Ukraine and Central Europe

3. 6. 2024 / Jan Čulík

čas čtení 37 minut
My talk today will be about the war in Ukraine only indirectly. I am going to talk about the situation in two Central European countries to the west of Ukraine and about the deteriorating situation there which seems to directly influence the level of support that these countries are willing and able to give to Ukraine.

(This is a lecture which Jan Čulík gave to the Scotland-Russia Forum in Edinburgh on Thursday 30th May 2024. This aggregate piece also uses material from the Czech STEM polling agency as well as material written by our editors Albín Sybera and Bohumil Kartous.)

 

Everyone knows about the moves to authoritarianism in Hungary under Viktor Orbán, who has become a Putin asset in Central Europe and in the European Union. Less is known or was known, until the recent attack against the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, about Slovakia and its attitude towards Ukraine, the Putin war and the European Union.

Like Hungary, Slovakia also borders on Ukraine. Originally, ordinary people in Slovakia provided a large amount of assistance to Ukrainian refugees moving to the West. Recently the situation has changed.

Slovakia is a real problem because about 40 per cent of the Slovak population is now convinced that the Ukrainian war is the fault of the West. The situation in the Czech Republic is more stabilised, although even there, there is now a vociferous anti-Ukrainian populist movement, supported by some 14 per cent of the population.

While I would say that the situation in Slovakia is serious, almost as bad as in Hungary, nevertheless, in Slovakia, there exists a strong pro-democratic and pro-Western movement, the so called Progressive Slovakia, which has recently had electoral support of around 20 per cent, the same as Fico‘s populist right and left-wing party Smer.

Remarkably, there is no such movement in the Czech Republic. With the exception of a small, junior party the so called Pirate Party in the ruling right of centre coalition, there is absolutely no left wing party in the Czech Republic now. The political scene is dominated by an anti-Ukrainian populist political party Ano run by oligarch Andrej Babiš, who will probably win the next election. The ruling right of centre coalition of five political parties called Spolu (Together) (ODS, TOP 09, Pirates, KDU, STAN) feel safe that they do not need to change their policies in any way because pro-democratic pro-Western voters have no one else to vote for. 

But their policies are highly unpopular, primarily because the general public is impoverished, just like in the UK, and the Spolu coalition supports Czech oligarchs, who have basically turned their country into their property. No windfall taxes for them. Income tax in the Czech Republic is 15 per cent, if you earn more than 140 000 Czech crowns per month, which is 4700 pounds per month, you pay an extra „solidarity tax“ of 7 per cent. 

Czech oligarch Křetínský, who owns a large number of highly polluting power stations in Central Europe and in Germany, has made so much money from the energy price rises during the Ukrainian war that he is now expanding to Western Europe and amongst other things is now about to gain control of the UK Post Office. 

The ruling right of centre Spolu coalition is run by Professor Petr Fiala, what many people still think is a relatively decent political scientist from Brno University, but he is weak and his coalition government has basically been taken over by various mafioso characters from the 1990s, when the Czech Republic was run by Václav Klaus‘s Civic Democratic Party. Klaus has in the meantime become a pro-Russian asset who also supports the German party Alternative fuer Deutschland and is strongly against any anti-global warming measures.

Incidentally, Fiala‘s government is an absolutely uncritical supporter of Israel in its genocidal war in Gaza. The Czech Republic under his leadership has repeated voted to block all the calls for a ceasefire in Gaza in the United Nations, being usually only one of two European countries to do so (the other country being Hungary).

The Czech Republic is being deeply destabilised by bailiff culture. This is something that was brought about by the previous populist Czech President Miloš Zeman, who was instrumental, around the year 2000, in the institution of private baliffs. These have thrown around one million, i.e. about 10 per cent, of the Czech population into penury, by charging them exorbitant private bailiff fees for often absolutely minimal debts. These people have had their official wages blocked and have been forced into an informal, black economy. There are large swades of the Czech Republic, especially in the north and the west, that have been affected by the bailiff dictatorship. It has had a destabilising influence on the country, because of course these disenfrenchised and impoverished people vote for the extremist, populist parties. The ruling coalition, run by the ODS, will not act against the bailiffs because many of its politicians have direct financial benefits from exploiting the population.

There is an absolute contrast in the Czech Republic between the attitude of the ruling right of centre coalition, which is strongly pro-Ukrainian, and the views in the populist parties and the general public. The Fiala coalition government has developed an international initiative the aim of which is to provide Ukraine with grenades for the artillery. While this initiative has been given considerable attention in the Czech media, I have been told by Czech arms sellers that Europe is basically incapable of manufacturing gunpowder, which is needed for the making of artillery grenades, so that apparently this whole Fiala initiative is nonsense. We have an Czech analyst in Kiev who said this week that while finally, some munition is now arriving from the United States, he certainly has not heard anything about the Czech munition initiative, although it is possible that these things are secret.

What is maybe slightly worrying is that the Czech government is also talking these days about the repatriation of Ukrainian refugees. In May, it approved a law helping financially those refugees who want to go back to Ukraine, it will pay their bus fares. The Czech government insists that this is not forced repatriation. To date, some 430 Ukrainian refugees have decided to go back. There are some 340 000 Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic now. Apparently about 10 per cent of them are thinking of going back. On the other hand, the Czech government wants to consider giving a more permanent residence permit to those Ukrainian refugees who can work, who can support themselves financially and are not dependent on Czech social welfare. There have been critical voices in the Czech Republic who point out that the country has not been terribly good at supporting highly qualified Ukrainian refugees, such as doctors and scientists, in finding appropriate work for them. There is a language barrier. Czech President Petr Pavel, whom many people regard as being pro-Western, although as a young man he joint the communist party in order to pursue a career in the then communist army, has called for a ceasefire in Ukraine recently. That has produced quite a debate in the Czech Republic, since the government is strongly for defeating Russia.

While, as I am saying, the Czech government strongly supports Ukraine in its efforts to win the war and reclaim its territory, this attitude is not particularly strongly reflected in the Czech public. Let me quote from a report by the STEM opinion poll agency:

Czech society is divided on the topic of support for Ukrainian refugees. The perception of Russia as the main culprit of the war is not diminishing.

Two thirds of Czech society still consider Russia to be the clear culprit of the war. But support for Ukraine in the war conflict is lukewarm, with most of the public wanting the Czech Republic to work towards ending the war as soon as possible, even if it means Ukraine losing some Russian-occupied territories. Ukrainian refugees are a divisive issue for the Czech public. About half of the public (51%) supports their continued stay in the country, while the other half is opposed. Support for Ukrainian refugees has not declined much over time, but the attitudes of some of those who oppose the refugees have become more pronounced.

The majority of the public (79%) already have some experience of Ukrainian refugees of their own that they can evaluate. Only 18% of the public rate their experience as predominantly negative, yet 43% say their attitudes towards refugees from Ukraine have worsened since the start of the war. In any case, refugees from Ukraine are a highly divisive issue for the Czech public. About half of the public (51%) supports their continued stay in the country, while the rest are opposed. Support for Ukrainian refugees has not declined much over time, but the attitudes of some of those who oppose the refugees have become more pronounced.

Two-thirds of the public now rate their attitude towards Russia on a school scale with the two worst scores of 4 or 5. This is the worst rating of any of the nearly thirty countries surveyed. Similarly, two-thirds of the public definitely or more likely agree with the statement that Russia is clearly the culprit in the war. The remaining one-third disagree somewhat or definitely; on closer inspection, we see that about 20 p.p. of these are doubters who relativise Russia's guilt and have a relatively strong tendency to believe the Russian narrative, and about 15 p.p. are people who clearly lean towards Russia in their interpretation of the conflict and have a strong tendency to believe it. Of these, only about 4 percentage points are people who would like to see the Czech Republic back in Russia's sphere of influence.

But predominantly negative attitudes towards Russia do not imply strong support for Ukraine in its defence efforts. In fact, the Czech public is rather passive and closed-minded on this issue, not feeling much of a role in military support for the invaded state. Just over a third of the public, when offered two options, leaned towards the view that "the Czech Republic should support Ukraine in regaining lost territory, even though this may prolong the conflict." The remaining nearly two-thirds leaned towards the position that "the Czech Republic should seek a quick end to the conflict, even though this may mean that Russia will be left with some Ukrainian territory".

Attitudes towards the war in Ukraine are more related to educational attainment and material resources than to people's age or gender. People with higher education and those better off materially are more likely to prefer the possibility of the Czech Republic supporting Ukraine in regaining lost territories. However, attitudes towards the war are most strongly associated with voting behaviour.

"While among voters of the ruling parties, about 70% of those who would like the Czech Republic to support Ukraine in regaining lost territories even at the cost of a possible prolongation of the conflict, among voters of the parliamentary opposition only less than a fifth have this attitude."

Attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees

At the outset of the war, a clear majority of respondents (70% in March 2022) said it was right to accept the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled to us from an invaded Ukraine. In the summer of 2022, approval of taking in these refugees may have dropped a little, but from then until now, approval rates have remained between 55% and 60%.

By September 2023 the public was already split almost exactly 50-50 on this issue.

Less well represented, however, is the position that Ukrainian refugees who have fled to us from the invaded Ukraine should be given the opportunity to remain here after the war is over. Only about 40% of the public think this, while about 60% are against it.

According to the public, the worst impact of the arrival of Ukrainian refugees has been on the availability of places in kindergartens and schools. Two thirds think that the availability of places in kindergartens and schools has worsened. The rest cannot assess the situation. Only slightly less negatively do people also assess the impact of the arrival of refugees on the availability of housing and on security and crime. In both cases, about 60% of respondents believe that the arrival of Ukrainian refugees has caused a deterioration in these areas.

Personal experience with Ukrainians in different contexts (neighbourhood, work/school, public life and services, etc.) is now a quite common experience that is shared to some extent by the majority of the Czech public. Similarly, people often describe their contact with Ukrainians as mostly positive (23%) as mostly negative (18%). Most people (38%) rate their contacts with Ukrainians overall as mixed (similarly positive and negative).

Slovakia

The Czech problems with the attitudes to the Ukrainian war are much more pronounced in Slovakia, not only due to the fact that the Slovak government and Slovak President are now pro-Russian. There seem to be a much greater division between the urbane and the countryside population. Also, while the Czech citizens are also victims of disinformation and fake news, like everyone everywhere, in Slovakia, the problem of the impact of disinformation is particularly serious. For instance, many people in Slovakia did not believe that covid exists and many Slovaks rejected the covid vaccines, even people in the government.

In Slovakia, forty-three percent of respondents believe that the number of deaths from covid was artificially inflated. 40 percent agree that the pandemic is part of a push for global mandatory vaccination. Only 44 per cent of Slovaks were vaccinated against covid. Peter Kotlár, a member of parliament for the ruling Slovak National Party, an opponent of vaccinations and a covid pandemic investigation tsar for Prime Minister Robert Fico's government (Smer), claims that one of the vaccines for covid-19 was a placebo.

Slovakia has a problem with its identity. At a BASEES Czech day at Bristol University last week, one Slovak PhD student, who is researching the identity of Slovak families living in the UK confirmed that they have a problem with defining their identity. After the destruction of the Great Moravian Empire by the arrival of Hungarians in 906, Slovakia became a part of Hungary, which ruled in for a thousand years, until 1918, when Czechoslovakia was founded. In the last decades of Hungarian rule, Slovakia was hungarised and there were also no Slovak speaking middle classes. This is why a large number of Czech teachers were sent to Slovakia after 1918 to help the Slovaks, the Czech and Slovak languages are very similar, but of course it created negative feelings amongst some Slovak. The first time that Slovakia became independent was during the Second World War, when however it became a fascist state, dependent on Nazi Germany. The Nazi Slovakia distinguished itself by sending all the Slovak Jews to Nazi concentration camps out of their own initiative, although no one asked them to do so.

The Slovak PhD student in Bristol last week really grappled with her Slovak identity. She noted that it was a problem was her that no one even knows – or knew, until last week, where Slovakia is, how many inhabitants it has and what it stands for. Then, she was horrified that after the attack against the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, Slovakia suddenly became world famous – but for all the wrong reasons.

In June 1992, the Czech part of Czechoslovakia elected the allegedly right wing, allegedly Thatcherite (in fact really quite strongly post-communist) Prime Minister, head of the Czech Civic Democratic Party Václav Klaus, while Slovakia elected the former communist, head of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, Vladimír Mečiar. This was seen by both politicians as incompative political stances (in fact with hindsight, it is clear that Klaus had much more in common with Mečiar than was believed at the time, as I said, at the moment Klaus is a Russian asset and he supports the German fascist party Alternative fuer Deutschland). Both Klaus and Mečiar dominated Czech and Slovak politics for most of the 1990s. After Mečiar‘s fall in 1998, Slovakia was frequently government by a pro-Western coalition. It joined NATO and the European Union and in 2009, unlike the Czech Republic, Slovakia adopted euro.


Foto: Robert Fico

The current populist left wing and at the same time right wing Prime Minister Robert Fico ruled Slovakia first from 2006. Most recently, the 59-year-old Fico has been in office since October 2023, but also served two previous terms as prime minister, from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018. He founded the Direction–Social Democracy (Smer–SD) party in 1999, and has led that party since its foundation.

Many European countries these days are seriously politically divided, are suffering from populism, the use of fake news and hate speech. Slovakia is very negatively affected by these influences, with its rural population particularly at risk. A recent survey suggested only a minority of the Slovak population agree that Russia is to blame for the war. A large number of Slovaks also believe the COVID pandemic was a scam and that vaccines cause death.

Fico led his party Smer to a landslide election victory in 2012. But by March 2018, a political crisis had engulfed his government following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend. Kuciak had been investigating corruption in the highest circles in Slovak politics, and potential links between Slovakian politicians and the Italian ‘Ndrangheta mafia clan.

Although nothing concrete was found against Fico personally, his handling of the situation caused his coalition partners to withdraw from government and he was forced to resign. In 2022, Fico was charged with organised crime offences but his immunity as a member of parliament saved him from arrest. Fico denied the charges and blamed “criminal structures” in the police for the accusations against him.

A pro-western government took over but its perceived incompetence in handling the COVID pandemic meant that it lost again to Fico in October 2023. Ahead of his election that year, Fico vowed to end military support for Ukraine. And since returning to office, the Fico government has refused to join a Czech-led coalition of about 20 states in procuring military aid for Ukraine. Fico however did not prevent private Slovak armament factories from selling arms to Ukraine.

Relations with the European Union have been tense in this sense, too. Fico has criticised Brussels’ policies on supporting Ukraine, and backed Hungary in its attempts to block an EU aid package for the war effort. He has, however, more recently softened his stance and has insisted he will not block Ukraine’s application to become an EU member state.

On the whole, Fico‘s attitude has been quite ambiguous. When talking to the European Union, he was being much more circumspect, while he and his political allies in Slovakia have been extremely brutal in their public pronouncements.

Fico’s recent domestic policies have been divisive, leading to protests in the streets just weeks before the attempt on his life. An ongoing controversy over Fico’s attempts to crack down on media freedom have triggered demonstrations in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.

All this considered, however, an assassination attempt has been made against an elected leader of a European country. Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, has called for calm and urged the public not to leap to conclusions about the motive for the attack. In a short speech, she said the incident is not only an attack on a person but also on democracy itself. Campaigning for the impending European elections has been suspended. The Slovak situation is now extremely dangerous, and cool heads are needed to avoid an escalation of tension. Even as we speak, attempts are continuing to emasculate Slovak public service media following Orbán‘s example.

Let me quote from an analysis by our author Albín Sybera

Disinformation and fake news

I have mentioned that the Slovak public is particularly vulnerable to succumb to disinformation and fake news. As a result, Slovakia has become a real testing ground for fake news, created even by artificial intelligence. The pernicious impact of fake news has particularly influenced the recent presidential campaign in Slovakia, where the pro-Western democratic presidential candidate was defeated, because his opponent, the Fico puppet Peter Pellegrini destroyed the pro-Western candidate, former diplomat Ivan Korčok because he mendaciously said that if Korčok is elected, he will make sure that Slovak men will be drafted into the army to go to fight against Russia in Ukraine. As our writer Albín Sybera has explained recently:

Slovak presidential campaign showed how populists can dominate the narrative to mobilise support.

The victory of the Slovak parliamentary speaker Peter Pellegrini by close to a 7% margin in April's second-round presidential election run-off was a showcase of populist mobilisation of the electorate using trumped-up fear messages channelled through social media networks.

It also heralds the shrinking media plurality in the country and should serve as yet another warning bell for Europe ahead of the elections to the European Parliament.

“Liberal media, NGOs fed from abroad, the whole Slovak progressive world suffered a serious defeat,” populist Prime Minister Robert Fico declared on his Facebook page in his regular address Co sa nezmestilo na tlacovku [What hasn’t fit into the presser] on Sunday, April 8, soon after the news of Pellegrini’s victory.

“A majority of people, as in the parliamentary elections, rejected boundless support of the war in Ukraine […] and violent pushing of controversial ethical themes to the Slovak public [which is] built on wholly different values and traditions,” Fico said in his interpretation of the result.

Pellegrini’s victory by a bigger than expected margin was due to a huge mobilisation of the electorate of the left-right government and defeated far-right fringe candidates, using social media to play up fears over the war in next door Ukraine. This propaganda drive overturned diplomat Ivan Korcok’s strong lead in the first round.

Pellegrini desperately targeted voters of the far-right pro-Kremlin candidate Štefan Harabin by calling for “peace”, despite previously having taken a pro-Western stance. This helped him almost double his vote to 1.4mn, giving him the second highest vote ever in a presidential election with the second highest turnout.

“The big story that is emerging with these numbers is that something happened between the first and second rounds,” Milan Nic, senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told bne IntelliNews straight after the election. “The whole message of the Pellegrini camp changed in between the two rounds,” he added. “The message for Slovakia is that radicalisation works.”

Many commentators and analysts were taken aback by Pellegrini’s brazen and baseless allegations against Korčok, a former pro-Western foreign minister. Using a huge and opaquely funded social media advertising campaign, Pellegrini whipped up fears that Korcok could send Slovak soldiers to fight in Ukraine, even though the opposition candidate did not advocate this and would not have power to do this as president.

“The lie that Ivan Korčok is some kind of warmonger played a key role in the mobilisation of the electorate backing Pellegrini in the second round runoff,” says Ivan Štulajter, correspondent at liberal daily DennikN and former media advisor to former centre-right premier Eduard Heger.

Stulajter told bne Intellinews an account of a pensioner lady who cast a vote for Pellegrini in order to “prevent” Korcok from sending Slovak soldiers to Ukraine. “Using lying narratives and untransparent financing, it is possible to mobilise 1.4mn voters and win elections in Slovakia this way,” Stulajter says.

Believing in fiction

Štulajter argues that a large part of the “electorate is not able to decode the strategies of political parties in power”. Pellegrini succeeded in making a large part of the electorate “believe in fiction”, helped by Fico’s leftist Smer party’s extensive communication network – which includes social media and merges with key narratives circulated in the country’s bustling disinformation and conspiracy scene.

His account is backed up by Eva Mihočková, investigative journalist at Zastavme korupciu anti-corruption NGO and editor at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. “It no longer matters what is factual, but what narrative prevails,” Mihočkova says.

Although Korčok has repeatedly described himself as a moderate conservative, Pellegrini exploited the backing of Korcok by the liberal opposition to brand his opponent as a “progressive liberal.”

In this deliberately crafted message, whipped up by communication networks backing Fico’s left-right cabinet, Pellegrini also claimed that Korčok threatens the welfare state which provides for pensioners and families in need – crucial segments of the ruling coalition’s electorate.

It is far from the first time hoaxes about liberal candidates flooded the Slovak digital domain. Last September, a deep fake video of Michal Šimečka, chairman of the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, portrayed him as claiming his party will introduce an additional levy on beer, just hours before the parliamentary elections in which Smer beat PS by less than 5% margin to return to power.

Since then, Fico has defied the expectations of even seasoned observers who had anticipated Fico would tune down his rhetoric and adopt a more pragmatic approach. Since assuming power in October, his cabinet quickly carried out sweeping staff changes at the police, dismantled the Special Prosecutor Office overseeing high-profile corruption cases, and filed legislative proposals targeting NGOs and seizing control of public broadcaster RTVS.

Despite the country-wide protests that these moves have sparked since December, Smer maintains a narrow lead ahead of PS – by 1.5pp in the Focus poll compiled for the largest commercial television, Markiza, from April 7

Fico has been keeping up the tension in the domestic public discourse by speaking about “anti-Slovak sabotage abroad” in connection to the parliamentary opposition and has described PS as “dangerous people capable of tolerating any filth in the fight against us”. He has even prepared the ground for blaming the opposition for any future cut-off of EU funds because of his violation of EU values.

“We have to count on the punishment of the West for us electing Peter Pellegrini and not Ivan Korcok, who would have deployed entire Slovak battalions to Ukraine without any hesitation,” Fico claimed on Facebook and warned that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the European Commission jumps at our [EU] funds”.

Conspiratorial thinking

To appeal to conservatives of the right and left, since returning to the prime minister’s post Fico, a former communist, did not hesitate to lay flowers at the grave of Cardinal Jan Chrysostom Korec, a hero for numerous Catholic Slovaks, as well as at the grave of the last communist president in Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husák, whose regime persecuted Korec but also still grips many Slovaks with nostalgia.

Fico identifies himself with “Slovak interests,” which resonates with nationalist and conspiracy narratives depicting Slovak national identity and traditions as under alleged threat from “Brussels elites”. Fico is also an ardent promoter of the Matica slovenska heritage institution, which has recently been documented as cooperating with the Russian Historical Society headed by the chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin.

Talking to bne Intellinews, the Slovak Director of the Prague-based Centre for an Informed Society, Andrea Michalcová, described the communication strategies of the current Slovak government as “based on fear, the spread of hoaxes and Russian propaganda”, adding that the “main channels they us are social media, mainly Facebook, Telegram, and disinformation and conspiracy outlets such as [the InfoWars-inspired] Infovojna, E-report and others”.

Michalcová’s assessment is backed by stark figures from the country report by Bratislava-based regional think-tank Globsec, which show that 56% of respondents in Slovakia are “susceptible to believing statements that include conspiratorial thinking and misinformation”, the highest in the region, with only Bulgaria (48%) also near the 50% mark.

Smer’s politicians regularly give interviews to Infovojna and similar outlets. This includes the Smer stalwart and European Parliament candidate Lubos Blaha, who slammed RTVS journalist Marta Janckarova – a Slovak of the Year nominee for her work in the media – as a “progressive-liberal political activist” in his latest appearance at Infovojna on April 16.

In yet another breaking of taboos in domestic politics, Minister of Interior Matus Čutaj Estok from Pellegrini’s centre-left Hlas party appeared at an online discussion hosted by a wanted extremist and conspiracy spreader, Daniel Bombic. Shortly after Šutaj Estok, former police chief and Smer legislator Tibor Gaspar, who faces a criminal investigation in connection to Smer’s previous era in power, also appeared on the online show to which Bombic connects from London, where a court is set to rule over his extradition.

Michalcová pointed out the study project by Gerulata Technologies – a technology company providing tools for fighting disinformation and hostile propaganda – according to which Fico is by far the most popular Slovak politician on Facebook, with his page hitting 6.17mn engagements a year. By comparison, the country’s popular liberal President Zuzana Čaputova’s Facebook page has 1.6mn engagements a year.

Mobilising the villages

Presidential election results also showed the existing division of the Slovak electorate between majority liberal-leaning urban-based voters and more conservative rural voters.

“If the Slovak rural voters mobilise, they will simply outnumber the urban voters,” explained Stulajter. He added that the “mobilisation of Peter Pellegrini’s electorate worked very effectively” in the presidential runoff, in particular, where only two candidates were left, and noted that state media controlled by Viktor Orban’s regime helped mobilise ethnic Hungarians in southern Slovakia.

In a remarkable turn, Pellegrini was also able to collect votes from Slovak-Hungarians despite his hardened nationalist rhetoric. In previous decades Slovak nationalism was strongly anti-Hungarian, and Fico’s populist precursor, Vladimir Mečiar, relied on the anti-Hungarian card to mobilise his own electorate to dominate Slovakia’s first decade of independence in the 1990s.

Support of the government candidate Pellegrini from Slovak-Hungarians appears to confirm the shift of this electorate towards ruling coalition parties led by Smer after systematic backing of Fico and his allies by the Hungarian state. “The Hungarian state media empire was able to turn the Slovak Hungarian electorate,” Zsolt Gal, Slovak-Hungarian lecturer at Bratislava’s Comenius University, told bne Intellinews earlier.

Štulajter highlighted that the turn of the Slovak-Hungarians towards nationalist parties also occurred “paradoxically” as a result of calming of nationalist tensions for which he credits “that liberal democracy that is so despised by Orban and his allies”.

“The narratives about alleged danger from European globalisation and other nonsense [crafted] to hide the kleptocratic nature of regimes [which employ these] is indeed effective and runs through the world, including the USA,” he added.

Controlling the message

As Fico and his cabinet largely boycott the country’s liberal media, instead relying on social media channels, Stulajter explained that public broadcaster RTVS is effectively the last quality nationwide media which can reach the ruling coalition electorate.

“Through RTVS, critical views still reach their [ruling coalition] electorate”, Štulajter went on, adding that many of the pensioners and elderly still lack access to information online or lack the digital skills necessary to access the online world.

Fico’s cabinet caused an uproar among domestic opposition and the journalistic community when it filed a legislative proposal aimed at reconstructing RTVS, which the European Broadcasting Union’s Director General Noel Curran described as a “thinly veiled attempt to turn the Slovak public service broadcaster into state-controlled media”.

Indeed, in his post-election Facebook address, Fico also alleged that his cabinet “needs to solve illegal political activities of RTVS,” building on his previous accusations that RTVS is politically biased against his cabinet.

Moreover, the Markiza channel, another leading news provider in the country, enjoying the second highest trust after RTVS, and controlled by Czech investment group PPF, is “facing pressure from Czech managers who are trying to move Markiza away from critical journalism” and turn it into an entertainment-focused medium, “more friendly for this government”, Štulajter pointed out, adding that a similar process is occurring in another commercial television TV JOJ, controlled by Slovak J&T financial group.

“Perhaps for a few per cent of profit more, you will decide to hammer a nail [into the coffin] of media freedom in Slovakia,” states a March open letter by the Slovak artists, writers and ex-diplomats addressed to the Kellner family, owners of PPF.

When asked whether Slovak liberal opposition and civil society can counter the reach Fico and his cabinet have on social media and allied disinformation channels in Slovakia, Michalcová responded starkly, “At this moment, they cannot”.

“Civil society in Slovakia is not ready to counter the reach of Fico and his cabinet at this moment”, and “this is a big lesson for the Czech Republic”, where the national elections are scheduled for next autumn, Michalcová highlighted.

Before the Czech elections, where populist billionaire Andrej Babiš is eying a comeback to power, the European Parliamentary elections will be a more immediate testing ground as to how much further the propaganda narratives and conspiracies have proliferated.

Although the past weak EP voter turnout has benefited liberal parties in the region, the populist camp is gearing up for a strong performance this time.

Looking ahead to the next election cycles, Štulajter says that the presidential elections in Slovakia “should set a challenge on how to work with voters” who come to believe in Russian-imagined nationalist fiction. Unless progressives and centrists can learn how to counter these narratives among such disgruntled and traditionally conservative voters, their two recent Slovak election defeats could just be the first of many in the region.

Finally, let me quote from a piece by our author Bohumil Kartous, who is summarising the situation after the election of Peter Pellegrini as Slovak president.

Lightning is flashing over Tatra and the brothers completely dismantled the lightning rod

After the presidential elections in Slovakia, the border of security and development in Europe is definitely shifting to the Czech-Slovak border.

Slovakia has experienced the excitement of civil society and the sad fall of the last hope. The usual situation of the last ten years, where one populist government succeeded another, but where a certain sacred patronage of pro-Western democracy was still present in the presidential palace, is over. With Peter Pellegrini, the circle of power fully dominated by Robert Fico, a shameless and completely transparent Kremlin collaborator, has closed. Even a representative head of state will no longer in any way counterbalance the onslaught of brutal suppression of democratic principles that is taking place in Slovakia under Fico's dictatorship.

The political representatives of the current Slovak government are obscure figures of the disinformation scene or political populism, led by the figure of the extreme populist Fico. There are blatant attempts to subjugate the media (not only the public services) and to pass off as a 'foreign agent' anyone who receives financial support from abroad while not conforming to the current political direction of the Slovak Government. Law enforcement agencies are paralysed, as are the intelligence services. Orbán's instructions, inspired by Russia, are being implemented in Slovakia in record time. And now, from the sacred office of the President, a 'buffoon' will be watching over it all from the sacred office of the President, facilitating the way and explaining to the Slovaks that everything is being done in their interests. Pellegrini, after all, already promised this in his first speech after the votes were counted in the elections.

Incidentally, he never once mentioned the EU or NATO, even though Slovakia is heavily dependent on these structures. On the EU economically, because Slovakia does not have an independent and self-sustaining economy, and on NATO security-wise, because Slovakia has not even the slightest guarantee of its own security at any level. That is, if it is still true that Slovakia wants to link its security to the North Atlantic security structure, because the rhetoric of the current government, which will now be actively seconded by the President, sounds as if Slovakia is about to apply to join the Russian Federation.

The defeated pro-Western candidate Ivan Korčok, in his own speech, stressed that Slovakia needs to be fixed because everything is wrong. Everything is wrong, but those who are leading Slovakia to deepen its destruction have all the necessary tools to fix it. Where it will lead is unclear at the moment, but from conversations with Slovak insiders who follow political events in the country and have Fico on their radar, one cannot rule out in principle any catastrophic scenario, including a drive to abandon the structures on which Slovakia is totally dependent.

Slovakia seems to be lost for at least a few years and nothing can be done about it, at least not from within. It has lost the last, at least symbolic, corrective, which could have at least slowed down the country's fall into a state of active dismantling of democratic mechanisms and servility towards Russia on an almost "Olympic" level. It is yet another example of how democracy can reliably damage itself.

But it is not just the internal state of Slovakia whose citizens will have to bear the consequences of the decisions of the majority, or rather the political and cultural disposition of that majority. It is also about security outside Slovakia, because if Slovakia is important in anything, it is its location between the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. Indeed, in the context of Russia's unfavourably developing offensive war against Ukraine, Slovakia's position is becoming crucial for its neighbours and NATO partners.

Russia will clearly be expanding its territory of direct and indirect influence, with Ukraine, whose independence Putin has openly questioned, wanting to rob it of as much territory as possible and attempt a political coup in the rest. However, any other country in which Russia can exert even indirect influence will clearly be used for that purpose. And Slovakia, through Fico, has actively signed up to this role without being forced. As one Slovak journalist said, and I quote: "it has stuck its head in the ground, pulled down its trousers and hopes that Russia will use lubricant."

Slovakia cannot be relied upon as a security partner in its current state. Nor do the existing formal partners rely on it, just as they have been cautious about Hungary for some time. You can't negotiate procedures on sensitive security issues when you have the Kremlin's ear in the negotiations. This parasitic state of affairs cannot be sustained in the long term, and Russia understandably knows this. Fico's idea that he might be able to prevent Russia from seeking other possible avenues for hostile actions against the EU and the West by his devotion is completely misguided. Fico has voluntarily become Putin's puppet and Putin will exploit this with the utmost contempt. He is very likely to infiltrate Slovakia with intelligence activities and make it another base for the Kremlin's criminal regime.

But this will shift the security frontier in Europe to the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. What this will mean in practice depends on further developments in NATO and the EU and an assessment of the current situation. However, it is necessary to acknowledge this fact and to start basing our considerations on the fact that we now have a very volatile neighbour that has completely given in to the greatest security threat of our time.

As a selfish Czech, I could rejoice at the state of Slovakia when the exodus of the young and able, which I pointed out some time ago, has already begun to strengthen and when thousands of young people are beginning to arrive in the Czech Republic. I am not rejoicing. As a person whose roots partly come from Slovakia, as a person born in Czechoslovakia and as a Czech, I feel the great despair of my friends at the state Slovakia has got into. And it should be a great warning to everyone in Europe and NATO how quickly a democratic country can slip into a state of direct threat to its partners and neighbours. Lesson learned.

To sum it up in one sentence: Slovaks seem to have decided that Putin is a threat for them so they have to give up to him.



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Obsah vydání | 6. 6. 2024