“Being pro-Russian in Slovakia is something else.” Tomáš Strážay, expert on Slovak geopolitics 

24.05.2021 – 11.45 – Since its secession from Czechoslovakia (1993), Slovakia has seemed to be pursuing a separate path. During the 1990s it was the only state in the newly formed Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) not to throw itself enthusiastically into the arms of the West, but to try to position itself halfway between the reborn post-communist Russia and the former Western bloc. An attitude that risked losing the NATO and EU train, caught only in the last minute. Thanks to a very late U-turn, Slovakia was able to join the EU together with all its post-communist sister countries in 2004. Since then, Bratislava has reconfigured itself as the most loyal member of Brussels and Berlin among the states in the region.
In 2009 it adopted the euro, while its three Central European colleagues still use their own currencies (the Polish zloty, the Czech koruna, the Hungarian forint).

In recent years, which have seen the emergence of an increasingly radical anti-EU dissent among EU members beyond the borders of the European Union, Slovakia has also kept well clear of the Eurosceptic outbursts of Poland and Hungary, but also of the pragmatic wait-and-see attitude of the Czech Republic, and has joined Germany at every useful opportunity.
At the same time, another distinctive feature, Slovaks remain one of the populations where pro-Russian sentiment is strongest and where there remain pockets of the population that self-perceive as part of Eastern Europe, a blasphemy in the rest of the region, where the claim to belong fully to the West is one of the most uncontested pillars of national identity. 

After focusing on the foreign policy of Germany, Serbia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Italy, we explored that of Slovakia with Tomáš Strážay, director of the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA, in its Slovak acronym). 

What are Slovakia’s geopolitical priorities?

All major players agree that the country must belong firmly to the EU and NATO. We Slovaks consider ourselves full members of the EU, being both in the Schengen area and in the Eurozone, the only ones in the Visegrad Group. 

Last February, Bratislava adopted its new Security and Defense Strategies. How are Russia and China, the two adversaries of the US-EU bloc to which Slovakia belongs, defined? 

In this document Russia is identified as a threat to national security. This does not mean that Bratislava would not like a more cordial relationship with Moscow, but only that it recognizes the risks that the foreign policy conducted by Putin entails for the EU and for Central Europe, in particular. This document stressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. China is defined as an important economic partner, but it is noted that Beijing’s interference in economic affairs can be harmful, as already seen in the Western Balkans. See Montenegro, now one step away from sinking into the Chinese debt trap. China is likely to become the EU’s main rival in the coming years. Slovakia, therefore, does not intend to establish special relations with Beijing.  

That is the view of the ruling classes. Numerous surveys, such as the detailed Globsec report published last April, suggest, however, that large sections of the Slovakian population are pro-Russian. 42% of the Slovaks surveyed consider Russia to be the country’s main strategic partner, a percentage second only to that of Serbia (59%). 

The political elites and the citizenry follow two different logics. The former have a solidly pro-Western attitude and recognize Russia as a potential source of destabilization. Many Slovaks, on the other hand, regard Russia as a friendly country. In my opinion, this is a romantic perspective, often popular among older citizens, who do not know the country and believe that it is still more or less like the Soviet Union. Today’s Russia, on the other hand, pursues an imperial policy that we might call “nineteenth-century.” There are also some young people who see Russia as an alternative to the Western mainstream, and it is natural for young people to seek alternatives. However, both are superficial visions: not infrequently, asking a few more in-depth questions reveals that these people do not have a very coherent idea. Moreover, when it comes to choose – elections or referenda – support for remaining in the EU is undisputed. It is a different matter for NATO, which is much less loved in Slovakia than it is in other countries in the region. Personally, I believe that political leaders should not always conform to the will of the majority of the population, but act as statesmen, defending the national interest of the country they represent. 

Still talking about the relationship with Russia, Slovakia was the only country in the region that did not cut its ties with Moscow immediately after the end of communism. How did the change of course come about?

In the ’90s the autocratic government of Vladimír Mečiar pursued a very ambiguous foreign policy, based on the idea that a Central European country should relate to all its neighbors, not interrelate only with one side. A line that condemned Slovakia to isolation. It was Mikuláš Dzurinda, Prime Minister between 1998 and 2004, who oriented our country towards the West, bringing it into the Euro-Atlantic structures. The current government follows that course. 

How then can the Sputnik V affair be explained? The former Prime Minister Igor Matovich had to resign because he bought doses of the Russian vaccine in secret from his coalition partners and the public.  

The fact that he had to resign confirms that a pro-Russian policy in Slovakia today is not actionable. I believe that Matovič made a mistake because of his lack of experience. He did not calculate the geopolitical context in which his move would be placed.  

Talking to analysts in Central Europe, I often get the impression that they are afraid to say that their own population is pro-Russian. In Western Europe this does not happen: in Italy there are many political forces that openly call for greater cooperation with Moscow. Is this impression correct? Why this difference? 

Yes, I agree. History should not be forgotten. Being pro-Russian in Slovakia is another thing. Italy did not spend half of the 20th century acting as a buffer zone between the two blocks, and on the wrong side, like Central Europe. During the 1970s, the peoples of the region began to feel that they belonged to the West and to consider the separation from Western Europe as the result of a betrayal, a mistake. This feeling of “having been ceded” as a commodity, and not as a sovereign state, branded our self-identification. Even those who would like to have a more relaxed relationship with Russia, including myself, remain aware of the risks involved. Ukraine is a good example. We are probably afraid that history will repeat itself. Consequently, we never question the advantages of NATO and EU membership, even when we find it legitimate to criticize these institutions.

The memorandum signed in 2019 between the Trieste Port Authority and China called for increased trade between Trieste and Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city. Now that project seems to be foundering, but the proposal suggested that connecting the Julian port of call to the interport of this eastern Slovakian city might be a smart move. Also in light of this, do you think Trieste could aspire to become the main port of Slovakia? 

Our reference ports remain Rotterdam and Hamburg. For the Adriatic I think Koper/Capodistria is more coveted than Trieste. And the interaction with Fiume/Rijeka is also growing. In Slovakian perspective, I could be wrong, Trieste does not offer added value compared to the two rivals. Paradoxically, I think that the attempted landing of Chinese investors has alarmed the Slovakian authorities. Bratislava looks with extreme suspicion at investments from Beijing, which is much better at announcing trade agreements than implementing them. It happened to us in 2017, too, when former Prime Minister Robert Fico welcomed the first Chinese freight train to Bratislava, announcing that there would be more arriving every week: they were talking about a volume of 500 trains per year. That train, however, remained the only one. When talking to the Chinese, one must always distinguish between ambitions and actual possibilities.

[Simone Benazzo]