Roman Balko, a high school teacher in central Slovakia, quit his job last year, but not because he was burnt out from the lessons on civics that he gave for 22 years. He quit because there weren’t enough of them – and he couldn't teach the subject the way he wanted.
He says that on paper, a high school education in Slovakia includes human rights. But in practice, it doesn’t shape attitudes or values. And he blames that for the hold that the far-right has on youths here today.
“If there was more practical education about democracy and about democratic principles, this would help counter extremism,” says Mr. Balko, who in October formed a nongovernmental organization called Teachers for European Union Slovakia (TEUS) to push for better teaching of democracy and European ideals in schools.
The need is clear. In mock elections carried out in February with 6,000 high school students across the country, the extreme right People's Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) came in second. Catapulted into the national parliament for the first time after March elections with 8 percent of the vote, the party attracted nearly a quarter of first-time voters – becoming the most successful party for those ages 18 to 22.
Youth discontent is spreading across Europe, upending mainstream politics. Frustrated young voters in Austria and Hungary have helped buoy the far-right, while in Spain and Greece, their votes have gone to the far-left fringe. In Slovakia, their vote in the recent election has prompted a wake-up call, and many are pushing to address what is increasingly seen as a black hole when it comes to lessons on democracy – especially in the school system.
“This is leading society to search for what we didn’t do properly. These are people who were born in the '90s, we cannot say it’s the legacy of the past. This is the outcome of what we are doing within a democratic society,” says Slovakian sociologist Olga Gyarfášová. “For the teachers it is a huge challenge.”
'People are fed up'
On a recent day, students mill about the drab halls of the Technical University in Zvolen, a town in the region of Banská Bystrica. It is here that L’SNS leader Marian Kotleba stunned the nation when he won the governor's race in 2013 – and then again this spring, when the party won enough votes to become a national force.
Students here say they voted for the L’SNS, which reveres Slovakia’s Nazi war state and is virulently anti-Roma and anti-EU, not because they share their extremist positions but as the ultimate protest vote. Many of them feel stymied by lack of opportunity, the prospect that they’ll have to move abroad for work, and that politicians seem to do nothing about it.
Marek and Matus, both students in the forestry program who declined to give their last names, say they are against the “stealing and corruption” of Slovakia’s political elite – which spurred them to vote for L'SNS.
“We don’t like extremism,” Matus says. “We are not sympathizers of [Governor] Kotleba,” adds Marek. “But I think it’s good that [mainstream politicians] are aware that people are fed up.”
Across the hall Peter Filip, who is studying to become a homebuilder, says he didn’t vote for L’SNS but he’s not alarmed by the youth vote that went to Mr. Kotleba, who used to attend rallies in the fascist uniform of the country’s Nazi puppet state before his ascent to power. “I don’t think he’s a neo-Nazi, maybe in the past but not now,” he says. “There is not going to be a return to the past. People want a normal and calm life. They’d be able to stop it.”
'They take democracy for granted'
Many disagree, worried that young people aren’t conscious of a dangerous path they are taking.
Grigorij Mesežnikov, the head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs that helped organize the high school mock elections in February, says that this generation didn’t fight for democracy – neither against communism nor the authoritarianism that emerged during the transition in the '90s. As a result, it doesn’t have its defenses up. “They were not personally involved in the fight. They take democracy for granted,” he says.
That leaves them vulnerable to the simplistic solutions that extremist parties offer, Mr. Mesežnikov says. Kotleba has been especially effective over social media, which is awash in conspiracy theories and historic revisionism. In the wake of the Arab Spring, he says, “there were hopes this kind of mobilization [over social media] would always be in favor of democracy,” he says. “In Slovakia now we see how this model worked in the opposite direction.”
So now many teachers, institutes, and young people themselves are hoping to do that in the classroom. The Institute for Public Affairs has been giving talks in high schools on the threats of extremism.
Rado Sloboda, a 25-year-old in Banská Bytrica, started a new movement, Not In Our Town, to counter the rise of Kotleba. It is inspired by the group that formed in 1995 after hate crimes in Billings, Montana. It organizes events to bring together people from different backgrounds, via film festivals, theater, and talks, all to counter extremism and intolerance.
“I consider myself quite frustrated, too. But I would never vote for Kotleba,” says Mr. Sloboda. “Anti-fascism is a strong value for me. For many youths, human rights and democracy is not part of their values.”
And Balko, the former high school teacher, is pushing as head of TEUS for a complete overhaul of the way civics is taught – which he says is sidelined. He says under communism, schools were suffocated by ideology. As a boy growing up, he, like all students, was forced into membership of the communist youth organization Pioneers.
When the nation transitioned to democracy, schools were wiped free of politics, which was liberating, he says, but today it’s left them “politically sterile.” His group passed out an informal questionnaire to the educators who belong to it, and they found that history, values, and principles of the EU, for example, was taught on average for just three hours throughout a student’s entire high school education.
He says that democratic values should be instilled by teachers of every subject, not just civics teachers – an echo of how communist ideology was instilled in the past.
A lack of understanding?
A lack of historic awareness among students has registered in surveys conducted by Ms. Gyarfášová. “Their historical consciousness is very low,” she says. Many youngsters dismiss Kotleba’s support for Slovakia’s Nazi past, focusing instead on his appeal as an outsider. “There is a certain ambivalence in their views,” she says. “This is not a source of shame for them.”
Dagmar Horna, who has been on the forefront of the fight for human rights education in Slovakia since the transition to democracy, organizes an annual “Olympic Games of Human Rights” for high schoolers. But she says there is a long fight ahead – inside and outside the classroom.
She says Slovakia isn’t setting an example of democracy for students, amid corruption scandals by the mainstream political parties and xenophobic rhetoric across the political spectrum that has grown amid the refugee crisis. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico is widely considered among most anti-refugee leaders in Europe.
“Nobody around them speaks or acts in a real democratic [way]. And the youth hear it,” she says. “I’m afraid they weakly understand what the essence of democracy is.”
Balko agrees the fight must take place outside of school hours, too, and that examples at the top must be set. “When people see nothing changing in this country, they will continue to vote for Kotleba,” he says.
This was part 5 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.