Six weeks before a crucial election, a liberal party Progressive Slovakia vowing to keep Slovakia pro-EU and pro-Ukraine policy, emerges as a primary competitor against the pro-Russian frontrunner.
Former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer, a pro-Russian party that has criticised the European sanctions on Russia, will face up against Progressive Slovakia, a party vowed to safeguard democratic institutions and the pro-EU attitude, in the September 30 election.
According to an NMS Market Research poll published on August 17, Smer maintains a lead with around 23% support, while Progressive Slovakia has risen to 17%, up almost a third since the beginning of the year. Both parties have surpassed Hlas (Voice), a centre-left party that led surveys in January and has the potential to be a kingmaker in this election.
Fico presents anti-NATO and pro-Russian views
Fico, once an ally of European Social Democrats, drove Smer out of the EU mainstream with his pledge to cease military aid for Ukraine and oppose Russian sanctions while increasing rhetoric against the US. The former prime minister, who ruled Slovakia for ten years in three terms, was deposed in 2018 amid protests provoked by the assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak.
Progressive Slovakia vows to keep Slovakia pro-EU and pro-Ukraine policy
Progressive Slovakia, founded in 2017, won the presidential election two years later, with Caputova promising to restore public trust and fight corruption.
The Slovakian President declared in June that she would not compete for a second term in 2024, citing a lack of energy after years of venom from political opponents. Pro-EU and reformist themes are helping the centre-left party gain voters’ support.
Disinformation impacting Slovak election
The Slovak parliamentary election campaign amplifies the spread of disinformation and deception about the candidates and critical issues such as the Ukraine crisis.
Disinformation campaigns exploit social weaknesses, polarise voters and undermine trust in traditional media. Identifying and combating false claims remains challenging as the country struggles to get adequate resources to battle false news.
Slovakia has provided Ukraine substantial military aid, such as MiG-29 fighter jets, artillery, ammunition, equipment, and power generators.
On the other hand, Russian disinformation tactics are succeeding in polarising society and jeopardising continued support for Ukraine. In this context, Slovakia has become a breeding ground for the spread of Russian anti-NATO and anti-EU narratives.
Russian attempts to rig the election in favour of Smer flagged
In Slovakia, intelligence services discovered a Russian attempt to rig the upcoming parliamentary election in Slovakia in favour of the Smer party, former defence minister Jaroslav Naď stated. He said that Russia paid Slovak individuals to manipulate elections in favour of the pro-Moscow Smer party as its success could shift policy in Russian dictator Putin’s favour.
At the same time, the Russian Embassy’s Facebook account in Slovakia has been deemed the most virulent in Europe, according to a Euronews report. And Slovaks do not seem to question Russian propaganda too much.
In just one year, the Russian Embassy’s Facebook page has gathered over 5,000 messages, including the odd and widely disproved claim that the US is managing the spread of COVID-19 through foreign biolabs. It also includes those advertising Russian tourism locations and even those calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy derogatory names.
“Many narratives about the decadent West and liberal democracy being a threat to our identity and culture resonate among Slovaks. Slovaks are also prone to believing various conspiracy theories,” a senior researcher at the Bratislava-based Globsec think-tank, Katarína Klingová, said.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation network in Slovakia
According to the research, There are 253 disinformation-peddling and pro-Kremlin media in Slovakia, and more than 1800 Facebook pages and open groups sharing pro-Russian propaganda. They are pushing for anti-EU and anti-Ukraine sentiments and support Fico and Smer party’s position.
The pro-Russian sentiment is often based on common Slavic origins and benefits from economic relations. However, Russian disinformation media and pages have become more cunning, and the fakes are more challenging to identify and debunk, the experts say.
“An old vodka in a new bottle, like Russian disinformation, does not cease to be sold as vodka. Russian information warfare has extended to the confines of the domestic electorate that has influenced and shaped citizens’ perceptions about sensitive topics such as foreign policy, energy security, inflation, and migration”, the Warsaw Institute concludes in its analysis.
In the rest of central Europe, criticism of Russia and its policy is high, mainly due to the bitter experience of the communist rule under the dominance of Moscow.
Political paradox in Slovakia
But Slovakia has mainly stood out as a nation of paradoxes. A figure like Smer leader Robert Fico, who parrots pro-Russian ideas, can get re-elected in an EU country, which could put a risk under risk the EU and the West’s unity in the context of geopolitical tensions.
On the other hand, the Slovakian population has shown pro-western solid sentiment, with around 60-70% expressing support for remaining in the EU and NATO in 2020. Yet, Slovak society displayed a pro-Russian attitude, too, as about 50% viewed Russia as a strategic partner, a GLOBSEC analysis concluded.
An anti-Russian shift in Slovakia due to Putin’s war
In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Slovakia has witnessed a significant shift in view on the foreign stage. An increasing part of the population now recognises that membership in the EU and NATO guarantees the country’s safety and relative prosperity and considers Russia a threat. The popularity of Putin declined by 100% between 2021 and 2022.
In 2020 roughly 60% of Slovaks said that Russia does not pose a security threat to Slovakia. But in 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s the opposite: 60% of Slovaks say that Russia threatens their country.
Does disinformation enhance pro-Moscow sentiments?
However, a paradox remains: Slovaks still openly support pro-Russian parties without seeing a link between the Russian war threat and the Russian hybrid political threat. As we know, Russia has backed far-right and radical left parties in the EU countries to destabilise the situation.
And the cause could be misinformation in the media and social media, which is influencing people’s minds. Disinformation plays a vital part in a society that feeds on increased information consumption without a culture of distinguishing between trustworthy sources and those disseminating biased information.
Key contenders and the possible election outcome
Fico’s Smer party has embraced anti-NATO and Eurosceptic positions, calling for Slovakia to end its military support for Ukraine and criticising EU sanctions against Russia to appeal to growing anti-Western sentiments.
The two far-right parties, Republika and SNS, who account for over 14% of vote intentions in polls, are pursuing Smer to form an anti-Western coalition.
Slovakia’s political fragmentation predicts that the elections will produce another deeply divided parliament, with the centre-left Hlas party acting as the kingmaker in talks to form a government.
On the other hand, former Prime Minister Pellegrini’s centre-left Hlas party has sworn to keep Slovakia in NATO and has so far refused Fico’s overtures to form an anti-Western coalition with Smer. In one scenario, Hlas may form an alliance with Progressive Slovakia and several tiny parties to maintain the country’s foreign policy stance.
In the backdrop of Russia’s war, the makeup of Slovakia’s next government coalition will determine whether the country retains its present pro-Western posture or adopts a Eurosceptic pro-Russian stance.
If pro-Russian groups win the election, Slovakia’s future with the EU and NATO may be weakened. The country’s economic stability and foreign investment will be jeopardised if the next government implements anti-Western measures.