In Slovakia, Snap Elections Called As Pro-Russia Sentiment Is Spreading
Slovakia, which shares a border with Ukraine, saw liberal President Zuzana Čaputová's confirmation that she will not seek re-election, in part because of threats against her tough stance on Russia's invasion. How will the war shape the future direction of Slovakian politics, and vice-versa?
As Slovakia prepares for early elections on Sep. 30, a study published last month has revealed that more than half of Slovaks do not view Russia as the primary culprit behind the ongoing war in Ukraine.
This sentiment coincides with the growing popularity of a pro-Russian party, and the announcement of liberal Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová that she will not seek re-election in next spring's presidential elections. Taken together, these new developments raise questions about the future direction of Slovakian politics, and how these changes could affect the country's stance on the war in Ukraine.
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová won the 2019 presidential elections by committing herself to honesty and integrity. This message resonated with the Slovaks, who were shaken by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018. His death sparked public outrage and triggered political turmoil, with allegations of government links to organized crime (which Kuciak was investigating) and the subsequent resignation of leftist-nationalist Prime Minister Robert Fico.
While the investigation into Kuciak’s murder continued in Slovakia, Čaputova’s presidency was also marked by other challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine — with which Slovakia shares a 97-kilometer border — as well as a continued flow of refugees and concerns about inflation and rising prices.
There had long been speculations that Slovakia’s first female president would not run for re-election, despite being considered the most trustworthy politician. Nevertheless, when Čaputová finally did announce earlier this month that she would not seek a second term, it upended the nation's politics.
In her official statement, Čaputová said she no longer had the strength to act as president for another five years. She cited personal reasons, which many believe to be related to criticism from politicians for her pro-Western stance, and death threats directed at her and her family were facing.
In June 2022, the leader of the leftist-nationalist oppositionist SMER-SSD (Direction - Slovak Social Democracy) party, Robert Fico accused Čaputová of being an “American agent,” and said she was taking instructions from the U.S. embassy, at the expense of Slovakian sovereignty.
The attacks on her have been extremely indiscriminate.
Čaputová repeatedly denied the claims, writing in May of this year that she and her “loved ones” were getting death threats because of such allegations. “The MP Fico knows (this is a lie),” she wrote in May. “He also knows that making someone a target with hateful lies has led to people being killed in Slovakia.”
But Čaputová denies she was ousted from politics by Fico. “The political situation itself did not have a major impact,” Michal Vašečka, a sociologist and program director of the Bratislava Policy Institute, told neighboring Czech Republic's radio broadcaster iRozhlas. “What was crucial was that, for four years now, the president has been in a very difficult situation — nothing like what previous Slovak presidents faced," he said. "At the same time, the attacks on her have been extremely indiscriminate.”
Former Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico
According to polls, Robert Fico’s Smer-SSD party is the most popular in Slovakia ahead of the snap elections, which will take place on Sept. 30, as a result of the collapse of the previous government in Dec. 2022. In a June 14 poll, the party had 19% support, and showed a steady rise to the top.
Fico has already been Prime Minister of Slovakia twice, in 2006 to 2010 and in 2012 to 2018, and his party is considered leftist-populist with pro-Russian stances.
At an April meeting with ambassadors from the U.S., UK and EU countries, Fico said his party would help Ukraine’s accession to the EU. In a subsequent press release, the party "reaffirmed that if we participate in the government, we will stop the supply of weapons to Ukraine, and that we favor immediate peace negotiations and a halt to all military operations." The press release avoided any mention of the party’s previously stated support for Ukraine’s EU membership.
“The possibility of this political force is worrying,” writes Evropeiska.pravda, “and could be a threat to Ukraine.”
In May, the think-tank Globsec found that only 40% of Slovaks agree that Russia was primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine — less than other countries in the region, and down from 51% in 2022. According to the study, about 17% of respondents held the belief that Ukraine was responsible for the conflict, citing claims about Ukrainian suppression of the Russian-speaking minority, while 34% attributed the war to provocation by the West.
While the role of the Slovak president is largely ceremonial, the head of state can influence major decisions.
"Many Slovaks are taking President Zuzana Čaputová's decision not to run for a second term hard — almost as if she had died," says Slovak political analyst Erik Láštic, writing in the Czech newspaper iDNES.cz. He notes that Čaputová still has one year of her mandate left, which she could use to influence politics and play an important role in the formation of the future government.
Slovakia has committed to providing assistance to Ukraine.
In addition, SMER-SSD does not seem to have the necessary popularity to form a majority government. According to polls, the Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia) party, which Čaputová helped to start, is in second place.
Slovakia has committed to providing assistance to Ukraine. The country accepted 100,000 temporary protection seekers and has entered into an agreement with Ukraine and the Czech Republic to repair damaged Ukrainian vehicles. Moreover, the Slovak parliament recognized the Ukrainian famine (Holodomor) that occurred during the Soviet era as a genocide, earning gratitude from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In a statement, Čaputová said, "Please don't take my decision not to run as proof that you can't succeed with integrity. You can win elections with (integrity), fulfill your mandate and remain the most reliable politician.”
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