Two months before the election, an openly pro-Russian candidate is topping the polls in Slovakia, threatening the country’s support for Ukraine.
Slovakia will vote in snap elections in September, and polls indicate former Prime Minister Robert Fico is likely to win. The outcome may threaten the EU and the West as it can undermine their unity in the geopolitical confrontation with the Kremlin.
According to The Foreign Policy, anti-Western sentiment is on the rise in Slovakia, and Fico is determined to capitalise on it by pursuing an openly pro-Moscow foreign policy.
The current Slovakia government has strongly backed Ukraine in its defence against the Russian invasion. Slovakia sent weapons to Ukraine, including artillery, and even offered its fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets.
Pro-Russian party leads in the polls
Slovakia’s populist left-wing Smer-SD party of former premier, a pro-Russian politician, Robert Fico, is leading in the polls.
The latest poll by Ipsos showed Fico’s Smer-SD leading with 19% of the vote, with the liberal Progressive Slovakia party in second place with 15,9%. Top-3 is completed by the Hlas (Voice) party, formed by a centrist faction that has split off from Smer, at 14,9%.
The nationalist party Slovak National Party can score 5%, and the far-right Republika – as high as 8,6%. The liberal party SASKA can get 5%, and the Christian Democratic Union – nearly 6%. The conservatives from SME Rodina (We are Family) have 6,4% support.
The non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia, a liberal party from which the president Zuzana Caputova hailed before becoming the country’s president and revoking her membership to respect the non-partisan concept of the presidency, has been steadily climbing up in the polls from 6% to 16% in 2 years.
Smer is leading, but it’s unclear if it can form a coalition
However, even if Fico’s party scores the highest number of votes, it may be challenging to build a coalition beyond the guaranteed support of the far-right and anti-EU Republic party.
The Slovak political landscape is highly fragmented, with roughly 8-9 parties having chances of winning seats in parliament in the elections in 2023, according to the polls.
The Hlas party may be the kingmaker after the election if neither Smer nor the liberal-conservative camp can form a majority in the new parliament.
In 2020, Hlas (Voice) split from Smer-SD and combined with Pellegrini; 11 legislators elected to the Slovak parliament on the Smer-SD ticket are now Hlas-SD party members. Pellegrini, unlike Fico, refers to Russia as an aggressor and disagrees with Smer-SD on the question of Slovak arms transfers to Ukraine, which both Fico and Smer-SD have opposed. So, it’s unlikely that Hlas will back Smer’s pro-Russian stance.
Fico’s pro-Russian stance
Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party calls for a stop to military aid to neighbouring Ukraine.
After the centre-right coalition government was defeated in a vote of no confidence in December due to schisms within the ruling parties, the NATO and EU member country is set to conduct elections in September.
Fico is publicly advocating an anti-US and pro-Russian foreign policy. Fico called Slovakia’s approval of the Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States “treason” and a “betrayal of national interests.” He labelled President Caputova as an “American agent” in May because of her foreign stance, particularly her support for Ukraine.
Smer’s speech against the EU and the US, what Fico refers to as “Western propaganda”, has been increasingly hostile. The pro-Russian politician Fico claimed that “Ukrainian fascists” launched the war in 2014. He also compared NATO troops’ entry into Slovakia to a “welcoming of the Wehrmacht.”
Fico has stated that if he is re-elected, he will first halt delivering weapons to Ukraine, something he has been calling for since the Russian invasion began.
Corruption case that forced Fico to resign in 2018
Fico was prime minister of Slovakia in 2006-2010 and 2012-2018. The pro-Russian politician was forced to resign in favour of then-party colleague and now Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini after mass protests against high-level corruption that followed the murder of a famous Slovakian investigative journalist and his fiancee.
Government crisis in Slovakia and Elections 2023
Slovakia’s centre-right government, led by Prime Minister Eduard Heger, a fervent backer of Ukraine in its war against Russia, collapsed in December 2022 due to weak governance.
Heger lost his parliamentary majority in September 2022 and continued to lead as a minority administration. Later he lost a no-confidence vote but stayed in power as a caretaker prime minister. But he was forced to resign in May due to corruption scandals.
After that, Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova formed a caretaker administration to oversee the country until the September elections. This interim leadership has also stated its support for Ukraine.
Pro-Russian disinformation network in Slovakia
Fico is eager to capitalise on the remaining pro-Russian sentiment in Slovak society and benefit from the potent Russian propaganda network. In Slovakia, there are reported to be 253 misinformation sites, most of which are pro-Russian, as well as over 1,800 Facebook pages and open online groups that share Kremlin propaganda.
Read also: Slovak elections were targeted by Russia
According to the Beacon Project, which tracks the disinformation activities of Russian embassies in Europe, the Russian Embassy in Slovakia’s Facebook account is the most virulent in Europe when it comes to undermining the support of Ukraine.
According to Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Popular Affairs in Bratislava, Russians assessed Slovakia as the weakest Central European country in terms of pro-Western sentiment. That’s why they see conditions appropriate for disseminating their propaganda. President Caputova has warned that Slovakia is vulnerable to Russian disinformation.
Of course, Slovakia is exposed to external influence, and Russia is the most active in this matter. The analysts of the Czech news website iROZHLAS try to develop the topic further, in particular noting that “although Slovakia looks pro-Western from the outside, pro-Russian views already find fertile ground on its surface.”
Pro-Russian sentiments – opinion polls in Slovakia in 2023
According to a Focus Agency for Markiza poll conducted in January 2022, before Russia started a full-scale war against Ukraine, much more Slovaks (44%) blamed NATO and the US for Russia-Ukraine tensions than Russia (35%). Since Russia’s invasion a month later, public opinion has become more polarized.
According to the Globsec Trends 2023 study, half of Slovaks blame Ukraine or the West for the war (17% and 34%, respectively, for a total of 51%), while just 40% blame Russia. The latter figure is the lowest in Central and Eastern Europe, making Slovaks the most pro-Russian and the most vulnerable to Russian disinformation and propaganda.
How the media can influence the public opinion
And those polls and opinions are always impacted by propaganda on news websites, including those with pro-Russian rhetoric. According to speakers at a conference hosted by the Aspen Central Europe platform, authoritarian populists in Central Europe, including Slovakia, have learned from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin how to use state broadcasters as propaganda mouthpieces. Their aim is reported to be disseminating false information, and using supportive private or state-owned businesses to create servile media conglomerates.
The analysis says that promoting disinformation sources, which have become a common source of news for many people in Central Europe, particularly in Slovakia, is a second strategy employed by populist parties. The study revealed that politicians like Robert Fico frequently disseminate false material on social media.
Another strategy for pro-Russian politicians and oligarchs is to create their own ally-friendly private media conglomerates to propagate their message and create the appearance of media diversity and independence. See more on this study in this article.
If these pro-Russian populist forces’ efforts are not countered, Smer can succeed in the elections. And this can create a major headache for the EU and the West. The time is ticking, as the polls will be held in less than two months. The month of September will be decisive for the campaign.