The notion that Slovakia’s electorate is uniquely vulnerable among EU states to Russian disinformation has lately become almost an axiom of politics in the Central European Republic of around 5.4 million inhabitants. A parliamentary election on September 30 will test that notion.
Slovakia has been a more-than-dutiful NATO ally over the past 18 months since Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine began. It has donated its Soviet-era S-300 missile air-defense system and its entire MiG-29 fighter fleet to its eastern neighbor. It continues to supply an estimated one in five of the artillery shells fired by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been granted refuge in Slovakia. Overall, Slovakia is the sixth-biggest military and other aid contributor to Ukraine, giving the equivalent of 1.3% of its GDP
But the leading party in the current campaign is openly pro-Russian, as are several of its potential electoral allies, and surveys over the last two years have shown considerable ambivalence among ordinary citizens towards the Ukrainian cause, not to mention Slovakia’s NATO membership.
Outside observers have wrapped this together and concluded that pro-alliance parties will be kicked out of office to be replaced by Kremlin-friendly opponents. Recent headlines in the English-language media include “At a stroke, Slovakia could soon become Russia’s newest ally”, another suggests an anti-Western result would “renew the potential for an authoritarian slide” within the European Union (EU), and a third states that the vote will be a “test of Russia’s efforts to undermine” European unity on Ukraine.
Most of this is true (apart from Slovakia becoming a Russian ally), but maybe a bit hasty.
The issue, not for the first time, is three-time former prime minister Robert Fico. His Smer party has charted an improbable political recovery since its electoral defeat in 2020, following the murder of an anti-corruption journalist and his girlfriend.
Despite first coming to power only two years after Slovakia’s accession to NATO in 2004, and later deciding to buy US-made Black Hawk helicopters and then F-16 fight jets, Smer now professes deep skepticism toward the US and NATO.
Fico himself, speaking at an election rally in his hometown on September 1, repeated pro-Russian talking points about the war in Ukraine, opining that it began in 2014 when “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk [sic]”. He went on to promise that, if elected, he would — as a matter of policy — refuse to meet Slovakia’s NATO obligation to spend 2% of its GDP on defense, and would block Ukraine from joining NATO.
Recent pre-election polls suggest that Smer is likely to win a plurality of votes, with a Smer splinter group, Hlas (Voice), coming in close behind. The as-yet untested liberal-democratic party, Progressive Slovakia (PS), would win around the same share.
But no party is polling consistently much above 20%, and as many as eight or nine might conceivably clear the 5% threshold for winning seats. As a result, post-election dealmaking is likely to result in another incoherent coalition of interests rather than policies (most of the parties have in any case long since dispensed with these.)
If the emergent coalition includes Smer, the results will upset Ukraine and the West. Fico’s talk of a warmer relationship with Hungary’s unashamedly illiberal leader, Victor Orbán, will distress the EU and bring talk, again, of an illiberal axis running through Hungary to Slovakia and Poland (which goes to the polls in October.) Fico not only admires Orbán but has echoed some of the latter’s favorite conspiracy theories, most notably those about the billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros.
Despite all this, Slovakia’s overall geopolitical orientation is unlikely to change much, whatever the result on September 30. A fourth Fico administration would likely halt aid to Ukraine and move closer to Orbán’s government in terms of messaging and cronyism (see below.) It would also provide further rhetorical cover within the EU for pro-Russian talking points. But Fico’s past behavior suggests he talks a fiery anti-Western game without seeking to alter the fundamentals of EU and NATO membership. (The country is now irrevocably connected to the mainstream European economy — 21% of exports go to Germany; just 2% to Russia.)
And a Fico victory is not yet sealed. A more liberal administration led by, or including PS, would instead bolster the anti-populist trend that has emerged in the neighboring Czech Republic over the past two years with the election of Petr Fiala as prime minister and Petr Pavel as president.
The widespread pro-Russian sentiment in Slovakia might seem surprising when one considers that the country has been occupied by Russian-led forces within living memory – after 1968 when the Red Army spearheaded the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
One can look to Slovakia’s experience of national awakening in the 19th century, a process led by a literary scholar who happened to be an ardent believer in pan-Slavism (ironically, this was partly in response to a fear of domination by Hungary — in those days Slovakia was known as Upper Hungary), to explain some of the current mood.
There is also a lingering nostalgia for the legacy of communism, under which the Slovak half of Czechoslovakia industrialized faster (from a previously rural economic base) than the already developed Czech lands. The economic contraction at the end of the Cold War is still a sore point in many areas. If one needed more irony, that was worsened by the decision to close Slovak heavy armaments factories. The country’s surviving plants are now booming on contracts for Ukraine.
The idea — assiduously nurtured by the Putin regime — that modern-day Russia in some way carries the supposedly progressive flame of the Soviet Union, already propounded by public figures as diverse as Western academics and African politicians, is widely shared. It is reinforced among ordinary Slovaks by an entire disinformation media ecosystem, much of it funded by Russian intelligence — sometimes employing wads of cash.
The resulting pro-Russian sentiment, combined with anti-Americanism, is then enthusiastically fostered in pursuit of votes by the leaders of Slovakia’s numerous populist parties.
Meanwhile, largely as a result of the chaotic performance by successive administrations since the last election in 2020, most of the ministers who resolutely supported Ukraine following the Russian invasion last year look set to exit parliament this month.
Adding to the uncertainty, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, whose calm demeanor and resolutely Euro-Atlantic orientation has won plaudits from allies — and who, as a result, is routinely denounced by Fico and his allies as an “American prostitute” and a “fascist” — announced in June that she will not seek re-election next year.
A Fico victory would also cast a shadow over ongoing police investigations that have uncovered a wide network of corruption among senior police officers, judges, and prosecutors. Two previous Smer-appointed chiefs of police (one of whom is now running as a Smer parliamentary candidate), the head of the central bank (who was previously a Smer finance minister), two ex-spy chiefs, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor and a raft of judges are facing trial, or have been convicted on serious corruption charges.
Fico was himself charged with operating an organized criminal group last year before the charges were controversially dropped by the chief prosecutor. The Smer leader, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt a disappointing result, has already begun claiming that the election could be rigged.
Should Smer fail to achieve first place in the poll, we can expect to hear such claims being amplified.
James Thomson is a columnist for The Slovak Spectator, the Bratislava-based English-language newspaper and website.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.