Is Slovakia Becoming a New Thorn in European Politics?

When Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister, resigned in 2018 following the most significant mass protests since the communist era, he smiled and promised he would return. But few took him seriously.

Robert Fico is a unique and politically immortal figure. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia initially drifted away from the rest of the region. The early post-communist governments had disregarded the rule of law, preventing the country from joining NATO in 1999, alongside Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. AT THE TIME, the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, referred to the nation as the “black hole” of Europe.

At that time, Fico was in his thirties and had consolidated the country’s centre-left in his quest for power. He gained supporters with passionate speeches about combating corruption and promoting European integration. His party, Smer, won its first legislative elections in 2006. His popularity peaked at 44% in 2012 as he pledged to provide more assistance to the less privileged.

Under his leadership, Slovakia adopted the euro in 2009. The economy grew, fueled by an automotive industry that made the country one of the world’s largest car producers per capita. He also considered former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an ally.

Inspired by Orban’s ability to change his rhetoric to stay in power, Fico began to backtrack on previously supported issues. He and his party were also accused of allowing corruption to flourish, with a peak in 2018 following the murder of an investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée. Fico had become the face of public resentment and resigned under pressure from his coalition partners.

Subsequent governments targeted him and his closest allies with corruption allegations. Dozens of high-ranking police officers, secret service agents, and former officials were convicted in related cases. Fico denied allegations that his party favoured a mafia-style state, calling them “fabricated and ridiculous.” But this issue became the main focus of the 2020 elections, the first ones Fico had lost in 14 years.

As Fico’s popularity hit rock bottom, he reinvented himself as the voice against everything, from COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccines to immigration and green policies. Like Orban, he took on the EU as a dissident voice within the bloc rather than advocating for his country’s exit. He is not a Eurosceptic; he’s a pragmatist.

Slovakia’s support for Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s invasion has been his most generous political asset. Smer recovered enough to allow Fico to return as Prime Minister with the support of smaller groups. This would be his fourth term. His primary opponent, Simecka, would also need cooperation from other parties if he were to upset the polls and come out on top. He urged Slovaks not to buy into Fico’s narrative. He declared this month that the prospect of a government made up of extremist parties posed a risk to Slovakia.

Slovaks will vote on September 30 in tightly contested elections. Fico has capitalized on concerns about the aftermath of the conflict. In a country of 5.4 million people that is the most pro-Russian in the region, he has pledged to end military aid to Ukraine, labelled the Slovak president an American agent, and opposes his war-torn neighbour’s NATO membership.

As an EU member of 27, Slovakia is politically significant in the eurozone and NATO. The country is also sandwiched between Hungary, led by chief disruptor Viktor Orban, and Poland, where the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party aims to win a third consecutive election on October 15.
The three countries have angered Kiev by pushing to extend the ban on Ukrainian cereal imports to protect their farmers. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki exacerbated the dispute by announcing that his country would halt arms deliveries to Ukraine in front of government officials. He later backtracked on his remarks, but the episode highlights the divide between Eastern European countries experiencing the effects of the war firsthand and Western countries far removed from the operations.

Slovakia has generally remained steadfast in its support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022, even though successive surveys have shown that over half of Slovaks blame the West or Ukraine for the war. The country continues to send arms to the East, host over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, and support all sanctions against Russia, even though this decision directly affects its energy supplies.

The return of the 59-year-old Fico could quickly change the game, challenging Slovakia’s cooperation with NATO, given his fierce criticism of the alliance and the United States. It would also bolster Orban’s influence, who opposes sanctions and arms deliveries.

Victory is not yet assured. Smer’s party enjoys around 20% support in opinion polls, giving it a three-point advantage over its main rival, the Progressive Slovakia party led by Michel Simecka. In a fragmented political landscape where small parties will ultimately play the kingmaker role, this lead has gradually decreased by five points in March.

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