The pro-Russian frontrunner in the Slovakia elections said his country must stop arming Ukraine as he called for immediate peace talks to end the war.
Robert Fico told The Telegraph that “arming Ukraine brings nothing but killing” as he targets a remarkable political comeback in today’s vote.
Mr Fico, who wants to end Western arms deliveries through Slovakia’s borders, also claimed his country had no more weapons left to send.
His bid for power in a country that neighbours Ukraine is being closely watched by Western allies and the Nato alliance amid growing fatigue for the war in eastern Europe.
The populist Left-winger is aiming to take advantage of concerns over rising living costs to seize power again five years after he quit as prime minister over the murder of an investigative journalist.
At the time his Smer party was pro-Western. But he has reinvented himself as a nationalist firebrand, peddling a soft line on Putin in a bid to lead Slovakia for a fourth time.
“It is better to negotiate peace for 10 years and stop military operations than to let the Ukrainians and Russians kill each other for another ten years without results,” he said.
“This is not the way to resolve the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” he added before calling for “immediate peace negotiations”.
He claimed Slovakia had no more weapons to donate, a sentiment increasingly echoed among allies of Ukraine amid concerns the West cannot maintain enough military support to defeat Russia.
Mr Fico also wants to end economic sanctions against Moscow, which he blames for soaring inflation and a spiralling cost of living crisis.
He plays down Ukraine’s chance of joining the EU, and has compared Nato troops in Slovakia to Nazis.
He has been rewarded with the lead in elections in a country which is both a hotbed of pro-Russian disinformation and one of Ukraine’s earliest and strongest supporters.
Nato research has found that only just over half (51 per cent) of Slovaks would vote to remain in Nato if there was a referendum and that 51-60 per cent of them aged from 25 to 64 want to stop sending help to Ukraine.
The EU’s Eurobarometer on public attitudes found that 35 per cent of Slovaks totally agreed with Western sanctions on Russia in 2022 but that has now dropped to 24 per cent.
Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s minority government has been a strong backer of Ukraine since Putin’s invasion. Amid soaring energy prices in December last year, the government lost a vote of no confidence which led to these elections.
Slovakia has taken in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, sent weapons, including howitzers, and was the first country to send Kyiv Mig-29 fighter jets. The 5.5m strong country has agreed to host a Nato battlegroup as the alliance bolsters its eastern flank.
But Mr Fico’s rhetoric has sparked fears of a dramatic volte face.
“Slovakia’s high-stakes parliamentary election will dictate whether the country continues on its pro-Western policy track,” Said Sili Tian, Europe analyst, at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
“It is one of the most fierce supporters of Ukraine within Nato,” said Daniel Hegedüs, a senior fellow focusing on Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund think tank, “and this gives extraordinary importance to the Slovak elections.”
Mr Fico could join forces with Hungary’s pro-Putin Prime Minister Viktor Orban to undermine new EU sanctions, which require the unanimous support of all 27 member states. A Fico victory could also swell a soft underbelly of Nato and EU members wavering in their support for Ukraine as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.
For much of the polarising campaign, Smer has had a clear lead in the polls. But in the campaign’s dying weeks, there has been a surge of support for the liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS), which has made clear it will continue to back Ukraine. A final IPSOS poll put support for Smer at 20.6 per cent, just ahead of 19.8 per cent for PS. While Smer rose by 0.3 percentage points, PS jumped by 2.6 from a poll the week earlier.
“The Slovak election campaign has evolved into a sort of referendum about Robert Fico,” Mr Hegedüs said.
“Apparently Fico’s campaign rather underestimated his long-standing and deeply rooted unpopularity and rejection among centre-Right and Liberal voters, who now rally behind Progressive Slovakia to deny Fico a political comeback.”
The man riding the crest of the wave that could stop Mr Fico from regaining power is Michal Šimečka, a 39-year-old who studied at Oxford.
The pro-Nato centrist took a masters with honours, completing his thesis in The Rose And Crown, a pub where Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke was a regular.
For Mr Šimečka, currently a deputy speaker in the European Parliament, today’s vote is about preserving democracy from a corrupt, authoritarian politician.
“For the future of Slovakia, it is absolutely crucial that after the elections a democratic and pro-European government is established, which is governed by the principles of the rule of law,” he said.
“Fico and Smer openly express admiration for authoritarian Russia and question our anchoring in the EU and Nato. As if thousands of innocent people are not dying beyond our borders. As if Putin did not start a war in Ukraine,” he said.
It was vital to support Ukraine to stop Russia, “which openly calls us its enemy and tries to dictate the terms of our security,” becoming Slovakia’s neighbour, he said.
Mr Šimečka added, “The Ukrainians have shown extraordinary determination and skill, defending not only their own territory, but in a sense the rest of the region from the Russian threat. We are ready to continue to support them in this.”
Mr Šimečka can take heart from January’s presidential election in its closest neighbour the Czech Republic. Petr Pavel, a former Nato general, triumphed over Andrej Babiš, a billionaire former prime minister. Mr Babiš, dubbed the Czech Donald Trump, lost after a campaign calling for a ceasefire and end to Western sanctions.
However, if the polls are borne out, neither Smer or PS will get enough support to form a government alone and will need coalition partners.
That is likely to hand a kingmaker role to Hlas, led by another former Slovak prime minister Peter Pellegrini.
Mr Pellegrini, a former Smer member, and Mr Fico have history. It was Mr Pellegrini who replaced him as Prime Minister after his resignation.
In 2020, he left Smer to form his own more moderate party, which is now third in the polls.
“Pellegrini alone is deciding whether Robert Fico or Michal Šimečka can enter the stage as the next prime minister of Slovakia,” said Mr Hegedüs.
The picture could be further complicated if hard-Right nationalist parties perform better than expected, and well enough to join a Smer alliance.
“The choice is between a lurch to the right if far-Right parties join up with Smer or a more centrist, pro-EU approach if Hlas and Progressive Slovakia join forces,” said Mr Tian, of the EIU.
There would be “democratic backsliding” and “growing tensions within the EU and Nato” over what “would probably be the most avowedly pro-Russian government in both blocs” if Smer came to power.
“The EIU expects a moderate compromise government including Progressive Slovakia and Hlas to be formed after the election, but risks to our forecast are high owing to unpredictable support for some of the smaller parties,” he added.
On the streets of Bratislava, opinions were as divided as deeply as Slovakia’s politics is polarised.
“I don’t think that Fico’s evil is the way,” said Anna, 68.
Laco, a 60-year-old bartender, is still undecided about who he will vote for. He said he didn’t want Mr Fico to return to power but added, “Well, even he is a lesser evil than Progressive Slovakia.”
Nina Vallnerová, 28, came back from Prague where she works as a tattoo artist to vote for PS. “I am very afraid of the return of Fico,” she said.
For Andrej, a manual worker who wants military aid to Ukraine stopped, only Mr Fico will bring stability back to Slovakia. “For the last three years we’ve been ruled by fools and this country needs order,” he said.
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