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‘Not a Bullet for Ukraine’: The Rise and Fall, and Rise Again, of Slovakia’s Populist Prime Minister

Robert Fico rode to electoral victory for the third time on a wave of strongman populism, media capture and pro-Russia rhetoric. But are the cracks beginning to appear?

Slovakian strongman Prime Minister Robert Fico in Bratislava, October 2023. Photo: CTK/Alamy

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“I say it loud and clear’’ said Robert Fico to cheering crowds in his central Slovakian hometown of Topolčany. “The war in Ukraine started in 2014 when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering the Russian population of Donbas’. The crowd clapped as they started to believe momentum was beginning to shift on this warm August evening. Maybe, their populist strongman candidate Robert Fico could actually become the next Prime Minister of Slovakia.

Fast forward to the 30 September 2023 and exit polls put Fico two percentage points behind Michal Šimečka’s Progressive Slovakia (PS) party. However, at five minutes to midnight Fico’s backers were starting to believe again. Šimečka urged his supporters to keep their fingers crossed and tweeted “We are anxiously waiting for more precincts to be counted”, but by the time the sun had risen it was inevitable, Fico would defy the exit polls, to win 23% of the votes and be elected Prime Minister for the third time since 1999.

Byline Times spoke to Marian Sekerák, a Slovak political scientist who works as a lecturer at AMBIS College, at the Institute for Christian-Democratic Politics in Prague, about Fico, what his re-election means for Slovakia and its relationship with the European Union. Fico not only has “an exceptional ability to capture the current moods and feeling of the majority of the population’ Sekerák tells Byline Times ‘but also the ability to articulate them politically.”

Fico has been at the forefront of Slovak politics for nearly quarter of a century but during the election showed an uncanny ability to reinvent himself as an anti-establishment politician who could bring change to Slovakia. Sekerák describes how Fico, in his previous tenure, created “a deep state with the help of oligarchic structures”. Fico and Smer, the political party he founded, have been shown to have connections with many of these oligarchs.

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Media Capture

Most of Slovakia’s media outlets are controlled by oligarchs, many of them are Smer party members and personally endorsed Fico in the election. Fico founded his political party Smer – Sociálna Demokracia (Direction – Social Democracy or Smer-SD) in 1999 after he left the Party of the Democratic Left which itself had evolved from The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1989 following the collapse the USSR.

The party initially defined itself as the Third Way party of Slovakia but in 2020, Fico announced a political shift to what he defined as a “rustic social democracy that perceives the specifics of [the] Slovak [people].” The post-2020 Smer party has been described as nationalist, populist and pro-Russian by many critics.

However, Fico’s strongman image has resonated with many Slovakians. Before his career in politics, he even wrote his PhD thesis about the history of the death penalty in Czechoslovakia and three years ago, he admitted he was “leaning more towards [reintroducing] it”.

“Fico has been able to successfully reflect the societal milieu” through strong “nationalistic rhetoric”, an ideological blend which has been “sufficiently attractive to a large portion of the Slovak electorate”, Sekerák highlights. Fico has “articulated anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiments” during his campaign, as well as “long-standing propaganda from Putin’s Russia” he explains.

Its Tentacles Reach as Far as Politics

In 2018 journalists Jan Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová were murdered. The murders shone a spotlight on some disturbing Smer party connections.

Jan Kuciak worked as a journalist at independent Slovak News Agency, He gained a reputation as fearless reporter after his 2017 article uncovered an organised tax fraud scheme involving people with close ties to the Smer party.

However, his final investigation “Italian Mafia in Slovakia; Its Tentacles Reach as Far as Politics” resulted in intimidation, death threats and the eventual murder of him and his fiancé.

Kuciak’s investigation found that the Italian ‘Ndrangheta’ crime syndicate had been receiving subsidies, embezzling EU funds and developing close relationships with influential people in Slovak politics.

Two people whose close connection to the Ndrangheta crime family was proven were Fico’s Chief Adviser Mária Trošková and Viliam Jasaň. During his second stint as Prime Minister, Fico appointed Jasaň to the role of Secretary of the Slovak State Security Council, a position which came with a top-level security clearance. Both were forced to take leaves of absence. Mass demonstrations were held throughout Slovakia and after much pressure, Fico himself was forced to resign on 14 March 2018.

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Fico and Ukraine

“Not a single bullet for Ukraine” pledged Fico in the run-up to the election. It was a quote which made the Slovak election headline news across Europe.  Slovakia’s defence industry has proven itself incredibly effective at producing NATO-calibre weapons – winning prestigious contracts in the process. Is Fico really willing to give up these lucrative contracts when the country has a huge budget deficit?

Sekerák feels the soundbites of the election campaign may be misleading. He says it is true that Fico’s government “rejects direct military aid from the state” but highlights that it “does not intend to impose any restrictions on contracts of military supplies made by private businesses”. Sekerāk adds that the government still “commits to providing humanitarian aid and assistance (alongside Slovak companies) in potential post-war reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.”

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Multi-Cultural Europe Has Failed

In October 2023, Fico sent over 4000 armed police and soldiers to the border with Hungary to stop refugees crossing the 677-mile border into Slovakia.

Not a single refugee was found but Slovakia’s relatively small influx of refugees didn’t stop immigration becoming an important issue during the election. In the past Fico has said “The idea of multicultural Europe failed and the natural integration of people who have another way of life, way of thinking, cultural background and most of all religion, is not possible”. It is a sentiment which has struck a chord with the Slovak electorate as well as across Europe.

Today, Italy’s government is led by Giorgia Meloni, of the right-wing populist party Brothers of Italy. In France, Marine Le Pen finished second in last year’s presidential elections and last month Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam party gained the largest share of seats in Dutch Parliament.


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“Enough of the Tolerance”

A small primary school in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in eastern Slovakia, became the centre of a national debate in the run-up to the general election. Partly due to the school’s proximity to a Roma settlement, the school has virtually no ethnic Slovak students. The school was said to have resources which were inferior to the school populated by mainly ethnic Slovaks in the centre of town. There are concerns in Brussels that in some Slovak towns this is being replicated, with some likening it to an apartheid educational system.

Around 9% of Slovakia’s population is Roma, back in 2016, Fico stated he wanted to “bring back law and order in the Gypsy towns” before declaring “Enough of the tolerance!” A recent study by American philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI) found that Roma students were 28 times more likely to be put in special schools than non-Roma Pupil in Slovakia.

Time will tell what Fico’s premiership means for Slovakia’s Roma population and its relationship with the European Union and NATO, but it is Marian Sekerak ‘s view that “Slovakia has not been, is not, and likely will not be a liberal and progressive country for decades.”

The First Seeds of Discontent?

On Friday 8 December 2023, Fico proposed to abolish the role of the Special Prosecutor’s Office (ÚŠP), which oversees the investigation of the most serious criminal cases in Slovakia.  Such as the corruption case still hanging over his previous 2018 Smer government.

The decision brought an immediate response from Michal Šimečka, leader of Slovakia’s largest opposition party. He stated “We love Slovakia, and we will defend it. Fico and his government do not care about Slovakia at all,”. The move also brought thousands of protestors to Bratislava’s Liberty Square. The crowd chanted “Enough of Fico” and “You can’t get away with this”. 

Whether he does get away with it remains to be seen. But what Fico has shown is that, time and time again, criticism from Bratislava to Brussels means little to him.

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