A NATO country could soon have a Putin-friendly leader

By Isaac M September 30, 2023

A NATO country could soon have a Putin-friendly leader as Slovakia heads to the polls following a “very nasty, toxic” run up to today’s elections.

Three-time prime minister Robert Fico – who has been compared to Donald Trump and resigned following mass protests against corruption – is seeking a return to power in a contest that has been too close to call.

The race has been marked by increased division amid a cost of living crisis – and even came to blows in a violent outburst.

So what’s happening in Slovakia and why does today’s election matter for the rest of Europe? Sky News spoke to two experts to find out.

Former Slovak Prime Minister and head of leftist SMER - Social Democracy party, Robert Fico waves to his supporters during an election rally in Michalovce, Slovakia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Fico, whose party is favored to win Slovakia...s early parliamentary election this month plans to reverse the country...s military and political support for neighboring Ukraine in a direct challenge to the European Union and NATO, if he returns to power.  (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Mr Fico is a polarising figure

Politics in the central European nation has become increasingly polarised in recent years, with a caretaker government currently in place following the collapse of the previous administration.

This temporary executive is a technocratic government led by Ludovit Odor and is made up of experts and was tasked by the president to steer the course until September’s elections.

Several political parties are vying for position in Saturday’s polls but it is possible that not all pass the 5% threshold needed to take seats in parliament.

The parties broadly fall into two camps – former prime minister Robert Fico and his allies and the main challenger, the liberal Progressive Slovakia.

Mr Fico has led the Direction – Social Democracy (SMER-SSD) party since 1999.

“Robert Fico has made it clear he is critical of the war in Ukraine. He has emphasised that no more military hardware will be sent,” professor Tim Haughton, an expert in central and eastern European politics at the University of Birmingham, told Sky News.

“He has been very critical of the United States and says the war in Ukraine is a proxy war between the United States and Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
Robert Fico pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2016

However Prof Haughton says much of this might be rhetoric and the reality of a Fico government might be somewhat different.

“I think it would be more important to send out a symbolic message that one of the staunch allies of Ukraine over the last 18 moths or so is no longer a staunch ally.”

Dr Sean Hanley, an associate professor in comparative central and eastern European politics at University College London, echoed this view.

He argued that if Mr Fico becomes prime minister there would be a “sharp turn” away from backing Ukraine “possibly at the level of rhetoric rather than reality”.

“He would need to do a careful calculation (to decide) if he really wanted to mix it with the EU,” he told Sky News.

Mr Fico has pledged to end military supplies to Ukraine, and to provide only humanitarian aid.

So far, Slovakia has sent equipment including MiG-29 fighter jets and an S-300 air defence system to aid Kyiv in its conflict with Russia.

Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia party, speaks during a party election campaign event, ahead of the Parliament election, in Trencin, Slovakia, September 7, 2023. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa
The challenger: Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia party

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The Progressive Slovakia party, on the other hand, would largely continue backing Ukraine, Prof Haughton says.

Another feature of the elections this time round has been increased polarisation and a “very nasty, toxic” campaign environment, Dr Hanley said.

He added: “Robert Fico’s party has really radicalised itself over the last few years.”

The gloves are off, Dr Hanley says, arguing that the rhetoric has been “Trumpian” and “aggressive”.

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Video shows former deputy PMs brawl in Slovakia

Dr Hanley pointed to an altercation between two former Slovakian ministers as evidence of the tense atmosphere.

The incident earlier this month saw former prime minister Igor Matovic scuffle with ex-interior minister and Fico ally Robert Kalinak at an outdoor campaign event.

Mr Matovic drove a pick-up truck painted with a slogan “we will not hand you over to the mafia” and mounted with loudspeakers to a televised news conference held by Mr Fico’s party.

Mr Kalinak leaned into the vehicle and tried to grab the microphone, while Mr Matovic tried to push him away and swore at him, calling him a mafioso.

Something of a rumble ensued and Mr Matovic kicked at Mr Kalinak in video footage, while another SMER-SSD member punched Mr Matovic before police intervened to separate the two sides.


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