Slovak elections this month could see the EU member change course on Ukraine, analysts said, with polls suggesting the next prime minister could be Robert Fico, a Kremlin-friendly populist.
To date, the pro-Western government in Bratislava had shown strong support for the country’s war-torn eastern neighbour, which has been battling a Russian invasion since last year.
Slovakia, a Central European country of 5.4 million people, was the first NATO nation to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine.
But opinion surveys indicate the 30 September snap ballot will be won by Smer-SD, whose leader Robert Fico has made comments in line with Kremlin rhetoric.
“The war in Ukraine originated in 2014 when Ukrainian fascists were killing civilian victims of Russian nationality,” he alleged in a video, repeating inaccurate and unproven Russian claims.
Fico has also pledged to “immediately stop all deliveries of military aid to Ukraine”, opposes Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and has condemned EU sanctions against Russia.
Fico’s party Smer-SD is still affiliated to the Party of European Socialists (PES), despite calls that it should be kicked out.
Political analyst Juraj Marusiak said Slovakia could become more like Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the NATO leader most sympathetic to the Kremlin.
“I do not rule out pro-Russian changes in the direction of our foreign policy if Smer-SD manages to form a government,” Marusiak told AFP.
If Fico secures the top job, it would be an incredible comeback, as the 58-year-old had already served as head of government before a spectacular fall from grace.
Prime minister between 2012 and 2018, Fico was ousted by anti-government protests that erupted after investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were killed.
Kuciak had been probing murky ties between businessmen, politicians and other senior officials when he was gunned down.
The opposition later won the 2020 general election, resulting in the anti-graft government that has shown staunch solidarity with Ukraine.
However, infighting within the coalition led to a no-confidence vote that toppled the government last year, paving the way for the snap election.
Smer-SD is now leading opinion polls with 20% of votes, despite accusations of corruption. Fico and his interior minister were also charged last year with setting up an organised crime group.
Led by European Parliament Vice President Michal Simecka, the liberal Progressive Slovakia party is second at 15%.
The leftist Hlas-SD party of former Fico ally Peter Pellegrini is polling third with 14%.
Fico has not ruled out a post-election coalition deal with the far-right Republic party, now fourth with eight percent.
The political turmoil and infighting since the last election have exhausted many voters to the benefit of parties such as Smer-SD and Republic.
But Fico’s rhetoric against Ukraine is also striking a chord.
Slovakia is one of the most pro-Russian countries in the European Union, according to the Bratislava-based Globsec think tank.
“Respondents’ belief that Russia was responsible for the war in Ukraine stood at only 40%, with most falling prey to disinformation narratives, blaming Ukraine or the West,” it said in a 2023 report.
Compare that to neighbouring Poland, where 85% of people blamed Russia, or the Czech Republic, with 71 percent.
Russophilia has a long history in Slovakia, according to Veronika Golianova, an expert on hybrid threats and conspiracy theories.
“It goes back to the 19th century, to the beginnings of the building of the Slovak nation in the times of Austria-Hungary,” she told AFP.
“By emphasising belonging to the Slavic nations, the nationalists distinguished themselves from the Hungarians and Germans,” she added.
“Russia has been idealised as a protector of all Slavs.”
‘Easy prey’ for propaganda
Political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov said there is also “nostalgia for the communist regime” as “many Slovaks believe they had a better life during the Soviet era”.
This makes the country fertile ground for an online disinformation network that spreads hoaxes and Russian narratives.
“For Russia and Russian propaganda, Slovakia is relatively easy prey,” Meseznikov told AFP.
“Influential politicians like Robert Fico have also been nourishing these pro-Russian sentiments,” he added.
Slovakia’s main breeding ground for Russian disinformation is Telegram, said Daniel Milo, from the interior ministry’s Centre for Countering Hybrid Threats. Telegram is a Russia-controlled social media.
“According to our analysis, up to 20% of the content on Slovak Telegram is taken directly from Russian-language sources,” he told AFP.
“And those are predominantly comprised of Russian propaganda and their information operations.”
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)