Robert Fico, a pro-Russian politician, is again Slovakia’s prime minister. His government has already blocked a military aid package for Ukraine and promises not to give Ukraine any more weapons from its stockpiles.
"This does not mean that everything is lost," Alexander Duleba, a senior fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), tells LIGA.net.
However, he admits that a potential conflict between Bratislava and Brussels could make things worse.
(UN)STABLE COALITION: WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE FICO GOVERNMENT
Mr Fico and his populist Smer-SD party campaigned on Eurosceptic, anti-American, and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric during last month’s parliamentary elections. Perhaps most well-known is his promise not to give Ukraine "a single firearms ammo".
After the elections, the new Slovak PM said in Brussels that Ukraine was "the most corrupt country in the world".
"If there is an opportunity, he will definitely criticise Ukraine," Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), tells LIGA.net. "And he constantly talks about Ukraine as a problem for the EU."
A recent scandal in the Slovak parliament is a case in point.
Luboš Blaha from Smer-SD, who is the newly appointed deputy speaker of the Slovak parliament, recorded a video of himself replacing the EU flag with a second Slovak flag in his office and replacing the portrait of president Zuzana Čaputová with Che Guevara, a Cuban communist revolutionary. Opposition criticised Mr Blaha and started collecting signatures for his resignation.
Smer-SD won the election by a narrow margin of 23 percent against 17 percent in the opposition Progressive Slovakia. However, Mr Fico managed to form a three-party coalition with Hlas (15 percent), led by his former ally Peter Pellegrini, and the nationalist SNS (5.7 percent).
Hlas positions itself as much more moderate than Smer-SD, while SNS is the most Eurosceptic and pro-Russian in the coalition—which prompted the Party of European Socialists to suspend the membership of Smer-SD and Hlas.
Slovakia’s three coalition parties have 79 seats in parliament out of the minimum 76 required for the majority.
The small majority could theoretically indicate the instability of the coalition, but this is not the case, the Slovak analysts approached by LIGA.net say.
"I expect the coalition to be very stable," Darina Malová, professor of political science at Comenius University in Bratislava, says. "There are differences in political platforms between Hlas, which is trying to be a pro-European social democracy, and SNS. But they are not as important as the desire for power."
Disputes within the government should not mislead, either.
SNS leader Andrej Danko has criticised Mr Fico for supporting the joint statement of the EU leaders’ summit referring to continued military support for Ukraine, and has attacked an education minister from the Hlas party.
For Mr Danko, this is common behaviour, explains Mr Mesežnikov, saying that he already tried to create a similar coalition crisis in 2017.
"Mr Danko is known for his unpredictable statements, but he holds tightly onto power," the analyst believes. "This is all to show his voters that they have some important position in the government. But in reality, he won’t be making any internal opposition."
WEAPONS: ‘GIFTS’ AND REALPOLITIK
Slovakia’s role in arms supplies to Ukraine can be divided into two parts: so-called ‘gifts’ and commercial contracts with the Slovak military-industrial complex.
The ‘gifts’ mean supplies mainly from Slovakia’s stockpiles of weapons, usually of Soviet origin. They started almost immediately after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Bratislava often pioneered the transfer of some of the weapons. For instance, it was the first to give Ukraine air defence systems (Soviet S-300) and MiG-29 aircraft.
Those supplies are ‘gifts’ only figuratively speaking, since the EU compensated 30 to 50 percent of their cost, points out Alexander Duleba from the SFPA, who was an advisor to Slovakia’s two previous prime ministers.
In total, Slovakia has provided Ukraine with EUR 700 million in military aid. However, as the full-scale war entered the second year, the Slovak stockpiles were almost exhausted, Mr Duleba says.
"In principle, the stockpiles are already empty. That is, last year we gave away almost all the Soviet shells we still had," he tells LIGA.net.
The technical government of Ludovit Odor, appointed after the previous one suffered a vote of no confidence, found more equipment and proposed a new package for Ukraine worth EUR 40 million, including four million rounds of ammunition and shells for Soviet-era Kub air defence systems.
But the Odor government decided not to approve the aid package on the eve of the Slovak elections in order to avoid politicising it and creating unnecessary problems, Mr Mesežnikov says.
"I think they made a mistake," he adds.
On 8 November, the new government led by Robert Fico expectedly failed to approve the EUR 40 million package. Several days later, the country’s defence ministry confirmed it would not supply Ukraine with weapons from its stockpiles.
"This is a consequence of the election campaign, namely Mr Fico’s promises not to give any firearms ammunition," says Ms Malová. "This is the main reason why the government did not approve the package. They are showing voters that they are keeping their promises."
The story is different with commercial contracts for arms production. Currently, Slovak companies have orders for the production of Zuzana 2 howitzers for Ukraine, paid for by Germany, Norway and Denmark, and the EU-funded production of ammunition and weapons repair is being established.
Thanks to those contracts and increased production, Ukraine may receive even more Slovak rounds of shells, says Alexander Duleba. Last year, Slovakia produced about 10,000 shells for Ukraine. This year, the figure is expected to reach 50,000, and in 2024, 150,000.
The experts approached by LIGA.net are convinced that neither Peter Pellegrini, the leader of Hlas, nor Mr Fico himself is against this. The Slovak PM personally said that "no one will interfere" with commercial contracts on arms supplies.
"This is a purely commercial relationship. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are employed in the production of this equipment," says Grigorij Mesežnikov. "This is a private business and I think it can reach out to the parties of this coalition."
There could be problems if Mr Fico decides that signing such contracts could cause him personal harm, the analyst adds.
"But here the situation is still more favourable, unlike [with] the aid that Slovakia provided to Ukraine from its own reserves."
EUR 50 BILLION FOR UKRAINE AND ISSUES WITH EU
Slovakia is also important for Ukraine as a member of the European Union, where many issues are dealt with by consensus of all 27 member states.
Two of them now stand out for Kyiv. The first is a EUR 50 billion macro-financial aid package for Ukraine for the years 2024-2027. The European commission submitted it back in June, but the EU members are yet to approve it.
At the EU summit in late October, Mr Fico was initially sceptical about the package, but then said that Slovakia was ready to allocate its EUR 400 million if part of the package was spent on border transport infrastructure and support for Slovak companies involved in Ukraine reconstruction.
Also, the Slovak PM supported the EU summit’s joint statement declaring support for Ukraine. This shows that he will still support the package, Mr Duleba tells LIGA.net.
"No one has asked him to speak about it yet, because there is no agreement; it will be in December. But he said it and even named the amount that someone has calculated, although there hasn’t even been a distribution of contributions between the countries yet," the analyst points out.
Mr Mesežnikov concurs, adding that while it is difficult to predict the Slovak PM’s position when the final decision is to be made, it's unlikely he will veto. When he was prime monster before, Mr Fico always followed a pattern of agreeing to joint decisions in Brussels while criticising the EU at home.
"But Mr Fico is no longer that populist pragmatist. He is now an anti-systemic politician who has problems with liberal democracy and Western values," the analyst tells LIGA.net. "I’m not saying that this will happen, but I don’t rule out that he can create problems."
The other important EU decision is the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, which the EU’s executive recommended on 8 November. For this to happen, the European council, that is, the EU leaders’ meeting, must give a green light when it meets on 14-15 December.
If Mr Fico supports the EU’s macro-financial package, he will also support Ukraine’s accession negotiations, Mr Duleba is convinced.
Darina Malová from Comenius University in Bratislava believes it is difficult to predict the Slovak PM’s decision in full. It also depends on the position of Hungary, which is still threatening to veto the accession talks.
Ultimately, Mr Fico will approve the talks, the analyst says.
"This has been a priority of all previous Slovak governments. But at home, there will be attempts by [Mr Fico] to justify this position and downplay the importance of the talks."
Yet another indicator is Slovakia’s position on EU sanctions against Russia, Mr Duleba said.
Mr Fico has made it clear that he will not oppose restrictions except for nuclear energy. The latter is important for the pro-Russian prime minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, where Russia’s Rosatom is building the Paks-II nuclear power plant.
CAN IT GET WORSE?
Relations with Brussels could deteriorate if Mr Fico starts purging the justice system in his country, Alexander Duleba tells LIGA.net.
In 2018, he resigned as prime minister in a scandalous manner, amid the murder of the journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating high-profile corruption.
Since then, corruption investigations have been launched against 130 officials, and 40 have already been convicted, Mr Duleba recalls. Two years ago, the Slovak parliament almost lifted the immunity of Mr Fico himself but for one vote.
The Slovak PM will want to stop these investigations, the analyst believes.
Potential interference in the judiciary will cause a negative reaction from the EU, and then Ukraine’s EU accession could become an element of Mr Fico’s bargaining with Brussels, he explains.
"I don't think it will happen before the summit in December... They just won't have time to go into this conflict yet."