A version of Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics modified for Central Europe could go as follows: Any country or political organization that is not explicitly pro-Western will sooner or later end up doing the Kremlin’s bidding. To avoid that fate, the countries’ foreign policies need either constant tending or a strong geopolitical compass grounded in historic experience, such as that of the Baltic states or Poland. No matter how disgruntled voters of Poland’s Law and Justice Party may be with Brussels or with Angela Merkel’s Wilkommenskultur, few of them would seriously question the country’s loyalties to the European Union, much less to the Transatlantic alliance.
Yet others in the region are losing that compass. In a recent poll conducted by Globsec, a Bratislava-based think tank, only 21 percent of Slovaks said that they believed that their country belonged to the West. Instead, 56 percent stated that they wanted their country to be “somewhere between the West and the East.” The result is striking not only because for many that question was already answered in November 1989 and when Slovakia joined NATO and the European Union, but also because it echoes an earlier idea that was common in Czechoslovakia immediately after the end of the Second World War. The notion that the Slavic nation was not fully Western but should have acted as a bridge between the USSR and Western Europe paved the way for the communist takeover in February 1948.
Slovaks have been more eager than their neighbors to embrace all aspects of European integration since joining the bloc in 2004. Slovakia is the only Visegrád country to have joined the Eurozone. Even the former Prime Minister Robert Fico—who was compared at times to Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński—emphasized that being part of the European Union’s integration core was one of the country’s vital interests. Slovakia’s most popular politician, President Andrej Kiska, is a staunch internationalist, who at the peak of the EU refugee crisis emphasized the need for a compassionate, humane response.
Yet the unambiguously pro-European and Atlanticist allegiances of the country, embodied by figures like Kiska and reflected in its official foreign policy line, seem increasingly out of sync with large parts of public opinion.
A case in point: retrospective optimism. 81 percent of Slovaks told pollsters that bonds between people had been stronger under the communist regime than today. A majority of 71 percent claimed that the quality of food was higher before 1989 (nonsense), 79 percent that crime rates were lower (disputed, but not likely, at least not in the 1980s), and 63 percent believed that people lived longer and were less prone to die of preventable causes during the communist era (between 1990 and 2016, life expectancy increased by six years, to over 77 years).
Politicians across the political spectrum have long catered to such nostalgia. Fico’s party, Smer, built its popularity by denouncing the neoliberal reforms of its predecessors and whitewashing the communist regime by pointing to the comprehensive welfare schemes it had enacted. As he put it in a 2000 interview, “let’s not pretend everything was bad and that we were living in a black hole.” Other politicians have pandered to different sources of nostalgia. On Slovakia’s nationalist Right, the wartime Slovak State, during which over 70,000 Slovak Jewish citizens perished in concentration camps, is usually treated with veneration.
Nostalgia has eclipsed even the memory of Soviet invasion of 1968, which killed at least 108 people across Czechoslovakia, left many others wounded, and ushered in a period of military occupation that lasted over 20 years. Typically, NATO’s bombing of Serbia and the Iraq War are invoked as evidence of an equivalence between Moscow and Washington. As a result, on both sides of the Czecho-Slovak border, being openly pro-Russian is not disqualifying for political leaders. In Prague, the second-term President Miloš Zeman has built a reputation for being Vladimir Putin’s most reliable ally in Europe, much to the Czechs’ indifference. In Slovakia, Fico has been more restrained but consistent in his criticisms of sanctions against Russia.
Lately, things have been escalating. Halfway through last year, one of the country’s most high-profile politicians, Andrej Danko, who serves as speaker of parliament and leader of the soft-nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), has started to wear his pro-Kremlin allegiances as a badge of honor. “World peace is impossible without a strong Russia,” he affirmed at a June conference on “Development of Parliamentarism” in Moscow, hosted by Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s Duma. “It is my wish to see [President Putin] visit Bratislava. Hopefully, after the next election,” he added.
A combination of nostalgia, geopolitical blindness, and weak institutions leaves Slovakia vulnerable. A group of Slovak parliamentarians visited Crimea at the end of July, in direct contradiction of Slovakia’s official position on the matter.
Such publicity stunts are only the tip of the iceberg. For over six years, a paramilitary organization that calls itself “Slovak Conscripts” (SB) has been training young men from the age of 15 for combat. While preserving a veneer of plausible deniability about its goals, necessary for it to operate legally, the organization hides neither its pan-Slavic ideology nor its ties to Russia.
It was recently reported that the Night Wolves, a Russian bikers’ club close to Vladimir Putin, operates a military-like base in Slovakia, which is used as a training ground by the SB, utilizing old military equipment provided by Slovakia’s Ministry of Defense. The Night Wolves claim that the structure compound built on grounds owned by a close friend of the former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, is meant to serve as a military museum—even if it remains closed to the public and is surrounded by razor wire.
In some Slovak circles, such initiatives are met with applause. In an op-ed responding to the revelations, Ján Čarnogurský, a former Christian Democratic Prime Minister and a dissident imprisoned during the communist era, writes that “the rule of the West is probably ending”—and that this is a good thing. “Putin has stabilized the space from Ukraine to the Pacific. He supplies Europe with oil and gas and the entire world with wheat. He defeated terrorists in the Middle East, stopping them from cutting people’s throats and chasing out hundreds of thousands, particularly Christians, to Europe.”
Under Mr. Kaliňák’s leadership, the Interior Ministry provided assistance to Vietnam’s intelligence services (including the use of a Slovak government airplane with an altered passenger manifest) in the abduction of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a high-profile businessman and politician, from Germany. The investigation by German police showed that Thanh was flown as part of a Vietnamese delegation by Slovak authorities to Moscow. Upon his arrival home, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
To outside observers, the country is full of paradoxes. Recently, the Defense Ministry, led by a pro-Russian SNS nominee, splurged and purchased 14 of the latest generation of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to replace Slovakia’s dilapidated MiGs, even though their price tag of €1.6 billion was dramatically higher than the proposal put forward by Sweden’s Saab for its JAS-39s, used also by the neighboring Czech Republic. Cynics say that the decision was not motivated by SNS’s newly found love for the United States. Rather, because the first of the F-16s will only be delivered in 2022, whereas the JAS-39s were available now, the ministry is in a position to extend the existing contract with Russia for the servicing of the MiGs.
Earlier this year, the country saw an extraordinary mobilization of its civil society following the murder of the journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, with protests that were similar in size to those that took place in November 1989. So far, their impact has been minor—a government reshuffle—and Slovaks eventually got tired of coming to the streets. Yet there is a palpable sense that everything is up for grabs. A total of four elections are scheduled for the coming months: local ones (November 2018), presidential (2019), European (May 2019), and parliamentary (March 2020). Adding to the uncertainty, President Kiska announced that he would not run for re-election (which he would have easily achieved) but would rather seek to remain active in some other role, possibly by leading a broad centrist, pro-Western coalition in the parliamentary election in 2020. With political realignments happening across the political spectrum, predictions are difficult. It is obvious, however, that the cluster of elections occurring at a fraught moment will shape the country’s fate for the next generation, if not for longer.
What pro-Western leaders and activists have to realize is that things have changed since the defeat of the country’s authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. The strong pull of the European Union and NATO is not going to work its magic like it did in 1998. Traditional funders of civil society and political activism, from Western embassies to George Soros, have either moved on or have other, bigger fish to fry. In a strange paradox of its post-communist existence, Slovakia is now more deeply embedded in the Western international order than at any point in its history—yet also completely on its own in facing the doubts about its identity and the slow rot spread by the Kremlin.