Europe braces as Slovakia’s Russian-leaning populist seeks a comeback

Robert Fico was forced to resign by anti-corruption protests in 2018 but is riding wave of Ukraine fatigue

Slovakia goes to the polls this weekend for a national election seen as a bellwether for Europe and test of its unity in supporting Ukraine.

Three-time prime minister Robert Fico, a populist social democrat who became increasingly anti-western while in opposition, is seeking a comeback and opinion polls indicate his SMER-SSD party is neck-and-neck with liberal party Progressive Slovakia.

In his campaign, Mr Fico has sought to play on war fatigue among the population, criticising sanctions on Russia, blaming Ukraine for the invasion, and vowing to end all military support for Kyiv.

“We will not send a single round to Ukraine,” he told a rally earlier this month.


This would be a shift for a country that until now has been a staunch ally of Kyiv, and would deliver a further dent to Ukraine’s relations with its close neighbours, already damaged by a period of tensions over imports of agricultural goods.

The Slovakian vote kicks off a string of closely watched elections, with Poland due to vote in October and the Netherlands in November, followed by the European elections and United States presidential vote in 2024.

The election is also seen as a test case for the role of online disinformation, which has inundated social media networks as the vote draws close.

“Slovakia has been chosen as the country where there is fertile soil for the success of Russian pro-Kremlin, pro-war narratives,” the European Commission’s vice-president Věra Jourová warned earlier this week.

Dominant topics include false claims about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and unsubstantiated warnings about vote-rigging in the upcoming election, according to an overview of fact-checking efforts by the Central European Digital Media Observatory.

Mr Fico has repeatedly accused his rivals of seeking to steal the election and at times has claimed there is a plot against him orchestrated by the Jewish philanthropist George Soros, a long-time scapegoat.

This political strategy has much in common with that of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and there are expectations that a government led by the SMER-SSD could forge an alliance with Budapest to pursue common goals within the European Union.

Mr Fico brings with him grievances dating from the circumstances of his resignation from office in 2018, which was forced by mass anti-corruption protests spurred by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee.

It led to accusations, rejected by Mr Fico, that he had overseen a mafia state. Wide-ranging investigations followed, targeting business leaders, judicial officials, and some politicians. Mr Fico was among them, and faced charges that were ultimately dropped.

During his campaign he has inveighed against the investigation and threatened to dismiss top anti-corruption officials including Slovakia’s high-profile special prosecutor.

The election was triggered by the collapse of the previous centre-right coalition when it lost a no-confidence vote last year.

Results are expected to emerge over the course of the weekend, but a long period of negotiations to form a government may follow as opinion polls point to a fragmented field and complex coalition talks.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times