October 4, 2023

IntelBrief: Is Slovakia’s Election a Harbinger of Eroding European Support for Ukraine?

AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A left-wing, pro-Russian populist party won Slovakia’s parliamentary elections last weekend, with the party’s leader beginning talks to establish a coalition government.
  • Former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer-SSD party have pledged to cease all military support to Ukraine and block any potential NATO bid for Ukraine – moves that would upend Slovakia’s previously staunch support for Ukraine.
  • Fico’s pro-Russian rhetoric reflects a broader coalescing – even if for short-term gain and mere pragmatism – of the far-right and far-left in Europe, capitalizing on the cost-of-living crisis and growing fatigue over the war in Ukraine.
  • Despite concerns over Slovakia’s support for Ukraine and potential alignment with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, analysts have predicted that moderating forces in the likely governing coalition, as well as Slovakia’s depleted military arsenal, will temper the direst prognostications.

In a race watched closely by European and NATO allies, a left-wing, populist, pro-Russian party – Smer-SSD – emerged victorious from Slovakia’s parliamentary elections this past weekend. Although the party outperformed expectations, earning 23 percent of the electoral vote, it was not enough to win outright, and the party’s leader – former Prime Minister Robert Fico – has begun talks to establish a coalition government. Fico ran on a pro-Russian, anti-American platform, considered the most aggressive and radical of his career due to his embrace of fringe conspiracy theories and pro-Russian disinformation. In addition to adopting socially conservative, anti-immigrant, nationalistic, and anti-LGBTQ. rhetoric, Fico has pledged to cease all military support to Ukraine immediately and block any future NATO bid for the country under siege. He has also repeatedly urged Kyiv to begin peace negotiations with Moscow and urged the European Union (EU) to end sanctions against Russia. Parroting Kremlin propaganda, he also blamed “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists,” as well as the United States, for playing a role in starting the war in Ukraine and provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin into launching the invasion.

Smer-SSD’s popular campaign slogan, “Not a single round” – referring to its pledge to end arms shipments to Ukraine – is a stark turn for a country that has staunchly supported Ukraine since the early days of the war. After Russia’s illegal invasion in 2022, Slovakia was one of the first countries in the European Union to provide military support to Ukraine. The total support it has provided since February 2022 is estimated to be worth over 160 million euros – making it one of Europe’s biggest donors in terms of share of its gross domestic product – and includes its entire fleet of retired MiG-29 fighter jets and an S-300 air defense system. Slovakia also currently hosts over 100 thousand Ukrainian refugees and has served as a key transit country for those fleeing the war, with over one million people transiting through Slovakia since February 2022, according to UN estimates. Despite this early assistance from the government, recent opinion polls in Slovakia have indicated that support among civilians may be waning. According to a Eurobarometer survey in March 2023, 44 percent of Slovaks believed that Ukrainian refugees were making the country worse – the highest level of resentment among EU nations. The survey also found that 56.6 percent of respondents believed that Ukrainian refugees were weakening the Slovak economy, despite figures by the policy arm of the Slovak Finance Ministry showing that Ukrainians have filled important labor shortages in short-staffed sectors, such as healthcare and hospitality.

Beyond sentiment toward refugees, pro-Russian narratives seem to resonate with the general Slovakian public. The Slovakia-based think tank Globsec found that 51 percent of Slovaks believed either the West or Ukraine was “primarily responsible” for the war, and 50 percent of Slovaks believed the United States was a security threat. Slovakia was a notable outlier here: by far, it was the country that felt the most threatened by the United States of any of the eight Eastern European countries surveyed. According to another survey conducted in July by the AKO polling agency, 51.5 percent of Slovaks surveyed oppose providing military assistance to Ukraine. The polling data demonstrates the seemingly fertile ground for a war-weary public and perhaps the motivation for the increasingly aggressive pro-Russian platform of Smer-SSD and its leader. Moreover, government infighting and several high-profile corruption scandals – including one in August where the Slovak police charged the country’s spy chief and other security officials with conspiracy to abuse power – have eroded public trust in institutions and created an environment ripe for pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns, reinforcing and exacerbating waning support for Ukraine.

Fico and his party’s pro-Moscow, populist, and nationalist platform, as well as his promises of generous welfare, seems to not only have capitalized on Slovaks’ war fatigue and distrust in institutions, but also tapped into frustrations over inflation. While annual inflation in Slovakia dipped to 8.9 percent in September 2023 according to the European Central Bank, it remains the highest of any eurozone country, standing at over double the eurozone average. Throughout Europe, inflation – including rising energy and commodity costs that have been overwhelmingly borne by consumers – has fueled widespread frustration among the electorate. Protests over the cost-of-living crisis, including one in the Czech Republic last month, have often featured pro-Russian and pro-Putin imagery and slogans and included demands for an end to military support in Ukraine. The protests and the electoral success of Fico and Smer-SSD display the convergence of frustrations over the cost of living and pro-Moscow propaganda. A united far-left and far-right on these issues demonstrates the appeal on both extreme ends of the political spectrum of rhetoric that highlights economic frustrations, emphasizes the perceived failure of European governments to address the high prices, and compounds fatigue in an increasingly entrenched conflict – all wrapped up in sympathetic Russian narratives. Fico and his far-left party’s victory last weekend was partly owed to their appeals to far-right voters, underlining the coalescing – and potential swing – of voters from the far-right and far-left.

With promises to immediately end all military support to Ukraine and to block Ukraine’s membership bid to NATO, some leaders are concerned about a complete upending of Slovakia’s support of Ukraine. Fico and Smer-SSD’s embrace of pro-Russian stances are similar to those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has challenged the EU and NATO’s general support for Ukraine. This could signal a foreign policy alignment between Slovakia and Hungary. For EU leaders closely tracking Slovakia’s election this weekend, Orbán’s immediate congratulations to Fico may have reinforced this concern. Yet, many analysts do not believe such forecasts will come to fruition, as Smer-SSD will likely need to form a coalition with the more center-left, pro-European HLAS social democratic party that split with Smer-SSD in 2020. Many analysts predict that the coalition may serve as a moderating force and mitigate calls for a complete end to Slovakia’s support for Ukraine. Moreover, some observers have noted that Slovakia has already exhausted much of its weapons stockpiles by aiding Ukraine, suggesting that Fico’s promises to end military support is more an appeal to public sentiment and an act of political pragmatism than a true shift in foreign policy. Whether the elections in Slovakia prove to be a harbinger of eroding support for Ukraine more broadly may be reinforced in upcoming elections in Poland in mid-October. Yet, even if moderating forces prevail, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, in addition to the issue of migration and distrust in institutions, signals that the appeal of populist parties is likely to endure in the near term among the European electorate.