Friday 29 September 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Friday. 29/9/2023

The Monocle Minute

The Opinion

Divide and conquer: former prime minister Robert Fico

Image: Reuters

Politics / Alexei Korolyov

Hopes and fears

At Comenius University in Bratislava, the EU flag was everywhere. When I visited Slovakia’s largest university earlier this month to interview Professor Ol’ga Gyárfášova, the Slovak language mixed freely with English and German in corridors and classrooms. Surrounded by such confident and easy-going internationalism, I found it hard to believe that Slovaks would plump for the kind of virulent nationalism that has long been the trademark of populist governments in neighbouring Hungary and Poland – as they might do at tomorrow’s general election.

As with the Hungarians and Poles, the Slovaks’ enthusiasm for the EU has been dampened by the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine. The painful collapse of the country’s previous pro-Western government has made things even worse, with two-time former prime minister Robert Fico stepping into the resulting void. Once a champion of Slovakia’s European integration, Fico now wants to shield the country from Western influence and halt military aid for Ukraine. “Like Viktor Orbán, Fico and his SMER party are playing with people’s fears and using paranoid nationalism to score political points,” says Gyárfášova. They are helped by an extensive campaign of Russian propaganda that is targeting not only support for Ukraine (Slovakia was the first EU country to donate its air-defence system to Kyiv) but also the country’s beleaguered LGBT+ community.

What is surprising is how effectively Fico is papering over Slovakia’s real problems, such as its crumbling communist-era infrastructure and ailing healthcare system. According to the latest polls, 20.6 per cent of Slovaks back his view. Yet liberals are still hopeful. Polling right behind SMER is Progressive Slovakia. The party of the country’s ceremonial president, Zuzana Čaputová, promises a stable government that won’t resort to fearmongering. While Fico’s victory looks likely, this vision of stability could still triumph. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that there are major fault lines in Slovak society. With unity over Ukraine threatened, the rest of Europe had better be watching.

Alexei Korolyov is Monocle’s Vienna correspondent. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.


Rich pickings: a gold dredger on the Essequibo river

Image: Getty Images

Affairs / Venezuela & Guyana

Land grab

Led by President Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan government is once again engaged in sabre-rattling with neighbouring Guyana over a long-standing territorial dispute. At the centre of the quarrel is Essequibo, an area of tropical rainforest that constitutes about two-thirds of Guyana’s territory and is believed to be rich in resources such as oil, gold and other minerals. The disagreement over borders, which began more than two centuries ago, was reignited this week when Maduro ordered his diplomatic team to present Caribbean governments with his country’s argument for taking control of Essequibo.

The move came at a time of heightened tensions. At the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit earlier this month, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Yvan Gil, used his address to announce that a national referendum had been called over Guyana’s use of contested maritime areas for offshore oil bids. As always, ulterior motives might be at play. “With presidential elections next year and a long-running dispute with opposition parties, Maduro probably thinks that now is the right time to wave the nationalist flag,” Andrew Thompson, Latin America specialist and associate fellow at Canning House, tells The Monocle Minute. “It all suggests that he’s counting on it to increase his domestic support.”

For more on the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana, tune in to Thursday’s edition of The Globalist on Monocle Radio.

Publishing / Germany

By the book

Over the years, Gerhard Steidl has transformed a small-scale printing workshop that he founded in Göttingen in 1968 into one of the most revered makers of art and photography books. Despite his low-key lifestyle, Steidl has become one of the art world’s highest-profile figures. He honed his craft under the patronage of artist Joseph Beuys and was entrusted by Günter Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, to publish his entire oeuvre; he also became the late Karl Lagerfeld’s go-to for all of Chanel’s print projects.

The humble master: German printer and publisher Gerhard Steidl

Image: Robert Rieger
Image: Robert Rieger

All in the details: Steidl at work

Image: Robert Rieger

The publishing house that bears Steidl’s name prints all of its books in-house and he personally sources paper and materials from local businesses. To his admirers, his commitment to perfection is legendary. Now, Steidl wants to create a new institution in the empty plot next to his HQ that will provide grants to those who want to learn how to make and print books. A new guard will doubtless be eager to learn from the master; let’s hope that it carries Steidl’s legacy well into the future.

For our full report on Gerhard Steidl, pick up a copy of Monocle’s October issue, which is out now.

Urbanism / Hong Kong

Cleared for takeoff

Twenty-five years after the last flight touched down at Kai Tak, the redevelopment of Hong Kong’s former international airport is finally taking shape. The shopping mall component of Airside, a mixed-use building designed by Snøhetta, opened this week. The 210-metre-tall tower, built atop a new metro station, will spur renewed interest in this historic part of Kowloon East, which has been largely shut off to the public for most of this century, thanks to construction work and poor public transport links.

Civil servants are relocating to Kai Tak, which is billed as another business district, from pricier addresses on Hong Kong island, while residents are moving into its new apartments, buoyed by the government’s recent decision to revive plans to connect the vast site via monorail. This positive momentum is expected to continue in 2024 as several major developments near completion, including a 50,000-seater stadium and sports park. Though political and economic headwinds have long hindered Kai Tak’s ambitious urban regeneration, the storm clouds could be about to clear.

Beyond the Headlines

Piercing insights: an image from the series ‘Notes from the Desert’

Image: Gauri Gill

Photo of the week / India

Human interest

This picture, taken by Indian photographer Gauri Gill, is part of a series that won the Prix Pictet yesterday. The global award for photography and sustainability comes with a prize of CHF100,000 (€103,000). Gill’s work, which was selected from a shortlist of 12 photographers by an independent jury, emphasises her belief in working with and through communities in what she calls a process of “active listening”.

Gill began her winning series, Notes from the Desert, in April 1999 when she set out to photograph village schools in western Rajasthan and started engaging with marginalised communities in the desert region. According to the jury, Gill’s work perfectly encapsulated the theme of 2023’s competition, “Human”, which encouraged artists to capture and communicate the stories, struggles and triumphs of individuals and communities around the globe.

Image: Ed Reeve

Monocle Radio / On Design

London Design Festival

At this year’s London Design Festival we meet social enterprise Power Out of Restriction Collective, winner of the Emerging Design Medal, and enter the bright world of artist and designer Morag Myerscough. We also stop by Singapore for this year’s edition of Design Fair Asia.


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