Hungary in waiting: The Slovak challenge for the EU and Ukraine

The new Slovak government seems a natural pro-Kremlin ally for Hungary. But there is still time for the EU, member states, and Ukraine to get Fico onside

epa10940425 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico (R) during the European Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 26 October 2023. In a two-day summit on 26-27 October, EU leaders are expected to address the situation in the Middle-East and Ukraine, as well as the EU’s long-term budget, migration, and external relations. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (C) and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico (R) during the European Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 26 October 2023
Image by picture alliance / EPA | OLIVIER HOSLET
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Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban and his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico seem natural allies on Ukraine. During this autumn’s election campaign, Fico echoed baseless Russian propaganda about Ukraine being a “Nazi state” and called for an end to Slovak military support for Kyiv. He also took a leaf straight out of Orban’s playbook, denouncing Western sanctions against Russia while arguing for a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow. Once in office he doubled down on this rhetoric, both at the first hearing of the Slovak EU affairs parliamentary committee and during talks with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. This could point to Slovakia joining Hungary as a pro-Kremlin outpost in the European Union. But Fico is still assessing his options, and he may prove more willing to bargain than his colleague in Budapest.

At the December European Council meeting, EU member states are expected to decide on the Ukraine Facility, a €50 billion aid package for 2024-27; €500m in military aid for Ukraine from the European Peace Facility; and whether the EU should open accession talks with Kyiv. The EU also continues to debate its 12th sanctions package against Russia. The EU, member states, and Ukraine should take the initiative now and engage with Slovak decision-makers directly. This would enable them to capitalise on Fico’s potential for compromise, helping to prevent a Slovak mirror of Hungary within the bloc – and undermining any potential alliance before it gets off the ground.

The first weeks of Fico’s government can hardly have been reassuring for Ukraine (or the EU). The four-time prime minister heads a coalition comprising Peter Pellegrini’s social democratic Voice (Vlas) party, Andrej Danko’s radical right Slovak National Party (SNS), and Fico’s own populist Direction–Social Democracy (SMER). Fico appointed his political allies and SMER stalwarts Juraj Blanar and former interior minister Robert Kalinak as foreign and defence ministers to ensure the party line prevails in those policy areas. In fact, the appointment of Blanar as foreign minister is a clear departure from Fico’s previous habit of opting for a career diplomat in the position, which suggests the politicisation of the policy field. The government then fulfilled its election promise of cutting Slovak military aid to Ukraine, annulling on 8 November what should have been its 14th bilateral military aid package to Kyiv. It has, however, remained ambivalent about Slovak companies supplying Ukraine with military equipment on a commercial basis.

Some of Fico’s moves indicate that he could be more flexible than his initial rhetoric suggested, and he could be open to bargaining if he can turn EU concessions into success stories at home

At the EU level, Fico appears to be weighing his blackmail potential and room for manoeuvre. Some of his moves indicate that he could be more flexible than his initial rhetoric suggested, and could be open to bargaining if he can turn EU concessions into success stories at home. For example, despite stating that he does not support further military aid for Ukraine, Fico did not fight for the removal of references to such aid from the conclusions of the October European Council meeting – much to the disapproval of his coalition partner and SNS leader Danko (who subsequently cast doubt on the longevity of the coalition). Nor did Fico rule out contributing financially to the Ukraine Facility, though he did underwrite his four-year €400m pledge with conditions that would ultimately favour Slovakia and Slovak companies.

This approach is reflected in his programme for government: the document emphasises that reconstruction in Ukraine should represent a business opportunity for Slovakia and contribute to the development of Slovakia’s border regions. It also calls for guarantees against the misuse of EU funds, alleging high levels of corruption in Ukraine. But the European Commission is well aware of these issues and has already recommended that the government in Kyiv address them. That is, if the EU is to greenlight the opening of accession talks with Ukraine at the December European Council meeting, Ukraine still needs to strengthen its fight against corruption and implement its anti-oligarch law. These reforms are not controversial in Kyiv, and – if successful – should disarm potential Slovak objections due to Fico’s concerns about financial aid for the country.

The commission’s final condition was for the Ukrainian government to complete its reform of a legal framework to protect national minorities in the country. The rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region have long represented a sticking point for Hungary. Its leaders cited it when blocking, for example, deeper relations between Ukraine and NATO; they now fall back on it again when opposing Ukraine’s EU accession. Fico, on the other hand, has not raised minority rights concerns regarding Ukraine. And he is unlikely to jump on this ship: a coalition of SMER, SNS, and Vladimir Meciar’s People’s Party curtailed minority rights in Slovakia in the late 2000s, affecting precisely the language rights of the country’s Hungarian minority in education and public administration. Against this backdrop, hammering down on this matter in the case of Ukraine would be a bold and contentious move from the current Slovak government.

Fico concurs with Orban in rejecting Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, but during the election campaign only expressed doubts about the country’s EU accession “under the current circumstances”. This left room for manoeuvre: if the assurance that the EU ambassador to Ukraine recently received from government officials is anything to go by, then there is likely a readiness in Bratislava to support the opening of the talks. Indeed, it would be counterproductive for Fico, who seems to want Slovakia to benefit from the future reconstruction in Ukraine, to add further hurdles for Kyiv and the EU by teaming up with Orban to block accession talks – especially if Ukraine fulfils the commission’s recommendations.

An active alliance between the two seems more likely in opposition to sanctions against Russia, especially in the energy sector. Slovakia is heavily reliant on Russian oil, which it processes in a refinery owned by Hungarian firm MOL. Slovakia has already received an exemption from the EU’s ban on importing Russian oil, together with Hungary, until the end of the year; it has already requested a one-year extension, for which it has Hungary’s support. Like the government in Budapest, Fico’s coalition also vehemently opposes sanctions on Russian nuclear fuel. Unlike Hungary, however, Slovakia took tangible steps in diversifying its sources by signing an agreement with US firm Westinghouse this August. This could offer an opportunity for Europeans to break the Slovak-Hungarian double act on the issue.

Ultimately, the EU and member states should not take Fico’s rhetoric lightly. But not all is lost when it comes to Ukraine. To address the current Slovak challenge, Kyiv should engage with Bratislava bilaterally to assure the Fico government of its commitment to anti-corruption reforms, while also ensuring it meets the European Commission’s expectations. The commission itself will need to prepare for pushback regarding financial and military aid to Ukraine and sanctions. It should respond by engaging with the Slovak government early on to appeal to Fico’s pragmatism, preventing him taking the same line as or even forming an alliance with Budapest.

Zsuzsanna Végh is an associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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European University Viadrina