According to Russian pro-government media, the Slovak elections in February 2020 constituted a fundamental breakthrough from Russia's perspective. "Old friend Fico" was replaced by "strict" Matovič.
It is well known that the Russian pro-government media reporting on events taking place in other countries is always couched in the context of that nation’s relationship with Russia, or with the West – with which the Russian state has long been in conflict. The activities of individual political actors are judged by their attitude towards Russia and its policies, and whether they are too inclined to support its rivals in the international arena.
Slovakia is no exception. Rather, as the local scene is somewhat more diverse than in some other countries, there is a wider choice of political actors with different attitudes towards Moscow.
An illustrative example of how the aforementioned optics are utilised is in the evaluation of the results of the February Slovak parliamentary elections by the Russian media. The dominant context proved to be their possible impact on Slovakia’s policy towards Russia.
“The Russian party” in Slovakia
In the period 2016-2020, the Russian media positively portrayed three Slovak politicians in particular – Prime Ministers Robert Fico and Peter Pellegrini, and Speaker of the Parliament Andrej Danko. All three were unanimously praised for criticising the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
Andrej Danko was also particularly praised for his spontaneous and totally open sympathy for Russia and its political regime and for his attitude to Moscow manifest in his relatively frequent visits to Russia.
Russian official media has paid significant attention to the activities of the Parliament’s Speaker during his stays in Moscow. The very fact that the head of the parliament of an EU member state was meeting with Russian politicians who were put on the Union’s sanctions list for their active role in aggression against Ukraine (including meeting with the Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin) has led to immense admiration of Danko in Moscow. Russian actors held up the example of Andrej Danko as a role model for politicians of other states.
Vyacheslav Volodin paid a big compliment to Andrej Danko at a conference on the anti-Nazi Slovak National Uprising of 1944, held at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in November 2019: “You are a brave man, different from many of our [European] colleagues, who not only go with the flow but also betray the memory of their grandfathers, their past.”
In this context, the Speaker of the State Duma pointed to Poland as an ugly case: allegedly an “undignified” situation arose, involving “a desecration of the graves of [Soviet] soldiers who died so the country could live, so the children can be born, which suggests a deep crisis, especially in the minds of the politicians”.
The Russian media liked to quote statements by Andrej Danko upholding that the Russian President Putin has no real rival among European politicians, that US military bases should never appear in Slovakia and that he, Andrej Danko, will “always fight” to bring the EU and the Russian Federation closer together, as well as to lift sanctions against Russia, which are too stupid.”
West vs. Russia
Slovakia was portrayed by pro-governmental Russian media as a country in which a struggle exists between supporters of closer cooperation with Russia. In addition to the three already-mentioned representatives of Smer-SD and SNS, others listed among the “friends of Russia” included politicians such as Ľuboš Blaha (Smer-SD), Peter Marček (Independent) and Anton Hrnko SNS). Supporters of the official pro-Western line included President Andrej Kiska and Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák.
The elected President Zuzana Čaputová was described by the Russian media as belonging to the ranks of pro-Western leaders. After Čaputová took office in 2019, foreign policy magazine Mezhdunoradnaya zhizn (International Life) noted that she came to the Presidential Palace “from a human rights organization [VIA IURIS], funded not only by some NGOs belonging to George Soros but also by the US Embassy.”
Initially, the Russian media saw promise in one of the statements by the new Slovak president, in which she described Russia as an “important player” in the international arena and stated that it would be good to have good relations with Russia.
Later, however, they realised that Čaputová’s main characteristic is her unwavering pro-Western orientation, and they started to repeatedly refer to her as a “liberal and Soros-related person,” which was a rather disqualifying quality within Russian public discourse, largely formed as it is by the official media.
Based on this and other similar information published in the last few years, the overall impression that Russians may have formed about Slovakia was that it was a country that, due to historical coincidence, was a part of the Western structures, but its population and real leaders (not those who serve the interests of the West, but those who are true representatives of the people) would prefer to move towards Russia, which is culturally and socially closer to Slovakia.
The situation was therefore quite favourable from Russia’s point of view.
Elections as a breaking point
Today, everything seems different. According to Russian pro-governmental media, the Slovak parliamentary elections at the end of February 2020 marked a major breaking point from Russia’s perspective.
Vzglyad (Sight) daily reported in an article titled “Russia lost another friend in the European Union”: “A chain of anti-Russian countries on the western borders of the Russian Federation has been expanded by another one – Slovakia. Its government has been one of the most ‘Russophilic’ in the EU over the last 15 years, generally in line with the mood of ordinary Slovaks. The head of the local parliament here even supported the return of Crimea [to Russia]. Now it will not be so – power in Bratislava is moving towards the supporters of sanctions, USA and NATO.”
Why did this change happen? Because Robert Fico definitely lost the power. The author of the article Dmitry Bavyrin writes that the real ruler in the country was Robert Fico, “an old friend, quiet and modest”. The prime minister is a real political player in Slovakia, who, unlike the president, has strong powers, therefore, Vzglyad writes, “Prime Minister Fico’s friendly attitude to Russia was [for Russia] much more valuable than the clear and sometimes eccentric pro-Russian position of Czech President Zeman.”
According to the daily, Fico was close to Russia, as “he did not like EU rules on migration, for example”, “he was not in love with Ukraine at all and was our natural ally in advocating the language rights of minorities (in his case the Slovak minority in Transcarpathia)”.
As an example of true Russophilia, the daily stated that “the current Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, the successor and the “right-hand man” of Fico, flew to Moscow for negotiations only three days before the elections.
As a result, “for nearly 15 years, Bratislava has been considered one of the most Moscow-friendly EU capitals. But it will be no more. It cannot be said that this is a big and critical loss, but it is an unpleasant loss for our foreign policy. … Only Hungary and Austria, to a limited extent the Czech Republic and the good old Cyprus remain part of the ‘Moscow Trojan Horse in the EU’, a term which liberal media in the European Council like to scare readers with”.
So instead of Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party, who suffered a “crushing defeat”, Igor Matovič came to power with his movement. According to Vzglyad, the election results are “a real holiday on the street of Russophobes”. The Prime Minister will be Matovič, a “conflicting and tough man” whose party is “refusing to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Moscow, with a clear focus on Brussels as the capital of the EU and NATO”.
The author calls Matovič a “Ukrainophile”, predicting also that the party of Andrej Kiska, known for his critical attitude to Russia, will join the ruling coalition. It is clear that with such a distribution of power and President Čaputová in office, who is a “Soros-related person” and considers Vladimir Putin’s policy to be “a threat not only for Slovakia but for the whole of Europe”, nothing good can be expected from Slovakia.
In a commentary entitled “The Anti-Russian Turnover of Slovakia – Election Results” on EurAsia Daily, political scientist Vadim Truchachev predicted the consequences of the Slovak 2020 elections: “The country’s transfer of power will be very unpleasant for Russia. So far, Slovakia has been considered one of the most loyal states in the EU. However, it can now not only join the active advocates of sanctions but will also try to prevent the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”
The analysis of the results of Slovak parliamentary elections by EurAsia Daily is as follows: the block of anti-Russian parties (OĽaNO, KDH, PS-Spolu, SaS, For People) won 55 per cent of voters, the block of pro-Russian parties (Smer-SD, SNS, ĽSNS and Motherland) 32 per cent of the votes. The remaining 11 per cent was won by We Are Family and Good Choice, parties that do not have a strong stance on Russia.
“In total, the voting results for Russia are very unpleasant. In a country that is considered relatively loyal to us, the anti-Russian parties have won more than half of the votes”.
According to the author, the causes of this are both internal and external. Amongst the internal causes are mistakes made by the government and the ruling party Smer-SD which is “loyal to Russia”. The main external cause the author identifies is the lack of effectiveness of Russian activities in influencing the opinions of the country’s inhabitants.
“The influence of Russia in this Slavic country, where there are many believers of the Orthodox Church of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is extremely weak. The fact that the pro-Russian forces have any support at all happens in spite of Russia’s inaction, not because of its activities. It cannot be said that Slovakia does not get any attention at all from us, but working with ordinary Slovaks, with Slovak society, is not done well. Therefore, we now have what we have”.
Also plunged into scepticism is the commentator of the Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn: “The development of events, coupled with the collapse of the SNS party, which traditionally advocated a constructive dialogue with Russia, suggests a possible change in Bratislava’s policy towards Moscow. Until now, a largely friendly state, which has consistently declared the need to lift anti-Russian sanctions and establish effective cooperation with the Russian Federation in the economic field, can become a right-wing liberal country oriented exclusively towards the West”.
However, the author still has a hint of hope. It is linked to Boris Kollar’s movement We Are Family: “The only conservative representatives in the government’s office will be centrists from We Are Family who are likely to try to reduce the zeal of liberals and populists.”
The right emphasis
Some conclusions in the cited articles are problematic at first sight; some claims are quite stretched. But the main point that Russian pro-government commentators are emphasising is right – there are really many politicians in Slovakia who declare that their country belongs to Europe, but they personally feel much more comfortable in Moscow, regardless of whether it is a few days before the elections or during the entire parliamentary term.
Was the Slovak parliamentary election 2020 really a turning point, as Russian media write? As Russians say, “We will live, we will see”.
This article is the third of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.