AP International

As Slovakia’s trust in democracy fades, its election frontrunner campaigns against aid to Ukraine

MICHALOVCE, Slovakia (AP) — A populist former prime minister whose party is favored to win Slovakia’s early parliamentary election plans to reverse the country’s military and political support for neighboring Ukraine, in a direct challenge to the European Union and NATO, if he returns to power.

Robert Fico, who led Slovakia from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018, is the frontrunner to occupy the prime minister’s office after the Sept. 30 election. He and his left-wing Direction, or Smer, party have campaigned on a clear pro-Russian and anti-American message.

His candidacy is part of a wider trend across Europe. Only Hungary has an openly pro-Russian government, but in other countries, including Germany, France, and Spain, populist parties skeptical of intervention in Ukraine command significant support. Many of these countries have national or regional elections coming up that could tip the balance of popular opinion away from Kyiv and towards Moscow.

“If Smer is part of the government, we won’t send any arms or ammunition to Ukraine anymore,” Fico, who currently holds a seat in Slovakia’s parliament and is known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, said in an interview with The Associated Press before a recent campaign rally.

Fico, 59, also opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions the Ukrainian military’s ability to force out the invading Russian troops and wants to use Slovakia’s membership in NATO to block Ukraine from joining. His return to power could lead Slovakia to abandon its democratic course in other ways, following the path of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban and to a lesser extent, Poland under the Law and Justice party.

The small Central European nation created in 1993 following the breakup of Czechoslovakia has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded more than 18 months ago. Slovakia was the second NATO member to agree to give its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Kyiv and also donated an S-300 air defense system.

But it also has seen public trust in liberal democracy and Western organizations decline to a greater extent than other parts of the region that shook off decades of Soviet domination.

According to a March survey commissioned by the Bratislava-based Globsec think tank, a majority of Slovak respondents, 51%, believe the West or Ukraine are responsible for the war. Half saw the United States as posing a security threat for their country, up from 39% in 2022. Of the eight nations surveyed, Slovaks were by far the most distrustful of the U.S.; Bulgaria was a distant second with 33% and Hungary third on 25%.

“We have a big problem,” Katarina Klingova, a senior research fellow at Globsec’s Center for Democracy and Resilience, said.

The survey was conducted in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Each of the eight Central and Eastern European countries had 1,000 respondents, and the survey findings had a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.

Only 48% of Slovaks consider liberal democracy good for their country, the second-lowest result after Lithuania (47%).

In February 2022, Slovakia opened its borders to Ukrainian refugees, as well as sending arms to Kyiv. Nonetheless, many Slovaks still have a soft spot for their Russian Slavonic brothers and sisters and are grateful for the Red Army for liberating the country at the end of WWII. Russian disinformation operations have also played their part: pro-Moscow propaganda is now widespread in the Slovak media.

The views reflected in the Globsec survey reflect frustration following the chaotic tenure of a center-right coalition government that collapsed in December and a pro-Russian disinformation campaign that intensified after the invasion of Ukraine, Klingova said.

“A number of local politicians have adopted the narratives and terminology of the Russian propaganda,” and amplified its impact, she said. Fico, whose party also campaigns against immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, is among them.

In his interview with the AP, he maintained that no amount of Western weapons going to Ukraine would change the course of the war. He said the European Union and the United States should use their influence to force Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal.

“It’s naive to think that Russia would leave Crimea,’’ Fico said, referring to the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. “It’s naive to think that Russia would ever abandon the territory it controls” in Ukraine.

Fico was speaking in Michalovce, a small town near Slovakia’s border with Ukraine. Not far away lies the city of Uzhhorod, one of the main border crossings for freight and individuals. In the spring of 2022, thousands of Ukrainian refugees entered Slovakia here, while humanitarian aid — and sometimes foreign fighters — flowed the other way.

More recently, shipments of Ukrainian grain have crossed the border, much to the unhappiness of local farmers, who say it’s undercutting their markets. When an EU deal to keep Ukrainian grain in transit and out of local markets lapsed earlier this month, Slovakia said it would extend its own ban on imports until the end of the year.

But at the same time as the war in Ukraine was driving down grain prices in Europe, it was pushing up the cost of energy. Until the invasion of Ukraine triggered EU sanctions, Russia supplied most of Slovakia’s oil and gas.

In 2022, inflation rose to 12.13% percent, driven by soaring energy prices. In September 2022, thousands joined a protest organized by Fico’s party at which he said the government’s support for Ukraine was partially responsible for the rise in inflation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with backing from his country’s Western supporters, has ruled out negotiating with Moscow until Russian troops withdraw from his country. He has also pressed NATO to provide a clear path for his country’s membership.

At their summit in July, NATO leaders pledged to keep supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine but offered no protection under the alliance’s security umbrella. Fico told the AP he opposes “on principle” putting Ukraine on a membership path, saying, “That would result in the Third World War.”

Fico’s position could further complicate Ukraine’s aspirations to join the alliance. At the summit, NATO allies said that “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”

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This story, supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, is the first part of an Associated Press series covering threats to democracy in Europe.

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The former prime minister and his party have shown pro-Russia tendencies during their on-off relationship with voters. In 2015, after Russia annexed Crimea, Fico was one of the few European leaders to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss business, despite EU sanctions.

However, Fico in office also took care to cultivate ties with the U.S. In 2018, he began negotiations on a defense treaty with Washington. The agreement was ratified last year, but not before Fico had organized a protest where he told a crowd of thousands that the treaty was “treason.” He said the pact would compromise Slovakia’s sovereignty and provoke Russia – claims rejected by the Slovak and U.S. governments.

Now, Fico repeats the Russian narrative about the causes of the Ukraine war, including Putin’s unsupported claim that the current Ukrainian government runs a Nazi state from which ethnic Russians living in the country’s east needed protection.

“I say it loud and clear and will do so: The war in Ukraine didn’t start yesterday or last year. It began in 2014. when the Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder the Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk,” Fico told a cheering crowd of supporters in his hometown of Topolcany on Aug 30.

Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a pro-democracy non-governmental organization based in Bratislava, said the Fico voters are seeing now is “the most authentic of all his career” as well as “the worst and the most radical.”

“The position of anti-system forces has never been so strong here since 1989,” Meseznikov said, referring to the year of Czechoslovakia’s anti-communist Velvet Revolution.

Fico used to be more pragmatic. During his first four-year term as prime minister, Slovakia was accepted into the EU’s visa-free Schengen Area in 2007 and adopted the euro as the national currency in 2009. Following the fall of the government that replaced his, Fico returned to office in 2012.

He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2014 and reclaimed the premiership in 2016, but was forced to resign two years later after the slaying of an investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée.

Shortly before his death, Kuciak had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico and about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s party. The killings prompted major street protests and led to the collapse of Fico’s coalition government. Fico’s deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini, took over as prime minister.

The scandal-tainted Smer, campaigning on a anti-migrant ticket, lost the 2020 election and ended up in opposition with Pellegrini leaving Fico to create a new leftist party, the Voice. The four-party coalition government that took over made fighting corruption a key focus.

Dozens of senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and business people linked to Smer have been convicted of corruption and other crimes.

Fico himself faced criminal charges last year for creating a criminal group and misuse of power, but Slovakia’s pro-Russian prosecutor general stepped in and threw out the indictment.

Almost all public polls predict Smer will place first in the snap parliamentary election, with about 20% of the vote. Fico would then need the support of other parties in order to form a government.

He said he hopes to join forces with the Voice.

Another option would be The Republic, a far-right group currently on 5-10% in the polls. The ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party is another possibility.

“His strong motivation is to avoid criminal investigation,” Meseznikov of the Institute for Public Affairs said, adding: “His return to power will be a problem for Slovakia in every aspect.”

Fico threatened to dismiss the investigators at the National Criminal Agency and special prosecutor Daniel Lipsic who investigate the most serious crimes and corruption after the election.

Fico vowed to “be more sovereign in expressing my views” but said it’s not his intention to lead his country out of the EU or NATO.

“The international public should know that NATO is currently extremely unpopular in Slovakia,” he warned. “If we hold a referendum today, I can guarantee that people would say no to NATO.”

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Find more of AP’s Europe coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/europe

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