October 6, 2023
Regardless of the eventual shape of Slovakia’s official foreign policy, the potential dominance of pro-Kremlin figures in the new government should not be overlooked in NATO’s eastern flank. It is a development that warrants the West’s vigilance and concern.
The recent parliamentary elections in Slovakia have shown that the West has good reasons to pay close attention to the small Central European country’s political developments. Former communist and pro-Kremlin figure Robert Fico has emerged victorious, and the path he takes as next prime minister of Slovakia could have far-reaching implications for the region. The power of Russian propaganda in Slovakia played an important role during the campaign and contributed to Fico’s electoral success.
But the Socialist politician’s journey back to power is not without its challenges,
as he now needs at least two coalition partners to form a government.
During his campaign, Fico signalled a significant shift in foreign policy, echoing anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric. Yet, the direction Slovakia takes on the international stage will largely hinge on his former colleague, Peter Pellegrini, the leader of the social-democrat HLAS-SD party, which came in third in the elections and holds a crucial role in the coalition negotiations.
Official election results reveal that Robert Fico’s populist SMER-SD party secured 22.9 per cent of the vote, while the liberal and pro-Western Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, his main challenger, garnered 17.9 per cent. Peter Pellegrini’s HLAS-SD, composed of former social-democrat politicians who split from Fico’s SMER-SD in 2020, claimed third place with 14.7 per cent. Four other political parties also managed to enter the Slovak parliament, including Igor Matovic’s OLaNO, the traditional conservative KDH party, the libertarian and centre-right SAS party, and the nationalistic Slovak National Party (SNS).
With SMER-SD failing to secure a sufficient parliamentary majority on its own, Fico must now seek coalition partners. To achieve this, he needs a minimum of 76 seats in the Slovak parliament, while SMER-SD only holds 42 seats. Given that his primary election rival was Progressive Slovakia, and he campaigned to oust the 2020 government, in which OlaNO and SAS also participated, Fico’s options are limited.
The conservative KDH party has already ruled out cooperation with him.
Thus, Fico’s remaining options lie with two parties, both of which he needs to secure a parliamentary majority: HLAS-SD, led by Peter Pellegrini, a moderate-left party with 27 seats, and the pro-Russian radical right SNS party, which has ten seats.
Peter Pellegrini is poised to be the kingmaker, given his significant number of seats, providing him with substantial bargaining power during coalition negotiations. He has not ruled out the possibility of joining centre-right forces after the election.
In theory, a liberal, strongly pro-Western government could be formed
with Progressive Slovakia, HLAS-SD, libertarian SAS, and conservative KDH, totalling 82 seats. Consequently, Fico must persuade Pellegrini to assist in forming a three-party populist government with a fundamentally Western-sceptic stance, rather than joining a four-party centre-right and pro-Western coalition.
Considering their past affiliations and collaborations, it is likely that Pellegrini and Fico will reach an agreement. Nevertheless, a critical distinction between them lies in their foreign policy orientation. While Fico openly embraced a pro-Kremlin foreign policy in recent years, Pellegrini is staunchly committed to Slovakia’s Western alignment. Any deal between them may involve Fico maintaining his pro-Russian rhetoric for the sake of his voters, while substantive foreign policy decisions in the EU and the transatlantic alliance may remain unchanged.
Fico capitalized on the rising anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments in Slovakia to secure his victory.
also reflect his symbolic pro-Russian policy. In 2020, according to a Globsec Trends survey, 78 per cent of Slovaks considered Russia their Slavic ‘brother nation’. Another Globsec survey from 2023 indicated that half of Slovaks held Ukraine or the West responsible for the war, with only 40 per cent attributing responsibility to Russia.
But can Pellegrini maintain Slovakia’s Western course despite Fico’s symbolic pro-Russian gestures? Another potential ally in the upcoming populist government, Andrej Danko, is also a vocal supporter of Russia. In 2019, Danko said that ‘the Russian Federation is an example of how nations and nationalities can coexist together, and Russia greatly contributes to the preservation of world peace.’ Well, almost. He also argued against imposing sanctions against Russia, and stressed that he ‘will not renounce Russia’.
Slovakia’s history has seen disasters during periods when Fico aligned with the Slovak National Party. The period between 2016 and 2020 is often referred to as the era of the ‘mafia government,’ marked by Fico’s anti-Western shift, especially after his removal from office in 2018. Investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were tragically murdered during this time. Kuciak exposed how deeply the Slovak police, justice system, and politicians were colluding with criminals, including the Italian mafia. Andrej Danko’s pro-Russian sentiments were prominent during his tenure as Speaker of the Slovak Parliament.
Another dark chapter in Slovak history occurred between 2006 and 2010 when Fico governed with Ján Slota, then-president of SNS, and Vladimir Mečiar, who earlier madeSlovakia the ‘black hole’ of the region.
This government pursued a chauvinistic policy against the Hungarian minority,
whipping up anti-Hungarian sentiments in Slovakia. Up to this date, Fico is one of the less-liked Slovak politicians among ethnic Hungarians in the country, and most probably Fico will be hostile to Hungarians in his new term too.
The political strategy behind Fico’s victory in Slovakia this year rested on pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments. It remains uncertain whether Pellegrini can rein in Fico’s tendencies. Regardless of the eventual shape of Slovakia’s official foreign policy, the potential dominance of pro-Kremlin figures in the new government should not be overlooked in NATO’s eastern flank. It is a development that warrants the West’s vigilance and concern.
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