He has returned and seeks vengeance.
A political controversy is currently unfolding in Slovakia’s election race, resembling a dramatic voiceover from a B-movie trailer. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister who stepped down in 2018 due to public protests, has made a strong comeback to the forefront of the campaign.
Fico, the head of a left-leaning populist political group called Smer (or Direction–Social Democracy), holds a slim lead in the polls with approximately 20 percent ahead of the upcoming Sunday election, just slightly ahead of the progressive Progressive Slovakia. The sudden election follows the breakdown of a center-right coalition that replaced Smer in 2020.
After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Fico, who was previously a communist, rebranded himself as a Social Democrat. In recent months, the 59-year-old has caused concern among Western leaders by promising to cease military aid to Ukraine and prevent their entry into NATO. He has even echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric, placing the blame for the conflict on “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists.”
Some officials in Brussels are concerned about Fico’s aggressive behavior. Despite being part of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, Fico’s allies turned against him when the scandal surrounding the murders of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová, broke out in 2018. Kuciak had been uncovering evidence of corruption involving Fico’s party and the prime minister’s associates before he was killed.
According to Milan Nič, a Slovak analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, the partner will likely be challenging and motivated by a desire for revenge. The situation is mainly influenced by psychology.
During his two previous terms as prime minister, from 2006-2010 and 2012-2018, Fico demonstrated his gritty persona and appeal to the working class. He also showed himself to be a practical leader in dealing with European and transatlantic matters, not shying away from the country’s responsibilities to the EU and NATO.
However, his removal in 2018 and Russia’s complete attack on Ukraine seem to have caused a reassessment.
Fico’s newfound Russophilia has resonated in a country where many voters were socialized during the Soviet-era and whose cybersphere is regularly bombarded by Moscow’s sulfurous propaganda.
Thanks to a persistent spread of false information, a recent study by a think-tank revealed that over 50% of the population holds the belief that the West is to blame for the war. Additionally, support for joining NATO has decreased to only 58%.
Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission, referred to the Slovak elections as a potential indicator of how easily European elections can be influenced by expensive tactics of mass manipulation. The European Commission is worried about this issue and has warned Alphabet, TikTok, and Meta that they may face penalties if they do not take greater action to address it.
European critics are currently expressing alarm, including ex-New Statesman chief John Kampfner, who hails from Slovakia and cautions in The Guardian that the country holds greater significance than Europe may perceive.
Why is Slovakia, with a population of approximately 5.5 million, frequently confused with Slovenia by individuals like Silvio Berlusconi and George W. Bush, if it holds such significance?
The fact that Europe is finally recognizing Fico’s political comeback (which has been evident for several months) just a few days before the election is a strong indication of its significance.
The reality is, Slovakia has always been something of a backwater, whether in the Habsburg empire or as the second fiddle in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The country’s small-man syndrome has always bred distrust of outside forces, be they Austrian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian or American.
It could be argued that the deeply rooted animosity, cleverly utilized by Fico, is the defining feature of its government.
However, since the country relies heavily on the EU, the impact will not be significant in the long run.
Slovakia’s economy, once praised as the “Tatra tiger” for its fast development in the early 2000s, is now lagging behind. Its per-capita GDP places it among the lowest in the euro area, alongside countries like Latvia and Croatia. However, it does hold the top spot in one category – its budget deficit, which is predicted to reach almost 7 percent this year.
Fico has pledged to his supporters a boost in the economy and increased investment in social programs. However, achieving this goal will require assistance from the EU, specifically the €6 billion in recovery funds designated for Slovakia by Brussels. Deviating from conventional fiscal policies could result in opposition from investors, causing the country’s borrowing expenses to rise. As a member of the eurozone, Slovakia’s leaders cannot rely on the central bank for assistance.
Several individuals have noted Fico’s admiration for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and speculate that he may pursue a comparable path of illiberalism.
However, unlike Orbán’s Fidesz party which has complete control, Fico’s Smer party is unlikely to reach 20% of the vote. To build a coalition, he will need to gather support from radical pro-Russian parties and his former ally, Peter Pellegrini, who became prime minister after Fico in 2018 but later separated to create a new party.
The positioning of the stars indicates that the political situation in Slovakia will continue to be unpredictable, with five different prime ministers in the last five years. The Slovaks, particularly the younger generation, have consistently shown strong support for being part of Europe. It seems unlikely that those who protested and successfully removed Fico from office in 2018 would sit idly by and allow their country to mimic Hungary’s questionable actions.
th in the world in terms of military spending.
Concerns have been raised regarding Fico’s promise to not provide any ammunition to Ukraine if he becomes elected in Europe. However, since Slovakia has already supplied all available resources to its military, this promise does not hold much weight. Slovakia is ranked 19th globally in military expenditures.th
Overall, Ukraine received less aid than neutral Austria.
If Fico denies permission for weapons intended for Ukraine to pass through Slovakia, it would be a minor inconvenience, but not significant. It would also anger the United States. Given that his nation depends on Washington for protection, Fico should proceed cautiously.
The main reason Europe needs to stop worrying about a return of Fico has nothing to do with geopolitics or grand strategy. What all the Sturm und Drang over Fico misses is that there’s a fair chance he won’t win.
The latest polls show a late surge by the progressive candidates.
If the progressive party is successful in winning, Fico will retreat into the background (at least until the upcoming presidential election in April) and we can return to being uninterested in Slovak politics.