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Slovakian election is another bloody nose for pro-EU forces

Outcome of presidential election lifts check on Kremlin-friendly government in Slovakia

Efforts by European leaders to hold together a coalition of staunch support for Ukraine in its war with Russia took another hit in recent days in Slovakia. The election of Peter Pellegrini as president at the weekend will give the Kremlin-friendly prime minister Robert Fico a free hand in pushing through his agenda, which includes paring back aid to Ukraine.

Fico, a populist who has been one of the big beasts of Slovakian politics for years, returned to the prime minister’s office after his left-wing party, Smer, won parliamentary elections last October. The government he put together has so far signalled its intention to erode the independence of the country’s public broadcaster, and put pressure on civil society organisations that receive funding from abroad.

As such, Slovakia seems to be the latest country on the eastern wing of the European Union, after Hungary and until recently Poland, to lean away from the liberal values of the bloc. Of more immediate worry for EU politicians and officials is the stance of Fico and Pellegrini on the fighting in Ukraine.

The prime minister has for many years been seen as being closer to Russia’s orbit and during the elections late last year he campaigned on challenging the EU’s unconditional support for Ukraine. His coalition government in Bratislava has talked about cutting off military aid to Ukraine, while Fico has called for peace talks to be opened with Moscow. The recent presidential election was seen as both a vote on the country’s confidence in the government as well as a poll on the war in Ukraine.


Pellegrini, a member of the ruling coalition, had faced off against Ivan Korcok, a former minister and pro-EU diplomat, in a second-round run-off. The government candidate had manoeuvred to make Ukraine an election issue, painting Korcok as the “pro-war” candidate. Misinformation about Slovak soldiers being sent to the front lines was rife in the campaign.

Pellegrini won a thin majority of 53.1 per cent, meaning after he is sworn in this June Fico’s coalition will control the government, the parliament and the presidency. Slovakia has a population of about 5.4 million people and shares a border with Ukraine. Anxiety about an escalation in the war played a big factor in the result, according to several observers.

Alena Kudzko, a director of foreign policy think tank Globsec, said Pellegrini’s campaign “opportunistically” mobilised fears about the Ukrainian war to win votes. “Much of this campaign was based on things that were not true,” she said. It remained to be seen how far the Slovakian government would go in following up the rhetoric of the campaign. “There is a lot of uncertainty, which is an uncomfortable position for Ukraine,” Kudzko said.

In Slovakia the president mainly has a ceremonial role, but the outgoing office holder, Zuzana Čaputová, had been able to use limited veto powers to act as something of a check on the coalition government.

Despite the tough talk from Fico since he took over as prime minister, Slovakia has not yet copied Hungary and become a disruptive force at EU level. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban held up an EU aid package for Ukraine worth €50 billion for two months and in general has been viewed as a headache in Brussels.

Miroslav Wlachovský, former minister for foreign affairs, said when it came down to it Fico had so far voted with the majority of EU leaders. The long-time Slovak diplomat, who was part of a technocratic cabinet last year that lasted several months, pointed out the country is still very dependent on funds flowing from the EU.

Maintaining the two faces of Fico, as a seemingly amenable partner around the table at European Council summits and an illiberal populist at home, would not be sustainable, Wlachovský said. “It won’t work in the long term. Sooner or later with his domestic agenda, he will come into conflict with European values, then it will go down the hill,” he said.

The government was following the “blueprint” first laid out by Hungary, he said. “I’m very concerned about the freedom of the media and freedom of civil society as we know it ... and rule of law in general,” he said.

Parliamentary elections are not due to be held again for more than three years, meaning if Fico can keep his ruling coalition together he will have a clear runway to firmly realign Slovakia towards Budapest, or Moscow.