Slovakia’s Election and the Erosion of Liberal Democracy

Remarkable return: an election billboard for the SMER-SD party, led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, in Bratislava. Image: CTK / Alamy

A pro-Russian party is set to win Slovakia’s upcoming election, and this will have ramifications far beyond its borders.

What better way to rile the Russian government than to name the street where one of its embassies is located after one of the many regime critics it has murdered? I fought to suppress a smile walking down Boris Nemtsov Street in central Bratislava as I talked to one of Slovakia’s leading authorities on disinformation.

As we stood outside the embassy gates, Dominika Hajdu showed me a video of a former military attaché caught red-handed offering money to a Slovak journalist to peddle Kremlin propaganda on the war in Ukraine. When it was released a year and a half ago, the video went viral. The diplomat was expelled. In spite of that setback, Russia has continued its activities unabated. There are estimated to be more than 250 disinformation-peddling – and largely pro-Moscow – media outlets in Slovakia, as well as up to 2,000 Facebook pages.

Slovakia, a small country with a population of little over five million, matters far more than Europe appreciates. On 30 September, Slovakia will hold a parliamentary election that will have ramifications far beyond its borders. If the opinion polls are correct, it could mark the return of Robert Fico, a man who lavishes praises on Moscow and models himself on Viktor Orban, the alt-right authoritarian leader in neighbouring Hungary.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Slovakia committed fully to defending Ukrainian sovereignty. Per capita, it has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest backers, and it was one of the first NATO countries to deliver fighter jets.

If Fico wins, and if he succeeds in forming a coalition government in his image, Slovakia is in danger of doing a 180-degree turn and going full pelt for Vladimir Putin.

The Bratislava-based think-tank Globsec, which monitors former Communist states, detects a worrying trend. As Dominik Hajdu, head of its Centre for Democracy and Resilience, points out, some 50% of Slovaks believe the US to be a security risk, a sharp increase from just a few years ago, while only 40% of Slovaks believe Russia to be primarily responsible for the war, the lowest among former Warsaw Pact states. Around 75% of those asked consider Russia their ‘brother’ nation.

Some 50% of Slovaks believe the US to be a security risk, a sharp increase from just a few years ago

Emotionally, Slovakia seems torn. The younger generation in the cities look to the West for economic opportunities and a more liberal way of life. Yet in schools, students are taught about the blossoming of a distinctive Slovak pan-Slavic ethos, an ideology which started in the mid-19th century. Grigorij Meseznikov, head of the Bratislava think-tank, the Institute for Public Affairs, explains: ‘It is based on the notion of Slav brotherhood. Slovak leaders link present with past, to try to maintain that the country’s destiny is intertwined with Russia’s’.

A few years after the 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the newly independent Slovak state to the south and east was already a cause of concern. While other post-Communist states embraced Western values, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it ‘the black hole’ of the region. NATO delayed its membership application. Then, in 1998, when the hard-line prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, was ousted by a more pro-Western administration, the assumption was that Slovakia, finally, had a settled identity and a settled set of alliances. This came to be known as the 1998 Consensus. Six years later it joined both NATO and the EU. Yet even inside these two blocs, Slovakia continued to vacillate. As prime minister between 2006 and 2010 and then between 2012 and 2018, Fico would fulminate against the West to his domestic audience but was careful not to go against the international status quo.

However, what happened next shook Slovakia to its core. Jan Kuciak, a young investigative journalist, was looking into corruption involving Fico’s government, EU subsidies and the Italian mafia. On 21 February 2018, Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, an archaeologist, were gunned down by contract killers at their flat outside the capital.

In the frantic aftermath of the murders, tens of thousands of Slovaks took to the streets of Bratislava and other cities to express their fury. These were the biggest demonstrations since the rallies that helped bring down Communism during the Velvet Revolution back in 1989. Fico expressed his sympathy for the victims and promised that the state would do everything possible to find the killers. The protesters were unconvinced and eventually Fico and his entire cabinet were forced to resign – but not before he accused the US financier George Soros and other foreign forces of fomenting the protests.

Hope arose from the horror. In June 2019, an environmental activist and lawyer, Zuzana Caputova, sensationally won the presidential election. Further hope for change appeared on the horizon in 2020 when parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for two new parties, colourfully called Ordinary People and Independent Personalities, whose slogan was ‘zero tolerance of corruption will be the alpha and omega’. This coalition came to power days before Europe went into lockdown. Much of the goodwill dissipated as the inexperienced leaders were thrust into the centre of a national crisis. Meanwhile, over this period, the cases against those who commissioned the murders of Kuciak and Kusnirova ground almost to a halt. It seemed that those with power, money and influence had got away with it.

Slovakia has now had four prime ministers in the past four years. Successive coalitions have come and gone, struggling to cope with Covid, inflation, the energy crisis and the war. The last administration collapsed in December amid considerable in-fighting, and the country has been treading water ever since.

Fico's return is a measure of how messy Slovakia's politics has become, and how badly faith in liberal democracy has been eroded

Cue a remarkable return for Fico. Taking a leaf out of Orban’s playbook, he has spent his most recent time in opposition moving further to the right, denouncing ‘Ukrainian fascists’ and railing against arms shipments. He has gone as far as to call Caputova an ‘American agent’ and, in an echo of Donald Trump, has described recent arrests of senior intelligence chiefs as a ‘police-led coup’. Caputova has warned of an ‘information storm’ influencing good government. Ominously, she has said she will not stand for a second term.

The schism is deep, particularly on the twin issues of Russia/Ukraine and the so-called ‘culture wars’, which are often regarded as intertwined in the populist-nationalist mindset. (I heard it myself interviewing one of Fico’s most senior parliamentarians.) Yet on cost-of-living issues, many Slovaks of all political hues appear aligned. Many complain about the failure of globalisation and the loss of social solidarity.

It would be extraordinary if Fico and his party, SMER-SD (notionally called Social Democrats) were not to emerge as clear victors. Following close behind is a slightly more palatable grouping called Hlas, led by Robert Pellegrini, who briefly succeeded Fico as prime minister in 2018. The other main force is the pro-Western and socially liberal Progressive Slovakia. In all, more than a dozen parties are vying for seats. Under the proportional system, with a five per cent minimum threshold, several parties will fail to enter parliament, their votes lost. Convoluted coalition negotiations will follow.

Political scientists point out that election campaigns in Slovakia have often produced dramatic last-minute swings. They also note that their erstwhile compatriots, the Czechs, did not, despite all the propaganda harnessed by Moscow, revert to a populist of old. Others cling to the hope that, even if Fico does prevail, he might be forced by circumstances (such as Slovakia’s economic dependency on the EU plus the requirement to cut deals with other parties) to moderate his pro-Russian position. They point to Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni as a case in point.

The danger is ever-present, but there is still much to play for. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Fico will be a major player and the politics he espouses is back in fashion. It is a measure of how messy politics has become, and how badly faith in liberal democracy has been eroded – right in the heart of Europe.

A documentary by the author on the upcoming election, 'Slovakia Divided', is available on BBC Sounds.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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John Kampfner

Senior Associate Fellow

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