- Slovakia prepares for elections after polarizing campaign
- The favorite, former Prime Minister Fico, is a pro-Russian populist
- A victory could make NATO and EU members turn their backs on Ukraine
- Brussels is worried, but sees ways to mitigate Fico’s impact
- No party is expected to win a majority, so the outcome of the polls is still unclear.
BANOVCE NAD BEBRAVOU, Slovakia, Sept 21 (Reuters) – “We are a peaceful country. We will not send a single round to Ukraine.”
That was Robert Fico’s blunt message to about 300 supporters at a political rally last week in the western Slovak town of Banovce nad Bebravou, ahead of the September 30 election in which the populist former prime minister is the favorite to win.
If he kept his promise, it would represent a radical change for Slovakia, until now a staunch ally of its eastern neighbor, Ukraine, in its war against Russia. Bratislava has supplied weapons and offered strong political support to kyiv within the European Union and NATO.
“They will have to sit down anyway and come to an agreement,” Fico said of the combatants. “Russia will never abandon Crimea, it will never abandon the territories it controls.”
Fico is not guaranteed to win. No party has a chance of winning a majority and forging a coalition government could prove difficult. Western diplomats and officials in kyiv also say that a small country like Slovakia can only go so far in changing EU and NATO policy.
But the 59-year-old has attracted attention in Brussels and beyond by criticizing sanctions against Russia, calling for a rapprochement with Moscow when the war ends and promising to veto Ukraine’s membership in NATO if that possibility ever arises.
During the election campaign, Fico has said that the war “began in 2014, when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists began murdering Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk,” echoing Moscow’s justification for backing the separatists who seized lands in eastern Ukraine.
His party is slightly ahead in the polls in a country where voters are tired of the economic pain from COVID restrictions, high inflation linked to the Ukraine war and a increase in illegal immigrants.
According to sociologists, misinformation on social media has increased polarization among voters and contributed to public skepticism about support for Ukraine.
Fico declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to emailed questions.
“We should not support them (Ukraine) with weapons because evil only breeds more evil,” said pensioner Eleonora Tanacova, 68, while listening to Fico’s speech last Thursday. “This war will never end if we continue to support them.”
CONCERNS IN THE WEST
Fico’s campaign rhetoric worries Slovakia’s allies, according to four senior Western diplomats.
While Ukraine’s counteroffensive has yet to generate a breakthrough – raising questions about how long allies will maintain their financial and military support – EU and NATO leaders are desperate to maintain a united front against Moscow.
Fico could also ally with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an outlier in Europe who has maintained close ties with Russia, raising the possibility of more clashes with Brussels over the rule of law, the war in Ukraine and migration.
But Fico’s pragmatism during previous terms, when he brought Slovakia into the euro and largely avoided disputes with EU and NATO partners, has tempered those concerns.
“Russian troops on your border and a fractured relationship with your allies, is that what you want?” said one of the diplomats. “Or will he go back to being the pragmatist he was?”
A second diplomat believed Fico would hesitate to cut off arms supplies to Ukraine beyond the army’s already depleted stocks, given the economic importance of ammunition manufacturers and a repair base.
And Brussels has influence. On rule of law issues, it can suspend EU financial support to Slovakia, which urgently needs it with a projected fiscal deficit of 6.85% of GDP this year, the highest in the euro zone.
Ukrainian officials say they are worried about the prospect of an Orban coalition within the EU, but note that Hungary generally does not break ranks on major decisions and therefore expect a limited foreign policy impact if Fico wins.
Furthermore, Fico’s socially conservative SMER-SSD party is just ahead in the latest polls with 19.4% support, compared to 18.2% for the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party. Much depends on how the smaller parties fare.
Fico, forced to resign in 2018 after the murder of an investigative journalist sparked mass protests, has become more radical in the opposition.
Meanwhile, disinformation has spread, undermining public support for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, said Katarina Klingova of the Globsec think tank.
Slovakia, he added, has long been fertile ground for pro-Russian narratives, thanks to its historical affinity, low trust in public institutions and politicians who are moving previously marginal narratives into the political mainstream.
“We saw that those narratives were at the edge of the information spectrum (in 2015), but now you watch TV and almost every debate you have some political representative using disinformation narratives,” Klingova said.
“They don’t necessarily have to support the Kremlin… but they definitely play into Russia’s hands.”
In early 2023, more than 40,000 Slovaks signed petitions to avoid being called up in case of mobilization, after false posts on social media said a call-up to fight in Ukraine could be on the way.
The hoax was debunked, but the reaction pointed to the influence that false information about the Ukraine war has on Slovakia’s 5.5 million people.
A Globsec poll earlier this year found that only 40% of Slovaks thought Russia was primarily responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, the lowest tally in all of central and eastern Europe.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Brussels and Thomas Balmforth in kyiv; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Gareth Jones
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