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BRATISLAVA — Slovakia could follow Hungary in becoming an EU problem child, the country’s president has warned.
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová told POLITICO she is worried about the spread of disinformation in her country and that an upcoming parliamentary election could erode Slovakia’s support for Ukraine.
If populist parties lead the government in the fall this year, the president said in an interview, “maybe it will be more similar to Viktor Orbán-type of foreign policy.”
Slovakia has been a strong supporter of Kyiv throughout the war, even providing MiG-29 jets to Ukrainian forces.
But ahead of the country’s September election, Smer-SD — a populist party led by controversial former Prime Minister Robert Fico, which has called for ending military support to Ukraine — is leading in the polls.
Slovakia has been a firm ally of Ukraine. But a new government could change that equation — of particular concern as Russian influence creeps across Europe.
And Russian narratives are finding fertile ground in Slovakia: only 40 percent of Slovaks say Russia is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine, according to recent polling by think tank GLOBSEC — compared for example to 85 percent in Poland, Slovakia’s northern neighbor.
Slovakia is undergoing a “very difficult period,” the president said, adding, “I see not only polarization, but fragmentation within our society.”
Russia’s successful influence campaign
Though the former Eastern Bloc country may appear strongly pro-Western at the moment, under the surface, disinformation and Russia-friendly narratives appear to be thriving.
Čaputová, a progressive lawyer and former activist, said her country is facing an active Russian disinformation campaign — and that being a “younger democracy, we are more vulnerable.”
The president was blunt about the role she believes some elected politicians are playing in spreading disinformation.
“Some political leaders, including MPs, spread this type of information directly in the parliament, through the media,” she said.
Fico’s party has rejected critics’ concerns.
In an emailed statement on behalf of the party, MEP Katarína Roth Neveďalová — Smer’s international secretary — said that “it is very dirty political practice to accuse the opponents of spreading the disinformation. We firmly reject any of these accusations and lies.”
Yet it seems the impact is tangible.
Some 50 percent of Slovaks say the United States is a security threat to their country, GLOBSEC’s polling shows.
Merely 58 percent of Slovaks would vote to stay in NATO if a referendum were held, and 66 percent agree with the statement that the “US is dragging Slovakia into a war with Russia because it is profiting from it.”
The polling tracks with NATO’s own research, which found that only 51 percent of Slovaks would vote to remain in NATO, compared to 70 percent overall across the alliance.
The NATO tracker also found that half the population of Slovakia would oppose continued help for Ukraine.
Asked why Russian narratives are resonating with parts of Slovak society, Čaputová said it’s a mix of a “positive attitude to common Slavic roots,” a certain view of history, the impact of disinformation and “maybe mistakes in communication of democratic political leaders.”
And many Slovaks are simply fed up, after a series of crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, rising energy prices, inflation and war next door.
“This is,” she said, “why people, I think, are angry or frustrated.”
Pivotal political moment
Slovaks head to the polls in September, in an election that some politicians caution could shift Bratislava’s role within the EU and NATO.
Smer is polling at around 17 percent, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.
That puts Smer — a member of the pan-European Party of European Socialists — ahead of all other contenders in Slovakia’s fractured political landscape.
Smer leader Fico, who in the past served as prime minister three times, narrowly avoided going to jail after Slovakia’s parliament last year failed to approve a motion to suspend his immunity while he was investigated on organized crime charges.
Eduard Heger, who until mid-May served as Slovakia’s caretaker prime minister, called Fico the “the leader of using disinformation in his wording,” which Fico’s party denies.
Speaking to POLITICO in Bratislava, Heger said he fears a populist government would move the country away from Western institutions.
“They will start to change the foreign policy orientation — and they will actually start to pull Slovakia out of European structures and NATO structure,” he said.
Smer insists that it does not want to change Slovakia’s foreign policy orientation.
“Our political party fully supports the membership of Slovakia in the EU and NATO,” Roth Neveďalová wrote on behalf of the party.
Responding to questions about Smer’s position on Ukraine, she acknowledged that Ukrainians “have the right to defend themselves,” but said the party is calling for a ceasefire and peace process.
“We have always supported the aid to Ukraine — humanitarian aid, negotiations, mediation, support of the refugees who also currently live in Slovakia etc,” she said. But, she added, “we cannot send any military support to Ukraine, simply because there is no military equipment left in Slovakia.”
Experts are not convinced.
“If the Smer party — with or without Robert Fico — is in government, they will definitely try to change the current level of support of Ukraine,” said Milan Nič, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in the region. He added, however, that Smer is a pragmatic party without a clear foreign policy.
And even if Fico is leading in the polls now, he won’t necessarily end up in power.
“The winner might not be able to form a government,” Nič said. “This election,” he said, “will be decided by the small parties.”