Slovak cultural and educational institutions are long-established and supposedly apolitical. However, some legitimise and promote pro-Kremlin narratives. Free speech risks being undermined by an anti-Western counter-culture anchored in the political and intellectual environments of Slovakia.
In recent years, Slovakia has been referred to as “a pro-European island” in the Visegrad Four, a country whose democracy is stable and whose Euro-optimism remains strong, in particular against the background of recent developments in neighbouring countries. While there is indeed much truth to that, the actual picture is rather more complex.
The country saw a surge of right-wing radicalism and anti-systemic populism in 2016 and 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections respectively, and some of its leaders have demonstrated open sympathies towards the Kremlin and other authoritarian leaders.
Despite being firmly anchored in the Western-led international order, Slovakia also has a thriving counter-culture of Russophilia and pan-Slavism, which tends to generate anti-Western and anti-liberal narratives.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with a plurality of opinions and difference in cultural preferences. Such diversity is an important part of a healthy democracy. However, when combined with hoaxes and conspiracy theories, some narratives can work to undermine the liberal democratic political order.
The danger is greater if they also become an instrument of outside powers. In this context, it is useful to discuss pro-Kremlin narratives in Slovakia in connection with the notion of information sovereignty.
Information sovereignty is a much-debated concept. On the one hand, it can be understood as a capacity of the sovereign state to manage the global flows of information and to provide reliable and timely information to its citizens. This should discourage them from falling for disinformation and hoaxes that are spread by the so-called “alternative” media, some of which – like the Kremlin’s Russia Today channel – have grown rather influential internationally.
From this point of view, information sovereignty necessarily includes pluralism and freedom of debate and expression. However, the same term – information sovereignty – is also invoked by authoritarian states like China who work to severely censor and restrict the free flow of information.
Recent academic and policy discussions around the notorious term “hybrid war” have already pointed out that fighting disinformation can become a double-edged sword. If everything is framed as an instrument of “war” than potentially everything can be censored in the name of security, thus severely jeopardising freedom of speech. In particular, this applies to the domain of culture.
In a recent controversial case, a popular Russian cartoon was lambasted as a tool of global propaganda, raising the question of just how far the concept should be stretched.
A careful and critical approach to the discourse on disinformation does not, in any way, mean denying the reality of Kremlin’s subversive operations. In 2019, the Slovak security services warned that Russia has worked to “maintain sympathies of the Slovak public towards Russia, its culture and politics and to weaken those forces that were openly sceptical or critical of Russia”.
From observing Russian attempts to spread influence across Europe we learned that the Kremlin uses a pragmatic or “trans-ideological” approach, opportunistically seeking out partners among both the radical left and the radical right. The narratives it chooses to promote thus depend on the context and can very well contradict each other.
In Slovakia, there is fertile soil for narratives of pan-Slavist anti-Westernism. This has much to do with the Slovak national identity and its history of nation-building that goes back to the circumstances of the nineteenth century Austro-Hungarian empire.
Ľudovít Štúr, the icon of the nineteenth-century Slovak national revival and the father of the modern standard Slovak, is known for his eventual disappointment with the West which he accused of political, economic and spiritual degeneration. Towards the end of his life, Štúr’s sympathies lay with the autocratic tsars of Russia, whom he saw as natural leaders of the Slavic world.
This link between pan-Slavist Rusophilia and anti-Westernism can still be easily observed in some political and intellectual environments in Slovakia. Even though the Slovak political establishment, by and large, remains committed to the European and Atlanticist geopolitical choice, there is an anti-Western counter-culture, some of which managed to penetrate state-sponsored institutions.
These anti-Western narratives capitalise on existing cultural conflicts, typically portraying the West as morally degenerate because of its social liberalism and promotion of LGBT rights. They also tend to juxtapose the “spiritually weak” and hypocritical West to a strong Russia whose religious rebirth and the turn to “traditional values” stands out as an example to the rest of the Slavic world. Kremlinophile narratives also tend to be combined with hoaxes and various conspiracy theories of anti-Western, anti-Semitic, or – following 2014 – anti-Ukrainian nature.
Overall, pan-Slavism is probably the most frequent theme, but not the sole one. Some pro-Kremlin narratives also draw on the memories of the Second World War and the symbolic legacy of the anti-fascist resistance. While 1944 Slovak National Uprising is a key event in Slovak history, the fight against fascism is a theme that can be easily linked to the Kremlin’s narrative on the Great Patriotic War.
Notably, pro-Kremlin narratives and their promoters are also sometimes legitimised by established cultural and educational institutions that are anchored in a reputable tradition. Thus, for instance, the Slovak Matica (Matica Slovenská) is one of the oldest Slovak cultural institutions which played a key role in the 19th-century national revival movement and continues to receive subsidies from the Slovak state budget.
In recent years, Matica’s close ties with pro-Russian radicals in Slovakia as well as its controversial interpretations of the Holocaust aroused public suspicion. The organisation was reprimanded by the then Minister of Culture Marek Maďarič, who threatened to cut off public funding.
Similarly, the Slovak Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters, established in 1969 as a veteran organisation, has published a magazine, which, as Slovak journalists put it, became a tool of “Russian propaganda”. The magazine did indeed actively republish dubious material, containing anti-Western conspiracy theories and Russian-inspired disinformation tropes about Ukrainian “fascists”.
Beware when fighting monsters
The problem seems to have a systemic nature. Slovak institutions that are posing as cultural or educational, and thus supposedly apolitical, as a matter of fact, tend to promote political narratives, not infrequently combined with conspiracy theories or unverified claims. And if pluralism and conflict of opinion, on geopolitical issues, among other things, are, in principle, a natural part of a healthy democratic process, spreading of disinformation is much less so and can undermine the very political framework that guarantees free speech.
Yet, one must also avoid falling into the trap of the other extreme, when love for Russian culture and a generally welcoming attitude towards Russia (which are traditional for Slovakia) would be conflated with sympathies for a political regime. In other words, it makes sense to distinguish, where possible, between Russophilia and Kremlinophilia or Putinophilia.
In this context, the concept of information sovereignty should also be used with caution. Notably, on the other side, anti-Western forces in Russia have long played with notions like “informational security” and “spiritual sovereignty” as ideological underpinnings for their attempts to culturally isolate Russia from the West. In the words of Nietzsche’s aphorism, which is nowadays often quoted by scholars of “hybrid warfare”, one must not become the monster he is fighting.
Veronika Golianová contributed with her empirical research to the writing of this article. A more detailed analysis of pro-Kremlin narratives in Slovakia will be available in the forthcoming study by Veronika Golianová and Aliaksei Kazharski: ‘The Unsolid’: Pro-Kremlin Narratives in Slovak Cultural and Educational Institutions.