© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Slovakia’s former Prime Minister and leader of SMER-SSD party Robert Fico attends the party’s election campaign rally, ahead of Slovakia’s early parliamentary election in Banovce nad Bebravou, Slovakia, September 14, 2023. REUTERS/Radovan Stok
By Jan Lopatka and Radovan Stoklasa
BANOVCE NAD BEBRAVOU, Slovakia (Reuters) – “We are a peaceful country. We will not send a single round to Ukraine.”
That was Robert Fico’s blunt message for some 300 supporters at a political rally last week in the western Slovakian town of Banovce nad Bebravou, ahead of a Sept. 30 election that the populist former prime minister is favourite to win.
Were he to follow through on his promise, it would represent a sea-change for Slovakia, until now a staunch ally of its eastern neighbour 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 find an agreement,” Fico said of the combatants. “Russia will never leave Crimea, never leave the territories that it controls.”
Fico is not guaranteed to win. No party is tipped to secure a majority and forging a coalition government could prove tough. Western diplomats and officials in Kyiv also say a small country like Slovakia can only go so far in upending EU and NATO policy.
But the 59-year-old has raised eyebrows in Brussels and beyond by criticising sanctions against Russia, calling for a rapprochement with Moscow when the war ends and pledging to veto Ukraine’s membership of NATO if ever that possibility arises.
On the campaign trail, Fico has said the war “started in 2014 when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk”, echoing Moscow’s justification for backing separatists who seized land in eastern Ukraine.
His party is narrowly ahead in polls in a country where voters are weary of economic pain from COVID restrictions, high inflation linked to the Ukraine war and a surge in illegal migrants.
Disinformation on social media has added to polarisation among voters and contributed to public scepticism about supporting Ukraine, according to sociologists.
Fico declined to be interviewed for this article and did not answer emailed questions.
“We should not support them (Ukraine) with weapons because evil only breeds more evil,” said pensioner Eleonora Tanacova, 68, as she listened to Fico’s speech last Thursday. “This war will never end if we keep supporting them.”
WORRIES IN WEST
Fico’s campaign rhetoric has Slovakia’s allies worried, according to four senior Western diplomats.
With Ukraine’s counteroffensive yet to create a major breakthrough – raising questions over how long allies will sustain their financial and military support – EU and NATO leaders are desperate to maintain a united front against Moscow.
Fico could also ally himself with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an outlier in Europe who has maintained close ties to Russia, raising the prospect of more clashes with Brussels over the rule of law, the war in Ukraine and migration.
But Fico’s pragmatism during previous tenures, when he took Slovakia into the euro and largely avoided rows with EU and NATO partners, has tempered such concerns.
“Russian troops on your border and a fractured relationship with your allies, is that you want?” said one of the diplomats. “Or does he revert to being the pragmatist he has been?”
A second diplomat believed Fico would hesitate to cut arms supplies to Ukraine beyond those from already depleted army stocks, given the economic importance of ammunition makers and a repair base.
And Brussels has leverage. On matters of the rule of law, it can withhold EU financial support for Slovakia, which badly needs it with the fiscal deficit forecast at 6.85% of GDP this year, the highest in the euro zone.
Ukrainian officials say they are concerned by the prospect of an Orban coalition inside the EU, but note that Hungary does not usually break rank on important decisions and so expect a limited foreign policy impact if Fico wins.
Also, Fico’s socially conservative SMER-SSD party is only just ahead in the latest polls with 19.4% support, against 18.2% for the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party. Much depends on how smaller parties fare.
Fico, forced to resign in 2018 after the murder of an investigative journalist triggered mass protests, has turned more radical in opposition.
Disinformation, meanwhile, has spread, undermining public support for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022, said Katarina Klingova of think-tank Globsec.
Slovakia, she added, has long been fertile ground for pro-Russian narratives, thanks to its historical affinity, low trust in public institutions and politicians moving once-fringe narratives into the political mainstream.
“We saw those narratives were at the edge of the information spectrum (in 2015), but now you switch on TV and almost in every debate you have some political representative using disinformation narratives,” Klingova said.
“They don’t necessarily have to be supportive of the Kremlin … but definitely they play into the hands of Russia.”
In early 2023, more than 40,000 Slovaks signed petitions to avoid being called up in case of mobilisation, after hoax posts on social media said a call-up to fight in Ukraine may be on its way.
The hoax was debunked, but the reaction pointed to the influence that false information surrounding the Ukraine war has among Slovakia’s 5.5 million population.
A Globsec survey earlier this year found only 40% of Slovaks thought Russia primarily responsible for invading Ukraine, the lowest count across central and eastern Europe.