MICHALOVCE, Slovakia — A populist former prime minister whose occasion is favored to win Slovakia’s early parliamentary election plans to reverse the nation’s navy and political assist for neighboring Ukraine, in a direct problem to the European Union and NATO, if he returns to energy.
Robert Fico, who led Slovakia from 2006 to 2010 and once more from 2012 to 2018, is the frontrunner to occupy the prime minister’s workplace after the Sept. 30 election. He and his left-wing Route, or Smer, occasion have campaigned on a transparent pro-Russian and anti-American message.
His candidacy is a part of a wider pattern throughout Europe. Solely Hungary has an overtly pro-Russian authorities, however in different nations, together with Germany, France, and Spain, populist events skeptical of intervention in Ukraine command important assist. Many of those nations have nationwide or regional elections arising that would tip the stability of fashionable opinion away from Kyiv and in direction of Moscow.
“If Smer is a part of the federal government, we gained’t ship any arms or ammunition to Ukraine anymore,” Fico, who at the moment holds a seat in Slovakia’s parliament and is thought for foul-mouthed tirades in opposition to journalists, mentioned in an interview with The Related Press earlier than a latest marketing campaign rally.
Fico, 59, additionally opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions the Ukrainian navy’s capability to power out the invading Russian troops and needs to make use of Slovakia’s membership in NATO to dam Ukraine from becoming a member of. His return to energy could lead on Slovakia to desert its democratic course in different methods, following the trail of Hungary beneath Prime Minister Viktor Orban and to a lesser extent, Poland beneath the Legislation and Justice occasion.
The small Central European nation created in 1993 following the breakup of Czechoslovakia has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded greater than 18 months in the past. Slovakia was the second NATO member to agree to provide its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Kyiv and likewise donated an S-300 air protection system.
However it additionally has seen public belief in liberal democracy and Western organizations decline to a larger extent than different elements of the area that shook off a long time of Soviet domination.
In keeping with a March survey commissioned by the Bratislava-based Globsec suppose tank, a majority of Slovak respondents, 51%, consider the West or Ukraine are chargeable for the warfare. Half noticed the US as posing a safety risk for his or her nation, up from 39% in 2022. Of the eight nations surveyed, Slovaks have been by far probably the most distrustful of the U.S.; Bulgaria was a distant second with 33% and Hungary third on 25%.
“Now we have a giant downside,” Katarina Klingova, a senior analysis fellow at Globsec’s Middle for Democracy and Resilience, mentioned.
The survey was performed in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Every of the eight Central and Jap European nations had 1,000 respondents, and the survey findings had a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.
Solely 48% of Slovaks think about liberal democracy good for his or her nation, the second-lowest end result after Lithuania (47%).
In February 2022, Slovakia opened its borders to Ukrainian refugees, in addition to sending arms to Kyiv. Nonetheless, many Slovaks nonetheless have a comfortable spot for his or her Russian Slavonic brothers and sisters and are grateful for the Pink Military for liberating the nation on the finish of WWII. Russian disinformation operations have additionally performed their half: pro-Moscow propaganda is now widespread within the Slovak media.
The views mirrored within the Globsec survey replicate frustration following the chaotic tenure of a center-right coalition authorities that collapsed in December and a pro-Russian disinformation marketing campaign that intensified after the invasion of Ukraine, Klingova mentioned.
“Various native politicians have adopted the narratives and terminology of the Russian propaganda,” and amplified its affect, she mentioned. Fico, whose occasion additionally campaigns in opposition to immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, is amongst them.
In his interview with the AP, he maintained that no quantity of Western weapons going to Ukraine would change the course of the warfare. He mentioned the European Union and the US ought to use their affect to power Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal.
“It’s naive to suppose that Russia would go away Crimea,’’ Fico mentioned, referring to the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. “It’s naive to suppose that Russia would ever abandon the territory it controls” in Ukraine.
Fico was talking in Michalovce, a small city close to Slovakia’s border with Ukraine. Not distant lies town of Uzhhorod, one of many principal border crossings for freight and people. Within the spring of 2022, 1000’s of Ukrainian refugees entered Slovakia right here, whereas humanitarian help — and typically international fighters — flowed the opposite method.
Extra lately, shipments of Ukrainian grain have crossed the border, a lot to the unhappiness of native farmers, who say it’s undercutting their markets. When an EU deal to maintain Ukrainian grain in transit and out of native markets lapsed earlier this month, Slovakia mentioned it could lengthen its personal ban on imports till the top of the yr.
However concurrently the warfare in Ukraine was driving down grain costs in Europe, it was pushing up the price of vitality. Till the invasion of Ukraine triggered EU sanctions, Russia equipped most of Slovakia’s oil and fuel.
In 2022, inflation rose to 12.13% p.c, pushed by hovering vitality costs. In September 2022, 1000’s joined a protest organized by Fico’s occasion at which he mentioned the federal government’s assist for Ukraine was partially chargeable for the rise in inflation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with backing from his nation’s Western supporters, has dominated out negotiating with Moscow till Russian troops withdraw from his nation. He has additionally pressed NATO to offer a transparent path for his nation’s membership.
At their summit in July, NATO leaders pledged to maintain supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine however supplied no safety beneath the alliance’s safety umbrella. Fico advised the AP he opposes “on precept” placing Ukraine on a membership path, saying, “That will end result within the Third World Struggle.”
Fico’s place might additional complicate Ukraine’s aspirations to affix the alliance. On the summit, NATO allies mentioned that “We will probably be able to increase an invite to Ukraine to affix the alliance when allies agree and situations are met.”
This story, supported by the Pulitzer Middle for Disaster Reporting, is the primary a part of an Related Press sequence masking threats to democracy in Europe.
The previous prime minister and his occasion have proven pro-Russia tendencies throughout their on-off relationship with voters. In 2015, after Russia annexed Crimea, Fico was one of many few European leaders to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to debate enterprise, regardless of EU sanctions.
Nonetheless, Fico in workplace additionally took care to domesticate ties with the U.S. In 2018, he started negotiations on a protection treaty with Washington. The settlement was ratified final yr, however not earlier than Fico had organized a protest the place he advised a crowd of 1000’s that the treaty was “treason.” He mentioned the pact would compromise Slovakia’s sovereignty and provoke Russia – claims rejected by the Slovak and U.S. governments.
Now, Fico repeats the Russian narrative concerning the causes of the Ukraine warfare, together with Putin’s unsupported declare that the present Ukrainian authorities runs a Nazi state from which ethnic Russians dwelling within the nation’s east wanted safety.
“I say it loud and clear and can accomplish that: The warfare in Ukraine didn’t begin yesterday or final yr. It started in 2014. when the Ukrainian Nazis and fascists began to homicide the Russian residents in Donbas and Luhansk,” Fico advised a cheering crowd of supporters in his hometown of Topolcany on Aug 30.
Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a pro-democracy non-governmental group primarily based in Bratislava, mentioned the Fico voters are seeing now’s “probably the most genuine of all his profession” in addition to “the worst and probably the most radical.”
“The place of anti-system forces has by no means been so robust right here since 1989,” Meseznikov mentioned, referring to the yr of Czechoslovakia’s anti-communist Velvet Revolution.
Fico was once extra pragmatic. Throughout his first four-year time period as prime minister, Slovakia was accepted into the EU’s visa-free Schengen Space in 2007 and adopted the euro because the nationwide forex in 2009. Following the autumn of the federal government that changed his, Fico returned to workplace in 2012.
He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2014 and reclaimed the premiership in 2016, however was pressured to resign two years later after the slaying of an investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée.
Shortly earlier than his dying, Kuciak had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and other people near Fico and about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s occasion. The killings prompted main avenue protests and led to the collapse of Fico’s coalition authorities. Fico’s deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini, took over as prime minister.
The scandal-tainted Smer, campaigning on a anti-migrant ticket, misplaced the 2020 election and ended up in opposition with Pellegrini leaving Fico to create a brand new leftist occasion, the Voice. The four-party coalition authorities that took over made combating corruption a key focus.
Dozens of senior officers, law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, politicians and enterprise individuals linked to Smer have been convicted of corruption and different crimes.
Fico himself confronted felony expenses final yr for making a felony group and misuse of energy, however Slovakia’s pro-Russian prosecutor basic stepped in and threw out the indictment.
Nearly all public polls predict Smer will place first within the snap parliamentary election, with about 20% of the vote. Fico would then want the assist of different events with a view to kind a authorities.
He mentioned he hopes to affix forces with the Voice.
An alternative choice could be The Republic, a far-right group at the moment on 5-10% within the polls. The ultra-nationalist Slovak Nationwide Celebration is one other risk.
“His robust motivation is to keep away from felony investigation,” Meseznikov of the Institute for Public Affairs mentioned, including: “His return to energy will probably be an issue for Slovakia in each side.”
Fico threatened to dismiss the investigators on the Nationwide Prison Company and particular prosecutor Daniel Lipsic who examine probably the most severe crimes and corruption after the election.
Fico vowed to “be extra sovereign in expressing my views” however mentioned it’s not his intention to steer his nation out of the EU or NATO.
“The worldwide public ought to know that NATO is at the moment extraordinarily unpopular in Slovakia,” he warned. “If we maintain a referendum at the moment, I can assure that folks would say no to NATO.”
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