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Facebook is only one of the reasons why Slovakia is one of the most pro-Russian countries in the region. From Dennik N.
When Jana, a 59-year-old sales assistant, is asked what she thinks of Russia, the first thing that comes to mind is that Russia is a country that’s close to us. She thinks Russians have never hurt Slovaks – in fact, quite the opposite.
“When it comes to the war [World War II], credit has been taken away from Russia and given to America. Russia has basically never hurt us – they have only ever been helpful,” she says.
The 64-year-old pensioner Peter also admires Russia. He likes how unyielding it is toward the West.
“Russia is a rich country. They won’t let others mess with them; there’s no way America could be telling them what to do. They’re independent, they’re not afraid of anyone. America has forgotten that it was Russia that won the war,” he explains.
Finally, 38-year-old teacher Helena. The first thing she imagines when she hears about Russia is its hidden potential. If Russians wanted to, she thinks they could take control of global markets.
“They’re always in a waiting position. If somebody wanted to hurt them, that’s when they would show their real strength,” she adds.
Unrealistic Ideas of Russia?
Jana, Peter, and Helena are not their real names, but the professions and ages of these respondents are real. Last year, all three of them participated in a focus group, part of a qualitative survey that the Globsec think tank commissioned. Its aim was to map Slovaks’ attitudes toward Russia in greater detail.
According to analyst Katarina Klingova, this research was among several that showed that some Slovaks get their ideas of Russia from propaganda that doesn’t necessarily match reality.
“Many statements show us that these people don’t have a realistic idea of what the living standards of everyday Russians look like. They are not aware of the widespread violation of human rights in the country, nor of the Kremlin’s subversive activities in the surrounding region,” she says.
The attitudes of Slovaks toward Russia are currently often in the news. A recent poll by the Focus research agency for the TV channel Markiza covered the issue, as well. One poll finding that caused quite a stir was the fact that 44 percent of Slovaks blame the United States and NATO rather than Russian President Vladimir Putin for tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border.
A number of politicians have commented on the poll results. Slovak President Zuzana Caputova reminded people that it was Russia that had moved over 100,000 soldiers near its border with Ukraine, whereas NATO countries only have several thousand military personnel in the area. She said propaganda was the reason why almost half of all Slovaks see it the other way around.
“The Slovak Republic is a massive object for propaganda, which is something that we have to take effective steps against,” she said.
On the other hand, other politicians have welcomed the poll results. Smer party chairman [and former Prime Minister] Robert Fico said that the president should accept the fact that Slovaks see the world differently from her.
“Madame president, the nation is irreplaceable. You cannot change the nation so that everybody’s listening to your American talk and American interests,” he said at a press conference.
Only Bulgaria is More Pro-Russian
Analysts and sociologists say they are not surprised by the results of this poll. They have repeatedly pointed out these trends in Slovak society in their studies.
“Slovakia is consistently exhibiting the highest level of pro-Russian attitudes among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with only Bulgaria in a similar situation,” former Globsec analyst Daniel Milo, currently working for the Ministry of the Interior, noted on Facebook.
In 2020, for example, Globsec published a poll, which, to the eyes of pro-Western politicians, had even more alarming results than the latest one, even though it did not cause as much of a commotion. A total of 56 percent of Slovaks agreed with the statement that “NATO is provoking Russia by building military bases.”
By way of comparison, 38 percent of Czechs agreed with the statement, as well as 33 percent of Hungarians and 23 percent of respondents in the traditionally anti-Russian country of Poland.
According to that poll, most Slovaks had adopted the basic message of pro-Kremlin propaganda, as spread by disinformation websites and some politicians: Russia is only ever defending itself; the aggressor is always the West.
“It would seem that a number of politicians are well aware of these sentiments. That is also why we are currently observing all the objections to the defense agreement with the U.S., as well as to NATO’s offer to strengthen our defense through what is known as enhanced forward presence,” added Milo.
Three Causes of Russophilia
What are the causes of this pro-Russian sentiment in Slovak society?
The analysts we talked to have mentioned three different factors. One is a romantic view of Russia and myths of pan-Slavic brotherhood, which have existed here since the 19th century. Generations of students have studied this in Slovak literature classes where they learn about the 19th century political and literary movement led by Ludovit Stur.
“A positive notion of Russian as a Slavic country, the romantic idea that our two countries are Slavic brothers, was formed in the 19th century with Ludovit Stur and his book Slavdom and the World of the Future,” says analyst Klingova.
A second factor that is often mentioned is the 40 years of the communist regime, with its enhanced cooperation with Moscow. Or, as the official slogan went, “with the Soviet Union for all eternity and never any other way”.
The third factor is the recent boom in disinformation media, spreading messages that suit the Kremlin. Some of them, including Hlavne spravy and Zem a Vek have also been maintaining demonstrable contacts with representatives of the Russian state.
These messages are also being repeated by a large group of politicians, for example from the [national-populist] Smer, SNS, LSNS, and Republika parties. They are “competing” in front of their audience as to who will most vigorously defend Russia and condemn the actions of the U.S. and NATO.
“Disinformers and politicians who have made their antagonism toward the U.S. and their pro-Russian stance their main agenda are often hiding behind talk of Slavic brotherhood. They are forgetting that Ukrainians and Poles are also Slavs. Those people would quickly explain to them what that brotherhood really looks like,” noted Milo.
The United States is the Biggest Problem
In this text we are asking two questions that are directly linked with this topic.
First, to what extent do Slovaks’ pro-Russian attitudes influence the country’s foreign policy?
Second: How did pro-Russian, or anti-Western, sentiment evolve over time?
Let’s start with the impact on foreign policy. The pro-Russian sentiment of Slovakia’s population has thus far not had much of an impact on the real steps that Slovak governments have taken. Since 1998, all of Slovakia’s governments have actively worked on the country’s partnership with NATO and the United States, both on paper and in practice.
Robert Fico, for example, did frequently defend Russia in the media, but the governments of his party Smer also increased Slovakia’s military contingent in Afghanistan, accepted prisoners from Guantanamo, and signed strategic purchases of American helicopters and fighter jets.
In 2014, Fico allowed reverse flow of natural gas to Ukraine, contravening Russian interests. The then U.S. vice president and current president, Joe Biden, had asked Fico to do so over the phone.
In this respect, analysts and sociologists are highlighting an important caveat, which is also taken into account by Slovak politicians. Support for Slovakia’s membership in NATO remains stable, and is, in fact, even somewhat increasing.
Whereas a Globsec poll from 2017 showed 43 percent supporting continued membership in NATO, by 2021 the number had climbed up to 63 percent.
How can this paradox be explained?
The director of the Focus polling agency, Martin Slosiarik, says people in Slovakia do not necessarily oppose NATO, but more specifically the United States.
“What we have been observing in polls for a long time is a strong anti-American sentiment,” says the sociologist Slosiarik.
We’ll Turn to the East
Now turning to the other question: How has the pro-Russian sentiment of Slovaks changed over time?
Let us start in the 1990s. In 1995, the-then Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar said something that defined his government’s foreign policy: If they don’t want us in the West, we’ll turn to the East.
Two years later, Slovakia was not invited to join NATO – unlike its neighbors.
“The governing style of Meciar’s governments, the failed referendum on NATO membership and on direct election of the president, as well as the April 2017 agreement with Russia all meant that Slovakia’s chances [of joining NATO] remained poor, and have, in fact, deteriorated even further,” wrote the political scientist Alexander Duleba in a paper of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) published then.
What did Slovakia’s pro-Russian sentiments look like under Meciar?
IVO conducted one of the few surveys at the time. In 1997 researchers asked respondents whether they supported a military and political alliance with Russia.
Only 17 percent answered yes. The vast majority rejected any such alliance.
Similar attitudes were recorded when Slovaks were asked who they wanted to be the country’s political, military, and business partner. Fewer people chose Russia than they did the U.S., with EU countries at the top of the list.
Russia is Likeable, but Only From Afar
The sociologist Zora Butorova from IVO says these results were also a reflection of the general mobilization against Meciar at the time, which also went hand-in-hand with a desire to change foreign policy.
“This mobilization included an effort to make Slovakia a member of the EU and NATO. A big segment of the population was influenced by the fact that Slovakia was lagging behind its neighbors at the time,” says Butorova.
She’s also highlighting another important fact, which could also be observed in later polling. Even though many people in Slovakia like Russia, they do not want their country to become a part of the Russian world.
“More Slovaks feel part of the West than part of the East – even though the biggest group sees Slovakia as somewhere in between,” she adds.
The sociologist also unearthed a poll carried out by the pollster Focus in 1993 – the first year of Slovakia’s existence as an independent country. In the poll, as many as 65 percent of people supported the idea that Slovakia should become a “political bridge between the West and the East.”
By way of comparison, a Globsec poll from 2019 showed the following data: Less than 25 percent wanted to be part of the West, 10 percent part of the East, with 46 percent somewhere in between.
Attacks on Yugoslavia and Iraq
How did the [geopolitical] sentiment in Slovaks develop later on?
A significant event was NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Even though the first government of Mikulas Dzurinda allowed the presence of NATO aircraft in Slovakia’s airspace, most Slovaks opposed the bombing campaign.
In April 1999, IVO sociologists asked a related question in a poll. Only 28 percent of respondents supported the NATO campaign. Almost two thirds said it was wrong.
Another milestone was the invasion of Iraq four years later, which damaged the reputation of the U.S. not only in Slovakia, but also globally.
Starting in 2004, attitudes toward U.S. policy have been monitored by the international project Transatlantic Trends, run in Slovakia by former diplomat Pavol Demes and sociologist Olga Gyarfasova.
Only half of Slovaks supported U.S. policy at that time. There was a marked improvement after 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, who profiled himself as a peacemaker, but the increase was only temporary.
“Generally speaking, Slovakia’s population has a less positive opinion of the U.S. and its international policy than the average EU country,” said the authors in 2013.
This was just before the launch of pro-Kremlin websites, as well as just before Facebook started to play a major role in influencing public opinion. Even back then, Slovaks’ antipathy toward the U.S. as well as their stronger-than-average admiration of Russia could already be seen.
“Slovakia stands out with its positive attitudes towards Russia. Russia’s leadership would be welcome by 39 percent and a positive view of the country is held by 58 percent of respondents – the highest percentage of all the countries included in the survey,” was the conclusion of the press release of Transatlantic Trends in 2013.
Push of Pro-Kremlin forces
Then came 2014, the year when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea, launched a conflict in eastern Ukraine, and also started spreading propaganda in countries including Slovakia. This conclusion was officially confirmed in June 2016 by the Ministry of the Interior, led at the time by Smer politician Robert Kalinak.
“Like other states in Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia has become an object of information activities of influential structures of the Russian Federation,” wrote the ministry.
At the time, dozens of websites were already active in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, trying to convince readers that the West rather than Russia is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. This ecosystem was later joined by politicians who were building their own communities of fans on social networks.
For example, the most popular politicians on Facebook for the year 2021 were Smer deputy Lubos Blaha and two politicians from the far-right Republika movement – Milan Uhrik and Milan Mazurek.
What all three of them have in common is that they uncritically defend the interests of the Kremlin, expressing understanding or even loyalty toward Vladimir Putin.
Available polling data shows that the era of social networks has created new opportunities for the activities of Kremlin propaganda.
The personal popularity of President Putin, for example, has been steadily increasing for a number of years. In 2017 he was popular among 41 percent of respondents, according to the Globsec report; by 2020 it was already 55 percent, again according to Globsec’s research.
At the same time, fewer and fewer Slovaks consider Russia to be a security threat. In 2019, 26 percent of Slovaks considered this to be the case, whereas in 2020 it was only 20 percent.
“The trends showed by these figures have a lot to do with social media, which are subject to a large disinformation network, including pro-Kremlin politicians,” says the analyst Klingova from Globsec.
Big Pharma is Evil? Only in the West
Yet another factor entering the situation was the 2020 pandemic, which might have strengthened anti-Western attitudes even further. That at least is the assessment of analyst Daniel Milo.
“The COVID pandemic has also been linked to what is known as an ‘infodemic’. During this period, the narratives of disinformation websites have spread among the general population,” he says.
How are these two topics, the pandemic and the perception of international politics, related?
Disinformation consumers now believe, for example, that the pandemic was caused by pharmaceutical companies – but only the Western ones. Symbolically, they are represented by the American company Pfizer, even though its COVID vaccine was developed in Europe (in a consortium with the German company BioNTech).
Possible links have also been shown in recent research by Czech psychologists. They asked respondents about their attitudes toward vaccination, as well as whether they feel part of the West or the East. Results have shown that pro-Western people were more often vaccinated – by a difference of 20 points.
“Many Slovaks who reject vaccination and question the very existence of COVID are also opposed to NATO or the DCA defense agreement with the U.S. These narratives link up,” adds Milo.
Vladimir Snidl is a journalist at Dennik N, an independent news outlet in Slovakia. This article originally appeared on Dennik N. Reprinted by permission.
Translated by Matus Nemeth.