The prospect of Robert Fico as the new prime minister of Slovakia is a setback for Ukraine and Europe. But the ongoing power of Viktor Orban in Hungary is worse. True, Fico will do nothing to promote the Ukrainian cause and will call for 'peace' according to Russian demands. But will he be able to make a tiny and financially dependent Slovakia a game changer? Political analyst Peter Tkacenko from Bratislava doubts that Fico has enough power to become so disruptive. Here an abridged version of his article for the Kyiv Independent.
Robert Fico and Vladimir Putin, meeting in August 2016. Photo Kremlin
Robert Fico’s political party Direction – Social Democracy (Smer) has secured victory in the latest Slovak elections with 23% of the vote. Ex-Prime Minister Fico, who expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s support of neighboring Ukraine, has an open road to a third stint as the country’s prime minister. Yet, despite winning the elections on an openly anti-Ukrainian platform, little will change for Kyiv.
If Fico becomes prime minister, heading a likely euro-skeptic coalition, little will be done to change Slovak’s foreign policy, with the emphasis being placed on domestic issues and political opponents back home.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Slovakia emerged as one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters. A country of 5.5 million people with a less-than-average economic output may not match the financial and military contributions of global or regional powerhouses like the U.S. and the U.K., but it is still undeniable that the nation has been punching above its weight.
Slovakia has offered refuge to nearly 200,000 Ukrainians, is an unflinching supporter of economic sanctions against Russia, and has made substantial military contributions in both practical and symbolic terms.
During the early stages of the war, when many countries hesitated due to the fear of “escalation,” Slovakia provided Ukraine with a vital S-300 air defense system. Subsequently, by donating its remaining MiG-29 supersonic fighter jets, Slovakia set a precedent for others to increase the supply of heavier weaponry to Ukraine.
However, the country’s strong pro-Ukrainian stance may soon see its end.
Real concerns but...
There are certain rather strong counterarguments that Fico will be able to change Slovak foreign alignments.
First, Slovakia has already provided Ukraine with most of its military materiel, which it could possibly spare.
Second, even if Smer leads the country, it will be either politically or financially reliant on both domestic and foreign partners.
Third, for all the talk Fico has about “ineffective” sanctions and his preference to return to business as usual, including reinstating Russia as a major gas and oil supplier, this will not be a matter of domestic decision and will be decided in Brussels, not in Bratislava.
Slovakia has diversified its sources of gas and will likely do the same for oil, and any significant changes in these areas would necessitate agreement with European partners. Similar considerations apply to the import of grain. While Slovakia was one of the countries to prolong the ban on the import of Ukrainian wheat without EU consent, a common solution to overcome this obstacle is already in the works.
Soviet troops crushing the political spring in 1968.
Disruptive or pragmatic?
Nine days before the election, Kyiv and Bratislava agreed on a licensing system to replace the unilateral agricultural ban. The main question thus is: will Fico be willing to take part in these solutions, or will he disrupt them?
Throughout Fico’s career, we have seen tens of such compromises, not least the one when he personally helped to reverse gas flow from Slovakia to Ukraine in 2014 after Russia occupied Ukraine’s coal-rich parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Fico is a domestic political powermonger rather than a cultural campaigner like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with whom he is often compared. Does he wish to settle the score with his domestic opponents? Sure, he does. Is he willing to stretch himself to harm Ukraine against the Western consensus? Most likely not.
All of the above means that in case Fico’s Smer actually forms a government, he will have a lot to do domestically and not much political capital to spare on anti-Ukrainian affairs.
True, he will do absolutely nothing to promote the Ukrainian cause, will continue to talk about Ukraine in the most despicable terms, and call for “peace,” by which he means to succumb to Russian demands. But will he have the power and will to exert himself and to make a tiny and financially dependent Slovakia a game changer for Ukraine’s struggle to maintain its independence and regain occupied territories?
Not so much.
About the author
Peter Tkacenko is a Slovak political commentator. He studied political science in Banská Bystrica and worked as a journalist for various Slovak media since 2007. Since 2017, he has been a columnist for SME daily newspaper.
The full article was published by the Kyiv Independent. Here the original, not abridged, version of his analysis for the Kyiv Independent.