The upcoming parliamentary elections in Slovakia can redefine the country’s politics and may have a big impact on its foreign policy priorities – and broader geostrategic orientation. To offset this, it is paramount that parties of the democratic opposition form the next government.
On 29 February 2020, Slovaks will head to polls to vote in the parliamentary elections. The opinion polls are predicting a tight race, with nine parties set to take seats in the National Council. The current governing party, SMER-Social Democracy, a despite a drop in public support would remain the largest party.
The most important development, however, is the recent surge of the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia of Marian Kotleba (LSNS). The party is currently polling at 11 per cent. This happened in spite of former SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico’s claim in 2017 that his government will be a “barrier against extremism“.
Political polarisation, growing regional differences, a continuous stream of corruption scandals (Slovakia is the sixth most corrupt country in the EU) and broader frustration with the political system have contributed to the rise of LSNS as well as a stream of other populist, fringe or anti-democratic parties.
Largely focused on the situation in neighbouring Hungary and Poland, foreign commentators have overlooked the growing political and social tensions mounting in Slovakia, not to mention their possible broader impact.
Parallel foreign policy
SMER-SD is currently ruling in a three-party coalition with Most-Hid (which, despite asserting pressure to remove SMER-SD’s former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak following the murder of Jan Kuciak, has remained rather obscurely silent about much of the political fallout) and the Slovak National Party (SNS). During its years in power, SNS party leader Andrej Danko (who is Speaker of the National Council) has de-facto created a parallel foreign policy.
In addition to Danko’s frequent trips to Moscow, SNS has also been responsible for the National Council’s continuous failure to discuss – and, subsequently, vote – on the country’s 2017 Security Strategy because it names Russian actions in Ukraine a security threat to Slovakia, something which the SNS disagrees with.
On top of this, SNS, together with a string of cultural and educational institutions, have become increasing proponents of pan-Slavism which intertwines Rusophilia (in this case, Kremlinophilia rather than appreciation of Russian culture) with anti-Westernism.
The LSNS leadership, on the other hand, regularly speak out against ‘the Brussels diktat’ and are calling for a referendum on both EU and NATO membership. NATO is perceived as a ‘criminal organisation’, while they accuse the Slovak Armed Forces of a group of mercenaries, supporting ‘occupation missions’ and indulging US war crimes.
In turn, the LSNS calls for neutrality and partnership with Russia (as in the case of SNS) because of what they perceive as subjugation to a morally degenerate West which tramples on traditional values. Unsurprisingly, the LSNS leadership also has a sketchy record on traditional values, to say the least.
Nevertheless, the recent year has witnessed increasing parliamentary cooperation between the supposedly social democratic SMER-SD and the fascist LSNS. Therefore, Fico’s now infamous statement about SMER-SD being a ‘barrier against extremism’ and, from the same party, Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s assertions that there will be no coalition with LSNS are largely redundant.
Moreover, all too often, SMER-SD grandees also engage in rhetoric that’s not so distant from the fascists: in recent years, Robert Fico called journalists dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes and accused the organisers of protests that lead to his resignation of being paid agents of Soros.
A notable character is also SMER-SD’s loose-cannon MP Ľuboš Blaha (a self-styled Marxist intellectual) who frequently churns out Facebook statuses against the US, EU and NATO while showering Russia, Venezuela and Iran with warm sentiments.
Although it is difficult to speculate, a governing coalition of SMER-SD, SNS and LSNS would not merely lead to the questioning of Slovakia’s geopolitical orientation, but would also complicate Slovakia’s position on fundamental questions such as defence posture on NATO’s eastern flank and threat perception.
Should LSNS get its way, Slovakia may end up holding referendums on EU and NATO memberships – and with support for NATO among Slovak population around 50 per cent, results of such referendum would be far from certain.
It is, therefore, not difficult imagining Slovakia once again becoming “a black hole in the heart of Europe”, as Madeleine Albright described the country during the Meciar years.
It is also for this reason that a coalition composed of parties from the democratic opposition is paramount. Admittedly, such a coalition would be composed of five to six political parties, and questions are already being raised about the durability of this coalition. A mixture of progressive liberals, classical liberals, Christian democrats and national conservatives, the parties are likely to disagree and clash on issues such as abortion and civil partnerships.
Nevertheless, there is consensus among all the parties about the need to address the most pressing domestic issues and return ‘decency’ to Slovak public life – a major theme in Slovak public discourse since the killing of Jan Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová.
In foreign affairs, all the parties of the democratic opposition are emphasising the primacy of NATO. They call for the continued modernisation of the Slovak Armed Forces, and the need to reach the country’s defence spending commitments (Slovakia is currently spending around 1.73 per cent of its GDP on defence).
The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), in particular, calls for the need to avoid any initiatives that may lead to decoupling from the US and stresses the need to maintain robust transatlantic relations.
Across the democratic opposition, there is also consensus on putting greater emphasis on the defence of human rights, and there have been strong calls of support for a European version of the Magnitsky Act. In this respect, there’s also understanding that Russia continues to remain a threat, and any normalisation of relations (including the lifting of the sanctions regime) can only be based on Russia’s respect of international law and stopping its hybrid war against the West.
This contrasts with SNS or LSNS but also with Robert Fico, who frequently criticises the sanctions regime.
In their respective programmes, the parties also agree on the need to maintain strong relations with the V4 and support regional initiatives such as the Three Seas Initiative (TSI). However, contrary to the others, the election programme of the coalition of Spolu and Progressive Slovakia further emphasises coalition-building with other European countries, such as France or Finland, and call for the ‘re-evaluation’ of existing coordination between V4 countries in the European Council.
Spolu and Progressive Slovakia also take a more critical stance on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary but there’s broad agreement that on issues such as EU enlargement the V4 remain natural allies.
In retrospect, this approach represents nothing new. The V4 has always been more a practical coalition on issues where national interests meet.
In summary, the Slovak elections may not only redefine the country’s politics but may have a big impact on its security and defence priorities – and broader geostrategic orientation.
To offset this, it is paramount that the democratic opposition forms the next coalition, and ensure the country’s continued Euro-Atlantic orientation. Forming such a wide coalition will not be easy and, should it succeed, it will have its work cut out to address the fundamental societal tensions that have given rise to Kotleba’s LSNS.
Should it fail, a black hole, with its political, geostrategic and moral implications, may once again appear in the heart of Europe.