2nd October 2023 – (Bratislava) Slovakia’s parliamentary elections have delivered a fragmented result, with no party securing a majority. While the leftist Smer-SD party of former PM Robert Fico emerged as the largest party, the big question now is who will form the next governing coalition. This has critical implications for Slovakia’s stance towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Under the previous pro-Western government of Eduard Heger, Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies. It has donated heavy weaponry, hosted tens of thousands of refugees, and strongly backed EU sanctions on Russia. However, Fico has vowed to end arms transfers and rebuild relations with Moscow if elected.

With Smer-SD expected to control less than 25% of seats, Fico must court other parties to build a coalition. Two potential partners are Hlas-SD, led by former PM Peter Pellegrini, and the far-right Republika. Both have exhibited Russian sympathies, making a dramatic foreign policy shift feasible.

This would represent a blow for Ukrainian President Zelensky, who has relied on Slovakia’s solidarity. It could also divide the united EU-NATO front supporting Ukraine, emboldening Putin. However, other coalition permutations keeping Smer-SD out of power would likely maintain current policies.

Much depends on the priorities of prospective coalition partners. Do they value Slovakia’s Western alliances over domestic grievances? Are they willing to ignore pro-Russian voters who oppose aiding Ukraine? The electorate has delivered a messy mandate, but the principles underscoring coalition negotiations will be pivotal.

Fico’s Comeback and Its Implications

Robert Fico is a political veteran, having served as PM from 2006 to 2010 and 2012 to 2018. He built Smer-SD into the dominant centre-left party before belated reforms triggered a split, reducing Smer-SD’s control.

Nonetheless, Fico retains a loyal base who fondly recall his socialist policies and rhetoric slamming Western elites. After losing power in 2020, he has attacked the government’s Ukraine policies, blaming NATO expansion for provoking Putin.

Fico wants a diplomatic solution respecting Russia’s interests and has vowed no more weapons for Ukraine if elected. This would mean abandoning Zelenskyy at a critical juncture and denying Ukraine leverage to force a settlement on favourable terms. It could also divide NATO, creating tensions between pro-Ukrainian members like Poland and Slovakia seeking reconciliation with Russia.

The election outcome has buoyed Fico’s hopes. But majority control looks beyond Smer-SD’s reach. Constructing a ruling coalition will require uncomfortable compromises, especially on Ukraine. Two likeliest partners, Hlas-SD and Republika, echoed Fico’s Ukraine stance during campaigns. But will they make it a red line when power is within grasp?

Much depends on whether voters care more about Ukraine or domestic impacts from inflation, energy costs, and austerity. Fico will likely leverage economic concerns to justify abandoning Ukraine support, presenting it as a trade-off for Russian energy. But pro-Western voters may reject this, forcing concessions from coalition partners.

Broader Foreign Policy Reorientation?

A Fico-led coalition could have ramifications beyond Ukraine policy. Fico promises to end liberal dominance, increase ties with Orban’s Hungary, and adopt a TRANSACTIONAL, rather than values-driven foreign policy.

This represents a direct challenge to President Zuzana Caputova’s pro-Western orientation. Fico would pursue closer Visegrad bloc cooperation to counter Brussels over issues like migration. He has even proposed Hungary-style border fences to keep out immigrants and refugees.

Such posturing appears partly aimed at constituents permeated by Russian disinformation about dangerous migrants and disdainful EU elites. But it risks actual clashes with Brussels. As with Ukraine policy, putting this vision into practice depends on coalition dynamics.

Partners like Hlas-SD and Republika will expect concessions for cooperation. They must balance Fico’s demands against the need for EU investment and access to Western export markets. Moreover, much of the Slovak electorate still favours EU membership for economic reasons.

Thus, while Fico’s rhetoric is strident, his room for manoeuvre is constrained by pragmatic concerns. A major break with Brussels remains unlikely. But concrete steps like aligning with Hungary on immigration issues are plausible. The extent of policy change hinges on Fico’s coalition bargaining power.

Building a Governing Coalition

With a fragmented result and over half a dozen parties in parliament, complex negotiations are imminent. Smer-SD’s limited seats mean compromise is unavoidable. The two most frequently touted partners are Hlas-SD and Republika, but negotiations could be protracted.

Hlas-SD head Peter Pellegrini is a former Smer-SD member who served briefly as PM before forming his own party. Maintaining power motivates Pellegrini, but he will not rubber-stamp Fico’s demands. His base also strongly backs EU membership, limiting how far he can drift from Brussels.

Meanwhile, Republika has radical economic proposals but influence limited by its size. Courting Republika risks alienating moderate conservatives in parties like KDH who are scarce coalition options for Fico. Republika’s inflexibility may even preclude a deal.

Other permutations could emerge, but Fico faces tough bargaining and concessions no matter the combination. With Smer-SD lacking a majority, expect policy moderation despite the bluster.

Pragmatism Likely to Prevail

In short, while Fico’s rhetoric raises concerns, his ability to unilaterally overhaul Slovakia’s foreign policy is overstated. Any coalition will require balancing competing voter interests. While Smer-SD’s policies may lean toward Moscow relative to Slovakia’s recent stances, a drastic shift is improbable.

Ultimately, Slovakia’s Western integration serves key economic and security needs that no party can ignore. Tough coalition talks may lay ahead, but pragmatism is likely to prevail over drastic changes led by any single party or leader. Slovakia’s general orientation is thus poised to remain consistent, even if new nuances reflect a difficult parliamentary arithmetic.