The Slovakian nail in Ukraine's coffin
BY JAMES PRESTON
The UK has its fair share of controversial politicians, yet few would live up to the reputation of 3-time Slovakian PM Robert Fico. His first stint in politics ended in 2018 after he was forced to resign from the top job and leadership of the ‘Direction – Social Democrats’ after a scandal involving the assassination of a journalist and the Italian Mafia.
His selection of resignations, corruption allegations, and a combative approach to independent journalism has not stopped his return, retaking the leadership of Direction-SD in 2020 after its chairman quit to form the rival party ‘Voice – SD’. Since then, his populist message has boosted the party above its rivals. In the election, on the 30th of September 2023, Robert Fico reclaimed his position as Prime Minister, defying exit poll predictions to beat the liberal Progressive Slovakia. Due to a complex system of minor parties and vote thresholds, his 22.3% of the vote has translated to an impressive 28% of seats, giving Fico the commanding role in coalition talks.
As discussed, Fico is no stranger to courting controversy, and since his return to politics, he has taken a strong anti-western position. He and his party have declared their intention to stop the supply of Slovakian arms heading to the frontlines in Ukraine. Motivated by a combination of Russophilia and protectionism, Fico’s party has shown tacit support for Putin’s regime through its muted response to calls for European unity around support for Ukraine. Part of his populist pitch involves rallying support from both extremes of Slovakian politics with open resentment towards the EU and NATO, referring to the current President Zuzana Caputova as an “American whore” for her liberal and internationalist reputation.
Despite being the Prime Minister for Slovakia's transition to the Euro, he has opportunistically flipped the script on his European allies to push for a more independent Slovakian approach to international affairs. In an attempt to prove he is putting Slovakian interests first, he is posturing around the removal of sanctions toward Russia, but how much of a threat does this actually pose?
Slovakia reopening trade relations with Russia and removing some sanctions will do little to relieve Russia of its current economic woes, but the issue is less the direct impact and more the wider shift in attitudes. The international sanctions imposed on Russia rely heavily on a consensus from the EU and NATO-aligned countries. Slovakia’s deviation from this united front risks creating a gap which will allow for further deviation from current standards around the Western approach to the Russo-Ukrainian war. Alongside the wider context of Polish grain disputes, the cracks in the West’s pro-Ukrainian solidarity could become fatal for a Ukraine heavily reliant on foreign military assistance and its current degree of diplomatic support.
On the topic of military aid, Slovakia has played a key role in the war, being the second NATO member to send its MiG-29 fighters. Despite having agreed terms of compensation in the form of money from the EU and arms from the USA the incoming government has played on both pro-Russian sentiment in Slovakia, but also hawkish ideas of securing its military stockpiles. This stance from Fico has been the biggest headline catcher in the Western media but has remained an intentionally grey area of the campaign. The fundamental redeeming feature of the proposed ending of Slovakian aid to Ukraine is that Robert Fico has stated that he will not be able to stop shipments of armaments through Slovakia and denied he would stop supplies from the private sector within Slovakia. Once again, the issue lies more with the principle of violating the shared Western support for Ukraine. Yet the rhetoric must feel much more real for the over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees currently residing in the country's borders.
Ironically, Fico himself is currently looking for allies in the Slovakian parliament to help him form a functional government, his victory was convincing, but he is still far off a majority. With a wide selection of ideologies present in Slovakia’s parliament, he is expected to form a coalition across political boundaries, which will undoubtedly affect how extreme his policies on Russia and Ukraine will be. As he has formed governments before, we can safely assume his coalition will contain the far-right SNS who have re-entered parliament as of this election. On the surface an odd political bedfellow, but sharing Fico’s pro-Russia sentiment means they are likely to accept the offer.
The positive side of the coalition negotiations for the West is the presence of the moderate Voice-SD whose pro-European stances and close relationship with the EU’s Party of European Socialists lead many to believe it will stay a moderating force with enough seats to swing votes against Fico’s government. Finally, despite gaining a cross-party vote total of roughly 5.5%, this is the first Slovakian parliament with no Neo-Nazi representation since 2016, whose nationalist economics, pro-Russian policies, and opposition to military cooperation will no longer be as present in Slovakian decision-making.
It is worth keeping an eye on Slovakia’s actions, if it continues Fico’s push for anti-Ukrainian policies it poses a serious threat to both the international consensus on aid and the diplomatically and politically united front shown by the West. Yet, this is unlikely to play as important a factor in the long run as Polish and American policy changes as they close in on elections themselves.
Image: Flickr/ Robert Fico