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Slovakia could once again become Europe’s black hole.” That’s what Richard Sulik – former economy minister and leader of the liberal SaS party – warned on Thursday about what voters in the country have to decide at the end of this week. The country risks fall into the trap of pro-Russian populism and nationalist oligarchic provincialism, which Bulgaria somehow manages to avoid so far.
Sulik called on smaller parties with no chance of crossing the threshold to enter the parliament in Bratislava (5% under a proportional system) to withdraw from the race and not waste the votes of their sympathizers. It’s not about who wins, but whether three-time prime minister Robert Fizzo can put together a coalition to rule for a fourth time. He resigned under enormous public pressure and sustained multi-thousand-strong protests (which he blamed on George Soros and unnamed foreign powers) following the February 2019 contract killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kushnirova.
The caretaker government in Slovakia fell after a vote of confidence
According to Sulik, the worst scenario after the vote would be for Smer (Fico’s party) to form a coalition with its breakaway Hlas party plus the far-right neo-Nazist elements of the Slovak National Party (SNS) and the similar Republika movement. There is a minimal theoretical possibility that the other participants, who got into the parliament, will agree not to allow them to come to power. It is also being watched with interest, what will be the vote of voters abroad – a record number of over 73 thousand, who registered and are already voting remotely thanks to a special application (less than 10% of them registered to cast the ballot).
None of the parties leads convincingly in terms of approval – Fico’s gets only about a fifth (20.3%), its main competitor Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia) has just over 17%. According to sociologists, the trend is for the former prime minister’s support to slowly grow, as well as the likelihood that this will rally his opponents against him.
How the popularity of parties in Slovakia has moved in recent months.
Slovakia is a relatively small country, and the current government has been one of Ukraine’s fastest and most generous helpers in the war, but the outcome of the September 30 vote could reverberate beyond its borders, including causing problems in the EU and NATO. Fico vows to protect “national interests” by ending military support for Kiev and voting against sanctions against Russia that could hurt Slovakia.
“Black hole” is not a metaphor invented by Sulik. The phrase was used in the 1990s by the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Having gone through a “divorce” with the Czech Republic at the dissolution of Czechoslovakia (1993), the country was causing concern that it was becoming the “black hole of Europe”, she said. The reason was that during the rule of the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, the son of the President of Slovakia, Michal Kovacs, was kidnapped (1995) and secretly taken to Austria (the case was never solved, but many leads led to the SIS special services), the main witness – the police officer Robert Remiash – was killed, and the evening news resembled a gangster chronicle.
The Slovak president’s refusal to run for re-election has worried Western allies
Slovakia had no chance of joining NATO and the EU until the so-called 1998 Consensus – Meciar was defeated in the elections by a pro-EU group of parties and today the country is a member (since 2004) of these organizations as well as Schengen and the Eurozone. Fico ruled ten of those years (2006-2010 and 2012-2018), first coming to power in a coalition with Mečiar’s party (it dissolved in 2014) and the extreme nationalists of the Slovak National Party of Jan Slota, because of which Smer was expelled from the Party of European Socialists.
Migrants caught by the police at the border with Hungary.
Now an annual report from the Globsec Institute shows that nearly 50% of Slovaks consider the US a risk to their security, under half (40%) believe Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, while over a third (34%) blame the West, that he had provoked Vladimir Putin and 17% pointed to Kiev, that he had oppressed its Russian-speaking citizens and that led to the aggression. These indicators are repeated almost the same in Bulgaria – 44%, 32%, 15%.
69% are convinced that by sending arms to Ukraine, their country is provoking Russia and pushing Slovakia towards war (59% in Bulgaria); equally believe that Ukrainian refugees receive aid at the expense of more needy socially weak Slovaks (71% of Bulgarians are of the same opinion) 56% consider the sanctions in Slovakia to be ineffective (“because they do not harm Russia”), followed by Bulgarians with 49% of the same opinion. 48% (as many as in Bulgaria) have a positive attitude towards Viktor Orbán (43% of Hungarians think so), whose rhetoric Robert Fico uses and promises to implement his policies if he comes to power.
75% perceive Russia as a brotherly country. Slavic brotherhood (a mid-19th-century ideology) is taught in schools, and politicians often connect the present with the past to maintain the notion that the country’s fate is intertwined with Russia’s, John Kampfner explains in a commentary for Britain’s Institute for Strategic Studies RUSSIAN.
In the Globsec report for this year, Slovakia also says:
“Unstable and chaotic governance, including the fall of the government in December 2022, accompanied by the activity of local and foreign factors aimed at further undermining Slovakia’s transatlantic relationship and democracy, have contributed to historically low trust in public institutions in the country (trust in government is at 18%, and the president – at 37%) and a drop in public support for Ukraine and support for membership in the EU and NATO. (…)
Slovaks further confirmed their tendency to believe misinformation [освен за войната в Украйна] and in other areas, with majorities agreeing with the demonization of LGBTI+ people and rejecting the idea that liberal democracy is good for their country. Paradoxically, although only 37% of respondents trust the media, almost two-thirds consider the media to be free, which is the largest difference between the two measurements in the region.”
The increased cost of living worries many Slovaks of all political sympathies, and many lament the failure of globalization and the loss of solidarity in society. In addition, authorities recently appear to be on the verge of losing control over the flow of migrants transiting the country. Three-quarters of Slovaks want the new government to tighten the regime against illegal border crossers, while Fico is calling for a freeze on Schengen rules and the return of passport controls at the border with Hungary.
But the conversation about these problems is poisoned by misinformation. It is believed that more than 250 media outlets and up to 2,000 Facebook pages spread disinformation and are mostly pro-Russian, John Kampfner points out. And adds:
“Slovakia has already had four prime ministers in the past four years. One coalition after another has come and gone, struggling to cope with COVID-19, inflation, the energy crisis and war. The last administration collapsed in December amid significant internal struggles, and the country has been in limbo ever since. Fico’s return is a sign of how messed up Slovakia’s politics have become and how badly faith in liberal democracy has been undermined there.”
Lately, Fico has veered even further to the right, denouncing “Ukrainian fascists”, condemning arms sales and calling the country’s president, Zuzana Chaputova, an “American agent”. She announced that she would prosecute him over the attacks and warned of an “information storm” that would affect good governance. But until recently a non-partisan anti-corruption symbol and defender of liberal values and media freedom, she said she would not run for a second term.
Zuzana Chaputova, President of Slovakia.
Fico, whose party was known until recently for its ties to local oligarchs, has called journalists “dirty Slovak prostitutes, idiots and snakes”. If he comes to power, his tone is expected to become even more aggressive.
A few weeks before the senate elections, the specter of the special services returned. Six people, including Michal Alac, the head of the SIS, his predecessor Vladimir Pčolinski (both nominated by the highly conservative We Are Family party) and Roman Konecny, the director of the National Security Service (NBÚ), are accused of creating an organized crime group for thwarting major corruption investigations by fabricating checks against investigators and trying to influence witnesses.