A bear attack in Slovakia reveals what the far right really wants – POLITICO


LOW TATRAS NATIONAL PARK, Slovakia — In early spring, a Belarusian couple were hiking in the trailless crags of the western Carpathian mountains when they stumbled into a brown bear. They ran but were separated. As the bear lunged after the woman, her fiancé lost sight of her in the trees and rocks. Later that night, a rescuer and his German shepherd found her body at the bottom of a precipice. In the torchlight, her hot pink jacket shone against the bloodstained snow. 

Tomáš Taraba knew immediately who to blame: the bloodless bureaucrats in Brussels. In a Facebook post now viewed almost one million times, Slovakia’s far-right environment minister said the European Union officials’ insistence on the protected status of the brown bear showed they were “absolutely not interested in the lives of our people and the lives of our children.” 

Bear attacks might not be a hot political topic in most countries. But for Taraba and his Slovak National Party, the issue was an EU-bashing vote-winner in elections late last year, propelling him to the top political ranks of his deeply polarized Central European nation. Since gaining power, he has set about an extraordinary purge of the country’s environmental officialdom, replacing experts with hunters, scientists with forestry executives and bureaucrats with party hacks.

This is not, however, only a story about Slovakia. In Europe-wide elections this month, far-right parties surged after adding environmental regulations to their traditional tub-thumping grievances like immigration and the culture wars. In the Netherlands, Dutch farmers protesting nitrogen restrictions helped propel the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders into power. In the United States, former President Donald Trump has pledged to dismantle the civil service and strip environmental regulations if he wins a second U.S. presidency.

The story of Taraba and the bears is an illustration of how far-right politicians have used resentment against green rules to help boost themselves into power. It also shows what happens to environmental protections when politicians who have campaigned on dismantling them get a chance to turn their promises into reality.

The “political elite,” safely ensconced in the capital, had no understanding of the fears of people living alongside bears, said Taraba, when POLITICO met him in the Slovak Parliament. “They ridicule this topic.”

Why are bear attacks increasing? 

One morning in April, a conservationist and filmmaker named Erik Baláž walked up the slope across from Siná mountain, where the bear attack had taken place a few weeks before. Through fir trees weighed down with late-season snow, a broken mess of peaks, grottos and precipices could be seen breaking through the clouds. 

Bears travel great distances to come to this part of the mountains, Baláž said, seeking limestone caves in which to hibernate. Baláž has slept more than 1,000 nights in the forest, living among the animals and studying their behavior. Even so, only extreme need would cause him to venture onto Siná mountain in the spring, when hungry, stressed bears emerge from the caves, often with cubs to protect.

There were no public warnings that the area was dangerous when the two tourists ventured into the slopes. “If you don’t know anything about bears, really, it’s not your stupid decision,” Baláž said.

One bear attack made headlines. But media attention on the Siná tragedy became a frenzy when, in an unconnected incident just two days after the 31-year-old woman’s death, a panicked young bear went on a frenzied dash through the nearby town of Liptovský Mikuláš. Five people were attacked. Two required hospitalization.

As the two incidents showed, Taraba didn’t conjure Slovakia’s bear problem from nowhere. Bears can weigh more than half a ton and are dangerous, especially when they become habituated to human settlements. They are considered problematic by authorities in other European countries too, especially neighboring Romania

In Slovakia, there is genuine disquiet in rural communities about a recent increase in the number of non-lethal attacks. In the 2000s and 2010s, those averaged around three per year. In the past three years, the annual average jumped to nearly 10. The death of the Belarusian woman was only the second death involving a bear since reliable records began. But both fatal incidents happened this decade.

Few details about the woman’s death have been made public by the government. Authorities have not made public the findings of any autopsy or investigation. Nothing that has been released would justify Taraba pointing his finger at the EU and environmental NGOs. The victim’s name hasn’t been officially released, although in a text message to POLITICO, Taraba identified her as “Tatsiana H.”

It’s not even clear how she died; by falling or mauling. And yet the story that Taraba ran with the day after her death — that it was the act of an indiscriminate and menacing predator — is being used to justify new emergency laws and plans to control and cull the animals. Baláž said a more likely explanation was it was a startled bear, protecting its territory or its young, and an unfortunate couple in the wrong place at the wrong time — meaning the traditional conservation efforts Slovakia has relied on remain relevant.

POLITICO spent days driving across the mountains of central Slovakia seeking some kind of official explanation. 

Štefan Kysel, the head of the Slovak Nature Conservancy, the government’s official environmental protection agency, invited POLITICO to an interview at his office in Banská Bystrica. Kysel is a former candidate for the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), which Taraba represents in parliament. He was appointed by Taraba in November despite having little to no practical experience for his job, as part of a restructuring of the organization that nature advocacy groups say has weakened Slovakia’s environmental protections.

Throughout a 45-minute conversation across a large conference table, Kysel leaned back defensively, refusing to answer any questions about the case, citing an ongoing police investigation.

An hour’s drive north through the mountains, officers at the front desk of the police station in Liptovský Mikuláš confirmed they were investigating the death. But the headquarters’ contacts they passed on failed to return emails or calls. A spokesman for the town’s mayor, Ján Blcháč, who is also a government MP, said the environment ministry had barred the mayor from commenting on the bear issue. 

Further east in Poprad, POLITICO met Michal Haring, a former member of the government’s bear management team. Haring suggested meeting in a pub overlooking the grimly utilitarian town and a mind-bending view of the Carpathians.

Haring, who himself resembles a cuddly bear, was depressed — a common affliction for Slovak conservationists these days. Haring wrote his thesis on bear attacks in Slovakia and studied bear control efforts in Norway and at Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. One of the underlying drivers of more attacks, he said, was high-energy crops like maize being planted near villages. He talked about a recent field trial that involved securing trash cans and other sources of food that attracted bears into villages, which showed promising results. All of that work was being undone by the government’s push to demonize and cull, he said.

German football was playing on the TV. Reaching for his phone, Haring pulled up a series of grim photos that had been circulating among the bear expert community. There was Tatsiana’s body.

The pictures told a confusing story. An early, brief press release from the rescue service suggested she may have died from head wounds by falling from a cliff while fleeing the bear. In the photos, the right side of her face was badly damaged. She also had four small punctures on the lower part of her right leg, just above her white sports sock. They were, Haring said, from the teeth of a bear.

The snow nearby was stained with blood, indicating she may have been discovered by a bear after falling and then dragged. But there was no sign, despite the many hours she lay on the mountain with hungry bears emerging from hibernation, that any animal had tried to eat her.

The government is “saying that it was a predatory attack. Like this was prey and the bear was trying to eat her,” Haring said. 

Slovakian Deputy Prime Minister Tomáš Taraba. | Toms Kalnins/EPA-EFE

“I don’t buy it.”

Slovakia’s polarized politics 

Slovakia is a country on the brink. Its bubbling divisions recently spilled over into the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot in May in what the government described as a politically motivated attack.

In the days after the shooting, while Fico was fighting for his life in the hospital, politicians from most parties tried to calm partisan rage. Taraba poured gasoline on the flames, blaming the government’s critics in the media for stoking division and pointing his finger at the shooter’s links to the opposition party Progressive Slovakia, which he called “hateful.”

Taraba’s knack for discord has panicked environmental and democratic advocates. The most common words his enemies used to describe him were “dangerous” and “smart.” Michal Vašečka, the founder of the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture, a Bratislava-based anti-extremism think tank, called him an “entrepreneur of politics.”

When POLITICO met Taraba in a small library in the Slovak parliament, he was wearing a blue suit, his hair cropped prizefighter short. He was eager to talk, clearly enjoying the notoriety and attention he has found in recent months. He acknowledged his own surprise at his “pretty steep career” trajectory. A relative late-comer to national politics, he was 39 years old in 2019 when he joined a fringe political group with a hardline interpretation of Christian values and a focus on banning abortion and rolling back LGBTQ+ rights.

Taraba built a large social media following, which were enthused by his willingness to shrug at liberal norms of decency. He told POLITICO he rejected “far right” as a label — preferring “conservative.” But in 2020, in order to gain enough votes to sit in the parliament — the minimum is 5 percent — he aligned himself with genuine extremists. 

Before the 2020 election, Taraba negotiated a place for himself and two other of his party’s candidates on the ticket of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) — a neo-Nazi group that has dabbled in Holocaust denial and whose leader Marián Kotleba was later convicted over a stunt that celebrated the founding of Slovakia’s WWII Nazi-puppet state. At the next election, Taraba again brokered a deal to stand on the ticket of the slightly less extreme SNS.

When Fico, a left-wing populist, went into coalition with the SNS in October, Taraba ambitiously hoped to land the economy ministry. Instead, he was handed a portfolio with sway over industry, agriculture, forestry, hydroelectric dams and tourism — in other words, the levers of the Slovak economy.

Taraba purges the conservationists 

What followed was an extraordinary purge of experts and green-minded bureaucrats and a rapid-fire hit on green regulation. Every day, Taraba said, he was tabling new legislation, cutting more green rules and reshaping the civil service. “I know how fragile politics is,” he said. He wanted to use power while he had it.

“My main political goal is to remove all gold plating in Slovakia,” the minister said, meaning any law or restriction placed on a company beyond the minimum required by EU law. “Water, trees and good soil. These are the biggest assets of Slovakia. But we’re not using it wisely.”

By March, according to a list compiled by green NGOs, the number of departmental directors or other high-level public officials who had left their posts or been fired stood at 52 — roughly one every four working days since Taraba took office in October.

The scale of the change has alarmed conservationists, including Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová, a former lawyer and environmental activist. | Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The scale of the change has alarmed conservationists, including Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová, a former lawyer and environmental activist. Čaputová stepped down from her role at the end of her term earlier this month, declining to fight for reelection and citing harassment of her and her family — including online baiting in which Taraba himself has readily taken part. 

While acknowledging it was normal for a new government to rotate staff, Čaputová said she was concerned by the “rather unprecedented scale of such dismissals, including of long-time environment specialists and professionals. These seem to be replaced by those whose expertise in given areas is being questioned by the specialists in the field.”

In interviews with six current and former top departmental officials, the consensus was that Taraba was kneecapping the ministry to the advantage of industries like construction and forestry.

“We have not encountered such a scale of personnel purges here since the fall of communism in 1989,” said Tomáš Olšovský, the former director of the Záhorie Protected Landscape Area, a wetland area where he worked for 20 years before being fired this year. “Tomáš Taraba aims for only one thing — the complete paralysis of the functioning of nature protection in Slovakia.”

Roman Havlíček, a former anti-dam campaigner who was fired from his job running the ministry’s water directorate, said that three canceled hydroelectric dam projects were likely to be revived under pressure from construction companies who would scoop huge profits. Taraba has appointed Petr Molda, a former railway executive and SNS candidate, as head of the state dam builder. “These are people who are directly benefiting from these changes,” said Havlíček. Taraba defended the appointment of Molda, saying his past success as a rail executive indicated he could handle a tough assignment.

Taraba has declared he wants the country’s national parks to become cost-neutral by expanding tourism and “active management” of the forests — a selective logging process that, if done properly, can improve forest health and bring in a revenue stream. Environmentalists fear the kind of logging unleashed by these changes will be far more aggressive. To implement this strategy, Taraba has fired the directors of 18 Slovakian national parks or protected areas. 

Sitting in the parliament, Taraba expressed exasperated innocence. The personnel moves were not politically motivated, he said, pointing out, correctly, that some replacements have been internally sourced and had relevant experience. He acknowledged his program would gain him many friends among Slovakia’s business owners and oligarchs. But insisted he was only acting to protect the country’s broad economic interests. The environmental bureaucracy, he said, had been dominated by green evangelists who were overreaching their mandate, constantly taking the most “negative” approach to any commercial proposal.

But many of his new recruits also look equally ideological — only in the opposite direction. They include Peter Olexa, an SNS member who was appointed in November to run Tatra National Park, the country’s largest reserve. Olexa replaced Pavel Majko, who was fired without cause after running the park for 17 years.

Haring, the bear expert from Poprad, was employed as a large carnivore expert at Tatra National Park when Olexa joined. The new director immediately banned Haring from speaking to the media or at public education events about non-lethal ways to control bears. The day after Haring met POLITICO in the pub would be his last day at the park after serving his notice. “I feel like I’m in North Korea,” said Haring.

The final straw came when a mother bear and her three cubs appeared near a local village. Haring had planned to catch and fit the bears with tracking collars, allowing him to monitor them and prevent them from coming close enough to people to be a problem. 

When Olexa heard the plan, he exploded. “Go to hell with your research and science,” he said, according to Haring. “We are not playing this shit here.” The mother and the cubs would be killed, said Olexa. Haring hung up the phone and wrote his resignation letter.

Slovak and Czech nature activists hold letters saying ”Tatras are our jewel ,leave them alone” as they protest against forest harvest at National park of High Tatra mountains. | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

In a statement emailed to POLITICO, Olexa said Haring had “showed difficulty in respecting the hierarchy in our organization and did not work for the goals of the organization, but tried to fulfill his private projects.”

In response to questions about how he was running the park, Olexa said he was fulfilling his duties as director with “dedication and professional approach to all issues encounterd [sic]with managing of The Tatra national park. And I am doing so with emphasis on the legal nature protection and values of the national park.”

But Olexa, a former forestry company employee, has few relevant qualifications to run the most important national park in Slovakia. That’s before you even consider his 2014 conviction for poaching. In a search, environmental officials found and confiscated the skull of a protected wolf, which the future national park director had kept as a trophy.

Global blowback against green rules

Taraba is far from alone in targeting environmental protections. His recipe for Slovakia is one that like-minded politicians are championing across the world, from the suspension of legal enforcement that turned Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian Amazon into a lawless free-for-all for ranchers, loggers and miners to neighboring Argentina, where Javier Milei has abolished the environment ministry altogether.

And, of course, there was the first Trump presidency in the U.S., which saw Exxon Mobil’s CEO lead the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency run by a man who had sued the agency 14 times.

Should Trump be granted a second term in November, his earlier moves will likely feel like mere foreshocks. His allies want to correct for what they see as a key mistake from the first go-round: leaving the deep state intact. The former president has signaled he would want to reinstate ‘Schedule F,’ a classification of federal employees he introduced and President Joe Biden rescinded. This would, at the sweep of a pen, turn some 50,000 tenured civil servants into political appointees without career protections. The libertarian Heritage Foundation is preparing a list of tens of thousands of right-wing functionaries, a sort of MAGA LinkedIn, to fill those posts.

In Europe, the rising vote for the far right has given Taraba’s fellow travelers an opportunity to marry libertarian economics with populist cultural revanchism. This is apparent in the Italian government of Giorgia Meloni, which has combined hardline family values with a deep favoritism for the nation’s automotive and fossil fuel companies. It can also be seen in the Netherlands, where the incoming government is led by anti-Islamic xenophobes promising to scrap restrictions on agricultural pollution. A joint agriculture and nature ministry has been handed to the Farmer–Citizen Movement (BBB), a right-wing agrarian party that sprung up from anti-green protests.

The trend is already influencing mainstream European policymaking. In Brussels, center-right parties are softening their green ambitions after losing votes to the right. And, in a watershed moment for EU politics, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has left the door open to cooperating with at least some parts of the far right to pass legislation if she’s granted a second term.

In every case, the message is one of populism — but the result favors corporate elites. Taraba sees no contradiction here. Investment and growth will create employment, he said. 

Political bear fight

In Slovakia, Taraba is hoping his crackdown on bears leads him to bigger things.

In the weeks after Tatsiana’s death, his ministry proposed a law allowing a state of emergency to be declared, similar to a natural disaster or terror attack, if a bear approaches a human settlement. That then allows the government to issue a kill license without any ability for NGOs to challenge it. The legislation overrides previous Slovak and EU laws governing protected species, which require a bear to display “problematic” behavior before a license to kill can be issued. The ministry has already started signing contracts with hunting groups to expand its response capabilities and shoot bears on sight. 

Rightwingers are clamoring to appear as hardline on bears as they normally are on migrants. In May, SNS MP Rudolf Huliak — who Fico once wanted to be environment minister instead of Taraba — was photographed standing over the body of a dead bear, which he said he had shot. “That’s how it’s done with bears,” the SNS Facebook post read. “And if someone does not like it, let them go for a walk in the forest and understand.”

In Slovakia, there is genuine disquiet in rural communities about a recent increase in the number of non-lethal attacks. In the 2000s and 2010s, those averaged around three per year. In the past three years, the annual average jumped to nearly 10. | Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

The payoff for Taraba has been a surge in personal popularity. The bear law was “for me, a huge political victory,” said Taraba. “This helped me to push progressive liberals to the corner.” A tracking poll by a local TV station found public trust in Taraba had risen since November more than any other member of the government — even if in the recent EU elections, both Fico’s SMER and the far right lost out as part of a broader conflict over pro-EU and anti-EU values.

Ultimately, Taraba wants to have an annual bear cull to lower bear numbers. To that end, he has allied with ministers in Romania and Finland — where the public is also concerned over bears and their safety — to lobby the EU to help them lower the protection status of the brown bear. Taraba attacked the “double standard” of Brussels dallying over reducing the protected status of bears while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was spearheading a campaign to downgrade the status of another large carnivore after a she-wolf killed the German leader’s family horse.

Conservationists believe a bear cull is a false solution. While the number of bears is increasing Europe-wide, there is no evidence that they are overpopulated in Slovakia. In fact, no one really knows how many bears there are in the country. One survey estimated it may be 1,000-1,200. But that number is disputed and there has been little systematic tracking of the population.

Taraba insists he is solely interested in bringing Slovakia’s green protections in line with EU law, but there are question marks over whether he is actually coloring outside those lines. ClientEarth, a legal NGO, said his initial proposal to allow the preemptive killing of protected bears would be “a violation of EU nature law.” The law has been softened in parliamentary negotiations but remains contentious.

Last Monday, minutes after voting in favor of an EU nature protection law he had previously threatened to vote down, Taraba called POLITICO claiming to have done a deal with the European Commission to vote in favor of the legislation in return for a guarantee that the legality of his bear control law would not be challenged. EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius denied there was a deal. But in a note from Sinkevičius to Taraba, shared with POLITICO, the commissioner said the law was “largely in compliance.” He ended the note by urging Taraba to support the nature law.

Perhaps the clearest and most wide-ranging legal dispute could be over Taraba’s desire to restrict public oversight of the environmental impact assessments of major projects. His proposed limits could breach the Aarhus Convention, a treaty the EU and Slovakia have signed, which guarantees public participation and access to justice on environmental matters. Čaputová, the lawyer-turned-president, said his goals “could be in conflict with EU law.” Taraba recently put his proposal on hold.

Throughout an almost two-hour interview, Taraba was calm and politely combative, saying criticism of him was largely baseless political attacks. Officials who worked with him say that despite his online rhetoric, he is engaged in policy detail. He speaks several languages and can play the technocrat in Brussels while owning the libs on Facebook.

This shape-shifting quality was apparent when he was asked what he really thought had happened on Siná mountain.

Only a month before, Taraba was unequivocal in accusing Brussels and the NGOs of having blood on their hands. But now, sitting in parliament and having reaped the political gain, he casually dismissed the whole thing as a tragic case of two hikers stumbling unknowingly into the worst possible place at the worst possible moment.

“The tourists really went to the location that is a specific and natural location for the bears,” he said. 

“Really, we have to educate people,” he added. 

Tom Nicholson contributed reporting.