The victory of anti-liberal pro-Russian leader Robert Fico in Slovakia’s general elections is perceived as bad news across the EU, apart from in Hungary, where Viktor Orban welcomed the incoming prime minister to be at his side at EU summits.
But is Fico’s victory a prelude to populists taking over in other European capitals, which could grant Vladimir Putin victory in a civilisational conflict?
To answer this question, it is helpful to look at how things developed in Slovakia.
As I come from Bulgaria, I have known for some time that Slovakia and Bulgaria are the two weak links in the EU and NATO’s efforts to supply arms to Ukraine for its fight against the Russian aggressor.
Slovakia and Bulgaria are special cases. Russian propaganda has found fertile ground in both countries amongst local actors acting like Kremlin propagandists.
And no one seems to be fighting this propaganda at the state level. Some media do have fact-checking sections, but those are supported by international NGOs.
Many Slovaks perceive their country as a victim that suffered first under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later in the Soviet bloc within Czechoslovakia. Pan-Slavism has also played a role in strengthening pro-Russian narratives.
In Bulgaria, at least a third of Bulgarians, if not half, have deeply rooted pro-Russian sentiments based on historical ties.
In both countries, the COVID vaccination rates remained the lowest in the EU, and the anti-vaxxer movement was strong, which was already an indicator of how vulnerable the societies are to charlatans and how low the confidence was in institutions.
Still, Slovakia has provided neighbouring Ukraine with substantial military and humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.
But a study by the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec, conducted earlier in 2023, noted that 69% of respondents agreed that by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia was provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to war.
This is the highest percentage among the six Eastern European countries surveyed, with Bulgaria in second place at 59%.
Slovakia and Bulgaria are also the countries with the lowest percentage of respondents who would vote to stay in NATO if there was a referendum: both at 58%, compared to 93% for Poland and 89% for Hungary and Romania.
It is important to note that the support of Slovaks for NATO membership has shrunk significantly from 72% in 2022, the poll showed. Globsec analysts say the results are due to disinformation.
Slovaks have also shown their affinity for embracing disinformation in other areas, from agreeing with a narrative demonising LGBTI+ people to rejecting the notion that liberal democracy is good for their country.
It is interesting to note that in both countries, the socialist parties — Fico’s Smer-SD and Kornelia Ninova’s BSP – are campaigning on a pro-Russian, “anti-war” and “anti-gender ideology” ticket, throwing the blame for their country’s shortcomings on the liberal policies pushed by the European Commission.
In Bulgaria, however, BSP is not a major force, it has only 23 MPs in the 240-seat parliament. This is probably because other political players, such as the openly pro-Russian Vazrazhdane (Revival) party, make BSP sound too timid in comparison.
By comparison, Fico’s SMER party obtained 23% at the election – roughly the joint score of BSP and Vazrazhdane.
What looks disturbing is that the European socialist family, be it at the level of national leaders — the Party of European Socialists (PES) — or the S&D group in the European parliament, pretend they don’t see that they are harbouring in their ranks pro-Russian forces which profess conservative values close to the far-right.
The Kremlin’s primary goal is to ensure that weak links paralyse NATO and the EU, even before the US elections, which could be an even bigger game-changer.
But Slovakia, even under Fico, will be more interested in continuing to receive EU funding rather than to create chaos. Even when Orban created obstacles for the EU support to Ukraine, it was to obtain in exchange funds blocked under the ongoing rule-of-law dispute.
I may be too optimistic, but I don’t believe the Slovak elections are the first of a series, and they won’t substantially weaken the EU and NATO. What could undermine the West is a victory of the far-right in France in 2027. But we are not there yet.
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[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]