Slovakia will hold snap elections in September—and polls predict former Prime Minister Robert Fico is likely to win. Western nations should be concerned. Anti-Western sentiment is on the rise in Slovakia, and Fico is determined to take advantage of it to adopt an openly pro-Kremlin foreign policy.
Slovakia’s center-right government under Prime Minister Eduard Heger—a big supporter of Ukraine in its war against Russia—fell last December due to unstable and chaotic governance. In September 2022, Heger lost his parliamentary majority and continued to govern with a minority government; three months later, he lost a no-confidence vote and remained in power as a caretaker prime minister until resigning due to corruption scandals in May. Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova then installed a caretaker government to govern the country until the September elections. That temporary leadership has also affirmed that it backs Ukraine.
Slovakia’s support for Ukraine is a quarter-century in the making. But it could shatter entirely if Fico takes the helm.
For most of the 1990s, after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia’s political parties were divided on foreign policy. Those on the left and the radical right preferred to orient themselves toward Russia, while the center-right sought alignment with the West. The most prominent representative of the former camp was Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who governed from 1994 to 1998 and, in the words of then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made Slovakia the “black hole” of the region.
Meciar used mafia methods to govern and undermined the rule of law. Slovakia was internationally isolated and barred from joining NATO in 1999 after it had applied for membership two years prior; NATO cited “the behavior of the Slovak decision-making institutions” in its rejection. Neighbors Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic still managed to accede in 1999, and Slovakia only became a member of the military alliance five years later.
In 1998 elections, Slovakia’s democratic opposition ousted Meciar, and the Slovak political elite adopted an informal agreement that became known as the 1998 Consensus. Despite significant pro-Russian sentiment among the Slovak population, the new doctrine held that Slovakia’s foreign policy should never turn against the Western mainstream because of how seriously doing so would harm the country’s geopolitical interests. In other words: Slovaks had learned the harsh lessons of the Meciar era.
The 1998 Consensus remained broadly intact for the past 25 years; a new generation of Slovaks grew up believing that to be Slovak meant to be Western-oriented. Although Meciar’s political heir, Fico—who governed between 2006 and 2010 and 2012 and 2018—made some symbolic gestures toward Russia, he never turned against the Western mainstream when making critical foreign-policy decisions. For example, Fico in 2016 repeatedly called for the European Union to lift sanctions on Russia but eventually supported them in EU fora, which Slovakia joined in 2004. His support for Russia, in other words, was merely rhetorical; in practice, Fico was a core part of the West.
Yet the Fico of today is no longer the Fico of 2016. If Fico returns to power, he will bring down the 1998 Consensus and radically change Slovakia’s foreign policy. Slovakia is currently one of the biggest supporters of Ukraine in its war against Russia. Fico would institute a complete 180-degree turn and instead spread Russian propaganda.
Fico’s anti-Western shift began in 2018, after he was removed from office. That year, Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered. Kuciak had exposed how deeply the Slovak police, justice system, and politicians were colluding with criminals, including the Italian mafia. The incident brought tens of thousands of Slovak citizens to the streets and forced Fico to step down. Fico blamed the demonstrations on Western intervention and baselessly accused Hungarian American financier George Soros of organizing them. Then, in 2020, Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini—who had replaced Fico in 2018—split with Fico’s social democratic party to found his own Western-oriented offshoot. In response, Fico shifted his own faction toward a more pro-Russia stance—formalizing his pro-Moscow sympathies.
But Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been the most important force behind Fico’s pivot. Fico today is openly pushing an anti-U.S. and pro-Russia foreign policy. Last year, Fico criticized the ratification of Slovakia’s Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, calling it “treason” and a “betrayal of national interests.” In May, he smeared Caputova—who holds a ceremonial post—as an “American agent” because of her foreign policy, especially her support for Ukraine. Fico has stressed that if he returns to power, his first action will be to stop sending Ukraine weapons—something he has called for since May 2022. Fico said on the campaign trail that “Ukrainian fascists” started the war in 2014 and that there is no way Ukraine could take back the Crimean Peninsula. He has recently likened the arrival of NATO soldiers in Slovakia to a “welcoming of the Wehrmacht.”
Fico is keen to exploit the residual pro-Russian sentiment in Slovak society in this September’s elections by both spreading and profiting from a robust Russian propaganda network in the country. There are estimated to be 253 disinformation-peddling—and largely pro-Kremlin—outlets in Slovakia as well as more than 1,800 Facebook pages and open online groups sharing pro-Russian propaganda. According to the Beacon Project, an initiative by the International Republican Institute that tracks the disinformation activities of Russian embassies in Europe, the Facebook account of the Russian Embassy in Slovakia is the most virulent in Europe when it comes to undermining the Ukrainian war effort.
Grigorij Meseznikov, the president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, thinks that Russians identified Slovakia as the weakest among Central European countries—insofar as the public’s pro-Western sentiment was concerned—and saw conditions favorable for spreading their propaganda. Caputova herself has warned that Slovakia risks succumbing to Russian disinformation.
In 2020, according to a Globsec Trends survey, 78 percent of Slovaks considered Russia their Slavic “brother nation.” The same survey showed that 42 percent of Slovaks regard Russia as their strategic partner, while only 17 percent see the United States that way.
In January 2022, significantly more Slovaks blamed NATO and the United States (44 percent) for the tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border than Russia (35 percent), according to a poll by the Focus agency for Markiza. Public opinion has become even more lopsided since Russia’s invasion a month later. The Globsec Trends 2023 survey, published in May of this year, showed that half of Slovaks blame Ukraine or the West for the war (17 percent and 34 percent, respectively, for a combined 51 percent), while only 40 percent find Russia responsible. The latter number is the lowest in Central and Eastern Europe, making Slovaks the most pro-Russian people in the region. (The share of the population that blames Russia is 44 percent in Bulgaria, 54 percent in Hungary, and 65 percent in Romania.) According to the same poll, only 59 percent of Slovaks want their country to continue to support Ukrainian refugees. In September 2022, a different survey showed that the majority of Slovaks want Russia to win the war.
Fico has managed to rekindle pro-Russian sentiment with an intensity not seen since the Meciar era—an especially disturbing trend as Slovaks grapple with Russian aggression in Ukraine. But the West—and especially the United States—has remained uninterested in or unaware of these dangerous tendencies. In its 2022 Slovakia human rights report, the U.S. State Department mentions only four pro-Russian disinformation websites that Slovakian authorities blocked and does not seem concerned about the spread of pro-Russian propaganda in the country more broadly. The State Department raised much more concern about the proliferation of Russian narratives in its reports on Hungary and Romania.
So far, Fico’s strategy seems to be working. Pellegrini’s party had led national polls since its 2020 founding until early this year. In March, Fico’s party took over, and its lead is growing. As of late June, Fico’s party led with 19 percent, while Pellegrini’s followed at 16 percent, according to Politico’s poll of polls.
In November 2022, when I visited human rights institutions in Washington to raise awareness about human rights violations against the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, my American partners seemed genuinely surprised when I warned about the rising anti-U.S. sentiment in the country.
But pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments in the eastern flank of NATO should not be disregarded—especially when Ukraine is fighting Russian aggression and the West needs to stand united against Russian propaganda more than ever. While the United States has placed other countries in the region under increasing scrutiny—most notably Hungary—Russian propaganda took over Slovakia. And now its main proponent seems poised to win an election.
Balazs Tarnok is a jurist from Slovakia and managing director of the Europe Strategy Research Institute at the University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary. He is the co-founder of the international working group Freedom and Identity in Central Europe. In 2021, he was the Hungary Foundation’s visiting research fellow at the University of Notre Dame. Twitter: @TarnokB