Cleaning up politics in eastern Europe a goal for liberal leaders

Zuzana Caputova, who will be Slovakia’s first female president when she takes office in June. Picture: EPA/Martin Divisek

Protests against mafia-controlled landfill sites have become platforms for liberal leaders such as Slovakia’s president-elect, Zuzana Caputova, writes Leonid Bershidsky

IF you’re wondering where a new crop of liberal, eastern European political leaders might come from, as the region succumbs to nationalism and corruption, check out the garbage dumps. Slovakia’s president-elect, Zuzana Caputova, acquired her political skills around one.

Ms Caputova comes from Pezinok, a small town in wine-growing country, half an hour from the capital, Bratislava. In 1997, the town used a pit left over from an old brickworks for a landfill. The project quickly got out of hand.

“They wanted it to be the size of 11 soccer fields and as tall as a four-storey building,” says Ms Caputova.

Slovakia’s recycling rate, 9%, is one of the lowest in Europe. That’s just one reason why running landfills can be a lucrative business there. Western European neighbours export their non-recyclables to the east, where land is cheaper. Illegal waste imports are a big revenue source for organised crime. The EU regularly chides Slovakia for improper landfill maintenance.

Locals in Pezinok didn’t want the landfill, which was close to a residential area. During a 14-year legal battle that ended in the European Court of Justice, the EUs highest court, they held 15 protest actions, at the time the biggest in Slovakia since the fall of communism.

Ms Caputova, a civic-minded lawyer from a non-governmental organisation, represented the town residents. She won the case, which took up much of her professional life. It taught her a lot about how Slovakia worked.

“The case was an example of how political and business power are linked,” says Ms Caputova.

At one point, a wealthy businessman named Marian Kocner got involved in the landfill project, seeking a permit to develop the site.

Ms Caputova met him several times and found him to be “a person who lets others know he has power”. He was open about his links to the ruling political party, Smer.

Kocner is in jail now, charged with ordering the 2018 contract killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. The murder sparked protests in Slovakia and prompted Ms Caputova to get involved in politics. She’d known Kuciak from joint work on corruption cases.

“The more we found out about the murder investigation, the more names came up that I remembered from the landfill case,” says Ms Caputova.

Apart from bringing her into contact with powerful figures such as Kocner and former prime minister Robert Fico (who was forced to resign by the protests of the Kuciak killing), the landfill case also taught Ms Caputova a lot of what she would later need for a rocket-like launch into national politics. And it shaped her pro-EU views.

“For me, it was a lesson in legal work, but also in mobilising people and in working with media,” says Ms Caputova.

“And it made me grateful that we’re in the European Union — in the end, the ECJ verdict helped us a lot.”

What the case didn’t do was make Ms Caputova famous. A member of a start-up party, Progressive Slovakia, she ran for president on a lark, starting out with barely any support in the polls. She travelled around the country, talking to people, and, she says, “breaking every marketing rule” by being herself rather than staying on message.

Slovakia is a conservative, Catholic country, and just being herself meant talking about her liberal views, such as support for gay marriage and gay adoption.

That opened her to attacks from the right and gave Smer’s candidate, EU Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, a useful background for advertising his conservative credentials as a church-going man of the people.

For Ms Caputova, the openness didn’t do much.

“I was in eighth place for a while, then in fifth,” she says.

“Nothing suggested I could turn it around. I was asking myself whether it was reasonable to continue with the campaign.”

Then, with election day approaching, the candidates met in televised debates, and Ms Caputova, her media skills and convictions honed by the landfill case, began winning. Slovaks who had attended the Kuciak protests recognised one of their own. The Pezinok case drifted back into the public memory. Voting for Ms Caputova became a way to reject politics as usual and the rot of corruption. At the end, half of her campaign budget came from small contributions. She won a plurality in the first round of the election and beat Mr Sefcovic in the run-off on March 30.

The Slovak presidency isn’t powerful, but the president isn’t a figurehead, either. In her new role, Ms Caputova will appoint the prime minister and key judges and prosecutors. The prime minister has more power, but winning that office is difficult without a party machine behind the candidate. Though Ms Caputova is suspending her membership in Progressive Slovakia, that party is already enjoying a poll boost from her victory. The 2017 start-up is now the country’s second- or third-most popular party, and an activist president can help develop the momentum in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary election.

Despite her unconventional path to the presidency, Ms Caputova baulks at calling herself a populist or even an anti-establishment candidate.

“For me,” she says, “populism implies the use of disinformation, the exploitation of emotions, of fear. It’s also about playing for popularity. I don’t do any of that, and I followed a perfectly legal path to get elected, so I’m not really anti-system.”

The term ‘populist’ does indeed get a bad rap, in large part because of eastern Europe’s current leaders, such as Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Polish ruling party, and Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic. But a civil society activist such as Ms Caputova, who didn’t just campaign for the presidency, but against what passes for politics in most post-communist countries, fits the original definition of a populist — someone who takes on the representation of ordinary people who feel disregarded by the political elite.

In much of eastern Europe, dumps and landfills are a breeding ground for this kind of benign populism, which doesn’t exploit cultural identities or play to base instincts. In countries with low recycling rates and mafias heavily involved in the waste business — Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia — local protests against mismanaged dumps can, and do, escalate quickly and garbage politics are no laughing matter.

In Russia in recent years, landfill protests in Moscow’s satellite towns have been the most visible anti-regime actions, forcing the president, Vladimir Putin, to try to take control of the issue and personally order the closing of some dumps, even though some of his cronies have an interest in the garbage business.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party, too, tries to defuse local protests by legislating better waste management and clamping down on the widespread practice of setting dumps on fire to free up space for more waste.

In Ukraine, a garbage crisis in the western city of Lviv, in 2017, undermined the national political ambitions of Mayor Andriy Sadovy, who, at one time, was a realistic contender for the presidency.

The activists fighting against the mafia activity, misuse of public funds, and environmental transgressions around the landfills aren’t well-known today. They may get quoted in a news story or two, or appear at a widely covered court hearing, but that’s as much publicity as they get. But, like Ms Caputova, they’re getting valuable experience, learning how their countries work at some of their most vulnerable spots, forming strong views about the current governance practices and possible remedies.

Future, civic-minded, charismatic and skilful leaders in eastern Europe, those who are beginning to challenge the post-Communist nationalists of today, are coming up from the region’s maturing civil societies. Caputova’s example shows that the little-known activists of today could well be the presidents and prime ministers of tomorrow.

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