Topoľčany, Slovakia

Zita took pride in joining the European Union two decades ago, seeing it as a symbol of Slovakia’s new freedom. But now she is frightened. “I want a better future for the next generation. But I fear we will go back to the old ways. I fear that democracy, everything is in danger.” She knew what it was like to grow up under communism, remembers the infamous Soviet invasion in 1968 and describes how entering the European Union was a symbol of overturning that regime. Now, Slovakia faces a similar crossroads, split over the Ukraine war, and forced to choose between supporting the EU-Nato alliance or Putin’s invasion.

It is a decision that has split Zita’s family. She tells me, through tears, how her family is split like the country by issues at core of this vote. She has fallen out with her sister who backed Moscow in the war with neighbouring Ukraine, while she assists a refugee from Bakhmut. Her distress as we talked in Topoľčany, a small town best known for its brewery, personifies the tensions ahead of an election in this small country.

A Nato member, little Slovakia is, at present, among Kyiv’s staunchest supporters, rushing to supply air-defence missiles and fighter jets at the beginning of the invasion. But as the war has progressed, the country has become a test-bed for Kremlin disinformation. The polls remain tight, with the progressives taking a narrow lead yesterday, but many still anticipate the election of a pro-Russian populist. And whichever way the result falls, this contest represents a major challenge to the European consensus on the Ukraine war — and a further inroad for the continent’s rampant radical-Right.

Robert Fico, leader of the Slovakian Social Democracy (Smer) party, is the moving force behind all this, and a politician who stretches pragmatism to its limit. He was born in Topoľčany, trained as a lawyer and joined the Communists. But, after leaving their successor party, Fico posed as a “Third Way” progressive centrist in the vein of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at a time when Slovakia, led by an autocrat with connections to organised crime, was seen as Europe’s democratic laggard. This ushered him into power as prime minister and he ran the country for a decade. Then his second government collapsed in 2018, after mass protests following the murder of Ján Kuciak — a journalist investigating state corruption and government ties to the Italian mafia — and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová shook the capital.

Five years on, Fico has shrugged off attempts to tie him to the contract killing and stands on the threshold of power, having reinvented himself as an ultra-populist. After blaming George Soros for his downfall, he then exploited the struggles of his successors to cope with the pandemic, inflation and soaring energy prices. Today, he rails against green measures and migrants, rants about the threat of LGBT “ideology” and regurgitates Putin’s propaganda. “The war in Ukraine didn’t start yesterday or last year. It began in 2014 when the Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk,” he told a cheering crowd in Topoľčany last month.

Fico’s platform opposes EU sanctions on Moscow, seeks to end Slovakia’s military aid for Ukraine and stop Kyiv from joining Nato, and pushes for a peace deal that would let Putin keep occupied land. One former defence minister calls him a “Trojan horse” for the Kremlin. Others suggest he is being aided by Viktor Orbán in neighbouring Hungary, and Fico has been heavily promoted on state media there, which is watched by Slovakia’s sizeable Hungarian minority. Many Slovaks are concerned the Smer leader might follow the same path as the pugnacious Hungarian populist. And he certainly admires Orbán, according to Aneta Vilagi, a political scientist at Comenius University. “They are good political friends who understand they can help each other out,” she told me. “It would be useful for Orbán to have a similar voice with the same policies in the EU and Nato, while for Fico this shows you can be a member of the EU without being a cheerleader for the West.”

She sees Fico — a former academic at her university — as a threat to democracy. Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a think tank in Bratislava, believes that he wants to reduce space for political competition. “His number two has said freedom and peace come from the east, war comes from the west. But his main motivation is to protect himself after being officially named in three criminal investigations. He wants to gain power to change the law enforcement procedures.”

The day after I arrived in Bratislava there was a vivid demonstration of the passions aroused in this election. Igor Matovič, another former prime minister, drove up to a Smer campaign event in a pick-up truck emblazoned with the slogan “we will not hand you over to the mafia”. His protest was aimed at Fico’s ally Robert Kalinak, a central figure in the 2018 scandal. Matovič, an anti-graft campaigner who won the subsequent election but proved ill-suited to government, shouted that the ex-interior minister was a mafioso as the pair traded punches and kicks. “They’ve dragged Slovak politics to a new low,” despaired one prominent liberal politician.

This unruly confrontation was the perfect illustration of the intense feelings Fico stirs up. “I have never voted for Fico and never will vote for him — he robbed the state,” said Lucas, 39, a travel agent I met in Bratislava’s Old Town. “I’m even thinking of moving out of Slovakia because the politics is terrible, the corruption is terrible, the government is terrible.” Another woman told me she did not want to have children under his leadership. “I feel very sad he is coming back,” said Katerina, 35, a former flight attendant. “Everything he says is a lie or just populism, picking on topics of no importance for our people. I worry about democracy and freedom. I think it is going to go worse than Hungary.”

It is common to hear cynicism about politicians and see divisions in democratic societies. In this post-Communist country, these have been compounded by the turnover of four prime ministers in four years, with one poll indicating fewer than half the population now view liberal democracy as good for the nation. “I don’t know who to vote for because I don’t think anyone in the election deserves to represent our country,” said one resident in Topoľčany. Another voter there put it more bluntly: “They’re all dickheads who don’t think about the country at all.”

But some voters regard Fico as the solution. A few grudgingly told me they would back him because he was more competent than his successors, despite the corruption. “I will not support him directly but will back another party that will be in coalition since there has been so much going wrong over the last few years,” said Peter, a driver, before adding ruefully that there seemed to be “a lot of sudden animosity among our people”. The only person I spoke to who sounded enthusiastic was Lubonir, 60, a member of Fico’s party. “I see problems everywhere. We need to build it back up.” When pressed, the warehouse worker echoed Fico, claiming that the war was not a European conflict since it was really being fought between Russia and the United States. “I support helping Ukraine but not with weapons,” he added.

It might seem strange to find this approach in a country that was invaded by Moscow within living memory (even if Putin did say helpfully earlier this month that “it was a mistake” to send tanks into Czechoslovakia). Lurking in the background, however, is the dark shadow of Russian disinformation, which began targeting Slovakia after the 2014 theft of Crimea and assault on Donbas. “We saw the aim: to manipulate public opinion,” said Dominika Hajdu, policy director at the Centre for Democracy and Resilience at Globsec, a Bratislava-based research group. “It started with Ukraine but developed to divide society over democracy, the West, Nato or the migration crisis. Since the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has again become the central and polarising issue.”

Hajdu said they had seen an eruption of online sites recycling Kremlin propaganda. Entrepreneurial locals saw an opportunity, whether paid directly by Moscow or from advertising revenues, which were thought to be worth up to €71,500 a month for the most popular sites. One contributor to a prominent channel was caught on camera being paid by a Russian defence attaché, who said: “I told Moscow you are a good guy, that you have many friends, the Slovak mafia.” Another contributor to the site who wrote under a Slovakian name was found to be Russian. In Crimea, a prominent Russian news outlet set up a Slovak-language site.

And beyond the Soviet Union, there is a lingering sentimental attachment to Moscow dating back to a 19th-century pan-Slavic movement. One Globsec study in 2018 found that Slovaks were more likely than Czechs, Hungarians or Poles to look back favourably at the Soviet Union. Another revealed that half of them see the US as a security risk, a figure that has risen sharply in recent years. A poll taken across Eastern and Central Europe this year found only 40% of Slovaks blame Putin for the war, with one in four of them retaining a positive view of Russia’s despot, while half think either Ukraine or the West are “primarily responsible”.

“Slovakia is a big success for Russian propaganda with the Slovak audience very susceptible to its disinformation,” said Tomáš Strážay, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. “They see Slovakia as a weak spot in Nato and Europe. Even in Hungary there is stronger support for Nato. Russia is using this opportunity.” Yet Strazay also blames domestic politicians for failing to promote liberal European values in a nation still building its statehood, saying that they simply see Brussels as “a cash machine” providing eight in every 10 euros of their public spending.

The toxicity of debate has already led Slovakia’s first female president to opt out of re-election next year. Zuzana Čaputová, an environmental activist, strong supporter of Ukraine and the most trusted politician in the country, won the post in wake of the 2018 post-assassination protests. It is largely ceremonial but appoints top judges, oversees the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament. Three months ago, Čaputová said she would not run again after receiving death threats and worrying about her family. Last week she declared that she was suing Fico over his false claims that she is an “American agent” and Soros stooge. “Making someone a target with hateful lies has cost people’s lives already in Slovakia,” she said.

The schism over Ukraine is deep, but there are widely shared concerns over issues such as education, globalisation, governance and inequality that Fico exploits with skill. He is part of a continent-wide tide of anti-establishment populism on Left and Right that last year attracted almost one-in-three voters participating in elections. Yet he has provoked intense speculation among Western diplomats over his real aims. One predicted he would be “a thorn in the side for Nato”, joining “the awkward squad with Orbán”. This envoy added that there had been a belief in the West that Eastern and Central Europe were “safe and democratic” although the rule of law was still taking root in some nations. “Russia has seen this and knows they are in play.”

Much depends on the the number of parties reaching the 5% threshold needed to win seats, since this will determine the shape of any governing coalition. And if he wins, Fico might re-adopt his previous strategy of strong rhetoric against Brussels and Washington at home while soothing allies abroad. But one thing is for sure: the world has greatly changed from when he was last in office in 2018.

Before leaving Bratislava, I meet Meseznikov, the Russian-born and Jewish analyst who runs the Institute for Public Affairs. “Just look around us here in this square and you see a Western nation,” he said with a sweep of his arm. “We are in the happiest time in our history in our region. We live in free societies, the borders are open, we can travel, there is freedom, we are members of Nato and the EU. There is a stable life in an area that has seen so many battles, ethnic cleansing, really bad social conditions. Sure, there are problems, some groups of people do not enjoy such good lives, voters have seen chaotic government — but these are the best of times. Sadly, now we face Putin with his crazy and destructive ideas — and the ugly politics of Fico.” But the question to be answered on Saturday is: does Slovakia agree?

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