest lawyer before her government service, Čaputová spearheaded a successful campaign in 2013 to shut down a waste dump that would have poisoned the land, air, and water in her community, and effort for which she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016. Environmental protection continues to be a central plank of her government, and under her tenure Slovakia has become the first country in the region to commit to a carbon neutrality goal by 2050.

Čaputová hopes that the success and progress made on these issues, coupled with a culture of decency and equality, will encourage people to continue developing a tradition of public participation in post-communist Slovakia.

"The quality of our democracy depends on who we are as citizens and on the values we practice,” said Čaputová. “We must understand that democracy is not a one-off achievement, but a never-ending process of self-improvement exercised in our everyday lives, communities, churches, and offices. That is why my source of hope for the future is our people," she concluded.

President Zuzana Čaputová’s full remarks and Q&A with Michael McFaul can be viewed in their entirety below.

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