LONDON - Slovakia is due to hold parliamentary elections Saturday amid fears in Kyiv and Western capitals that the result could jeopardize unity on support for Ukraine following Russia's full-scale invasion last year.
The populist Smer, or Direction, party, led by former prime minister Robert Fico, is leading the polls with around 18% of the vote. He has campaigned on a platform of ending military support for Ukraine and blocking the country's path to NATO membership, while opposing sanctions on Russia.
Speaking at a campaign rally September 6 in the town of Michalovce, close to the Ukrainian border, Fico called for an end to Western weapons supplies for Kyiv.
"Peace is the only solution. I refuse to get criticized and labeled as a warmonger just for talking about peace, whereas those who support war and killing are being called peace activists. We have it all messed up in our heads. We will not send a single bullet to Ukraine from the state stocks," Fico told cheering supporters.
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Slovakia has until now been a strong supporter of Ukraine, donating its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets and an S-300 air defense system.
Fico pledged to reverse such policies. "Why for God's sake don't we go negotiate peace? Why do we only talk about how much ammunition we are going to send to Ukraine, what tanks are we going to send, how many billions are we going to spend on more armaments?" he said.
"Why don't we force the warring parties, use the weight of the EU and the U.S. to make them sit down and find some sort of compromise that would guarantee security for Ukraine," Fico told The Associated Press in a recent interview, adding that he would oppose European Union sanctions on Moscow and block any application by Ukraine to join NATO.
Fico's Smer party looks set to fall well short of a parliamentary majority and would need to form a coalition government, giving a potentially crucial role to Slovakia's numerous smaller political parties.
Fico served as Slovakia's prime minister between 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018.
He was forced to resign after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, in 2018 prompted mass protests. Kuciak had been investigating alleged tax fraud among top Slovakian business leaders with close links to politicians.
Since then, Slovakia has undergone a period of political turmoil, with four prime ministers in five years. Fico appears to have regained his support, partly on the back of his calls to end support for Ukraine, according to Dominika Hajdu, an analyst with the Bartislava-based policy group GLOBSEC.
"These kind of anti-Ukraine or even pro-Russian narratives resonate among Slovaks. One factor is definitely that Slovakia has historically had quite a large portion of the society with pro-Russian sentiments," Hajdu told VOA.
A recent survey by GLOBSEC showed that just over half of Slovaks believe the West or Kyiv are responsible for the war following Russia's February 2022 invasion. Similarly, half of respondents saw the United States as posing a security threat for Slovakia, up from 39% in 2022.
Politicians have sought to exploit those sentiments, Hajdu said. "Political representatives have been utilizing the war in Ukraine to spread nationalist populism. So, they put the issue of the war in Ukraine into the contrast with being pro-Slovak," he said.
"Just to give you an example: 'By providing military support to Ukraine, we are taking security guarantees from Slovakia. By providing financial support to Ukraine, we're taking money from Slovaks who need it more.' So, they were able to create an assumption that by being pro-Ukrainian, you're anti-Slovak," Hajdu told VOA.
Until now, Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been the sole NATO and EU member to openly question Western support for Ukraine. Fico sees Orban as a future ally, says Grigorij Meseznikov of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.
"I think [Fico] is not brave enough to become a single dissident. But now that he's got Orban, he's got a solid point to adhere to. So, he will join Orban. He has become very authentically pro-Russian and spreads Russian narratives," Meseznikov told The Associated Press.
In several other Western countries, populist parties skeptical of the West's military aid to Ukraine enjoy significant public support, Hajdu said.
"I'm afraid it might cause a bit of a domino effect, especially in countries that are awaiting elections. We're already seeing in Poland that the issue of support for Ukraine is being brought up," Hajdu said. Poland is due to hold elections October 15.
The Progressive Slovakia party, led by the current vice president of the European Parliament, Michal Simecka, is polling just behind Fico's Smer party. Simecka is strongly pro-Western and supports military aid for Ukraine.
Analysts say that coalition negotiations will be difficult for any party and that the elections are unlikely to end Slovakia's political turmoil.