The Slovak parliamentary election taking place on September 30 may see the return of a well-known character on the country’s political stage who has led, albeit by a small percentage, the electoral polls in recent weeks: Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister of Slovakia.
But since his ousting in 2018 forced by a popular revolt linked to the murders of an investigative journalist and his girlfriend, Mr Fico has seemingly turned his back on the EU and NATO and embraced a more populist agenda, which includes lashing out at Russian sanctions and embracing some of Vladimir Putin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda.
This has sparked fears in the West that Russia may be about to gain a new ally in the heart of Europe.
Indeed, in recent months Mr Fico vowed to halt sanctions aimed at Russia, put an end to the military aid sent by Slovakia to Ukraine and even endanger Kyiv’s attempt to join NATO.
In August, he went to the extent of parroting the Russian president during a speech to supporters, as he repeated Moscow’s propaganda according to which the war in Ukraine started not as a result of an illegal invasion but as a civil war, when “the Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder the Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk”.
But one expert suggested Mr Fico’s barks may be worse than his bite, in part thanks to Slovakia’s electoral system.
Michael Rossi, lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, noted Mr Fico’s political party, Smer, isn’t dramatically leading in the poll and, even if he was elected Prime Minister, he would still need the support of at least two other political parties to reach the majority he needs, an alliance set to curb his extremism and pro-Russian views.
Earlier this week, Smer was projected to get some 20 per cent of the votes, giving him a small lead over the social-liberal Progressive Slovakia party. The lead seemingly vanished in a poll published on September 27 by AKO agency, which placed Smer at 17.7 per cent, 0.3 per cent behind Progressive Slovakia.
Mr Rossi believes it likely Smer, if it came out a winner from this election, would form a coalition with, among others, Peter Pellegrini’s HLAS–SD, a party with more moderate views than those being expressed by Mr Fico.
The expert told Express.co.uk: “A party that gets a little more than 20 per cent of the vote in a multi-party state has to work with other parties. So if Pellegrini is interested in reconsidering the sanctions for example, then we have something to talk about.
“But the point is that it’s got to be more than one person. It needs to be the political heads within a coalition and if it doesn’t work, then it may just be a little more than rhetoric playing into public grievances.”
He added: “So it’s very, very messy, I can tell you that much. For those that seem to feel the worst if Fico comes in, I would say best case scenario, he might get some of his ideas out, but it’s going to be very difficult for him to enable the hardline policies that he is promising if he has to work with a coalition of three or four political parties.”
The spotlight gained by Mr Fico in recent weeks is largely due to the flop of the OĽaNO party, which lost the confidence of his political allies within weeks of gaining power in March 2020.
Mr Rossi added: “Fico is toxic for many Slovaks, who just simply see him as a relic of the old political oligarchy. So I wouldn’t worry too much about him all of a sudden experiencing a comeback.”
Mr Fico was Slovakia’s Prime Minister between 2006 and 2010, a legislature during which Slovakia entered the Eurozone, and then again between 2012 and 2018.
Still, Mr Rossi noted the former Prime Minister is “playing into a very predictable but not surprising populist narrative” which puts his country first and results attractive to many, not just in Slovakia.
The politician’s words on the conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions towards Russia may make a dent in the many Slovaks who don’t believe Moscow is responsible for the war.
A trends report published this summer by Slovak think tank GLOBSEC suggested that only 40 per cent of people in the country believe Russia to be responsible for the war in Ukraine – a figure smaller than in Hungary and Bulgaria.
While Mr Fico alone is unlikely to prove to be a danger to the stability of the EU and the support for Ukraine, the expert acknowledged the existence in Slovakia as much as in other Western nations of “war fatigue” and economic issues linked to the conflict in Ukraine.
He said: “The big issue is, does that translate into being pro-Russia? Or does that translate simply into being anti-sanction?
“Because if it’s the second, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the public is now pro-Putin, it doesn’t mean that they’re pro-Russian, it just simply means that we’re tired of supporting what is basically a proxy war between the United States and Russia, we’re tired of getting stuck in the middle and we’re tired of having all of these economic sanctions backfire on us.”