A populist Robert Fico from SMER party for the third time will be Slovakian Prime Minster. During his time in opposition he questioned further aid for Ukraine, its NATO ambitions and popularized Kremlin propaganda in sharp contrast to so far very supportive policy of the resigning government. Slovakia might become after Hungary another brakeman of the EU sanction on Russian pushing Kyiv towards peace negotiations.
National Social Democrats from SMER party led by Robert Fico won the early elections in Slovakia in late September achieving almost 23% of the votes and will form the ruling coalition together with twin party HLAS (14,7%) and Slovak National Party (5,62%). Progressive Slovakia emerges as the main opposition party (17,96%), while the score of the previous winners that led the anti-Kremlin shift in Slovakian foreign policy from right-wing OL’aNO has slumped to 8,89%.[i]
Background – uneasy coalitions
Slovakian political scene is quite fragmented with over seven parties crossing the 5% threshold. Additionally, in recent years the country has been shaken by political crises and coalition disputes leading to repetitive changes of prime ministers. Robert Fico has already twice led the government in the years 2006-2010 and 2012-2018. Last time he had to step down due to the assassination of a journalist Jan Kuciak who was investigating corruption allegations of the SMER party. He was replaced by Peter Pellegrini who lost elections in 2020 and then broke with SMER and Fico to form his own party HLAS and moved to the opposition. A coalition of right-wing parties led by the OL’aNO party and Igor Matovič already after a year had to reshuffle the government and change the prime minister to Eduard Hegar because of a clash over Russian Sputnik V vaccines and pandemic restrictions.
For the next two years, Slovakia proved to be proactive in international formats such as the Visegrad Group, Central Five, or the Slavkov Triangle relying on the EU and NATO. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bratislava was one of the most active supporters of military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv, expelling Russian diplomats and banning shady websites moving away from its so far moderate approach to Moscow.[ii] It was widely criticized by the opposition from SMER with Fico starting from the narratives that Slovakia should not antagonize Russia to bold declarations that he would not give any additional penny or a single bullet to Ukraine.[iii]
The right-wing coalition had to deal with more challenges from inflation, the energy crisis and the rising cost of living as well as internal disputes within the ruling parties. Dropping public support and scandal over public funds have led to a vote of no confidence. After a few weeks of a minority government, President Zuzana Čaputova has appointed a temporary technocratic government and scheduled the early elections for the 30th of September.[iv]
Foreign policy revolution or rather a change of the narrative?
The statements of Robert Fico during his time in opposition have worried the entire Europe that Bratislava will be ruled by a pro-Russian government questioning its further support of Ukraine. Indeed, a move towards a more Hungary-style foreign policy towards Russia can be expected as Fico has become a close ally of Viktor Orban during his time in opposition and claimed at least mutual responsibility for the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. However, this finds its cause from the society’s perception as only 40% of Slovaks in 2023 blamed Russia for invading Ukraine, compared to 51% in 2022. It is the lowest score in the region, similarly to the perception of Western sanctions which only 38% of the nation finds to work well.[v] As Slovakia is exempted from the EU ban on Russian oil it can be expected that Bratislava will block further packages, especially those on energy.
Further aid to Ukraine will be limited to humanitarian assistance and business partnerships, instead of charity with more push for peace talks. It will most certainly damage bilateral relations with Kyiv and the unity of the EU and NATO. On the other hand, HLAS can serve as a counter-balance to more firm pro-Kremlin moves, as it was always in support of the EU stance against Russia and supported ammunition supplies to Ukraine as good for the local industry. Nevertheless, as Pellegrini has pointed out, Slovakia “had nothing left to donate” anyway.[vi] Both Fico and Pellegrini proved to be pragmatic leaders before and might take softer approach than during the campaign. After all under Fico Slovakia adopted euro currency and in the past he has demonstrated a firm pro-European sentiment.[vii] Thus, although a shift in Slovakia’s position on certain issues is likely, it should not be seen as Moscow’s trojan horse in the EU.
Fico’s populistic change in narratives could have been also designed to antagonize political rivals ahead of the elections and find a new base for its electorate after a split with HLAS and depict SMER as the only alternative to the party Progressive Slovakia. However, his main objectives remain domestic affairs and criticism of the way the country had been governed in recent years. Priorities of the new government will be focused on internal politics and state administration. The main problems to deal with are going to be the budget deficit, consolidation of public finances, personal changes in state institutions, migration and judicial reforms.[viii] Over many of those issues, Bratislava might find itself on a collision course over the rule of law and fiscal constrains with Brussels. Most definitively it has the potential to become yet another troublemaker in Central and Eastern Europe.
The new government of three parties will also be checked-and-balanced by President Čaputová originating from the current main opposition party and enjoying big popularity of the society. However, her term is coming to an end as she has already announced that she is not going to run for the re-election.[ix] Pellegrini might have presidential ambitions but Čaputová will support another candidate, making the spring presidential elections a run-off for the past parliamentary one.
Slovakia’s fifth prime minister in four years has antagonized in recent years society and his populistic shift created both internal and external scapegoats for the current situation in the country. Bratislava will no longer be in vanguard of the Western support for Ukraine and will join Budapest in trying to leverage further support of the EU with peace talks. Nevertheless, the new government’s main objectives are going to be focused on domestic affairs and upcoming presidential elections, leaving little space and time for creating new frontlines of struggle abroad.
Author: Tomasz Obremski, Advocacy and Analysis Specialist at Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] The Election to the National Council of the Slovak Republic, The website of the Statistical Office of the SR, accessed October 18, 2023, https://volby.statistics.sk/nrsr/nrsr2023/en/vysledky_hlasovania_strany.html.
[ii] Slovakia: strategic dilemmas after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Krzysztof Dębiec, OSW Commentary, May 10, 2023, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2022-05-10/slovakia-strategic-dilemmas-after-russian-invasion-ukraine.
[iii] Slovakia’s poll winner defies European consensus on Ukraine, Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet, Reuters, October 2, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/slovak-party-ps-says-it-will-still-try-form-coalition-after-fico-win-2023-10-01/.
[iv] A Drama in Many Acts: Slovak Government Dismissed, Łukasz Ogrodnik, The Polish nsitute of International Affairs, Jannuary 12, 2023, https://www.pism.pl/publications/a-drama-in-many-acts-slovak-government-dismissed.
[v] United We Still Stand, GLOBSEC Trends 2023, May 26, 2023, https://www.globsec.org/sites/default/files/2023-05/GLOBSEC%20Trends%202023.pdf.
[vi] Pro-Russian politician wins Slovakia’s parliamentary election, Ivana Kottasová, Sophie Tanno and Heather Chen, CNN World, October 2, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/01/world/slovakia-election-pro-russia-robert-fico-win-intl-hnk/index.html.
[vii] Unease in the West as Slovakia Appears Set to Join the Putin Sympathizers, Roger Cohen. New York Times, October 1, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/01/world/europe/slovakia-election-fico-ukraine.html.
[viii] Parliamentary elections in Slovakia: Fico close to regaining power, Krzysztof Dębiec, OSW Commentary, October 2, 2023, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2023-10-02/parliamentary-elections-slovakia-fico-close-to-regaining-power.
[ix] Slovakian president Čaputová says she will not run for re-election, Agence France-Presse in Bratislava, June 20, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/slovakia-president-caputova-presidential-election-a0e4b6b941843d72d3b057faf5542b75.