The legacy of Slovakia’s populist, pro-Russian Era: Lessons we can learn to improve EU solidarity today

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Photo credit: newobserveronline.com

The European Union (EU) failed this week (October 20th) to impose economic sanctions on Russia in response to its involvement in the Syrian civil war and accusations of committing war crimes.

However, the EU is successfully continuing its extensive sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Blacklisting over one hundred Russian and Crimean individuals, this sanction regime covers financial, defence and energy sectors. These harsh sanctions are reviewed every six months and in January 2017, the EU will have to decide again on whether to extend them or not.

Russian Sanctions: A rare example of EU solidarity?

At a time when the EU has been hammered by deadly terrorist attacks, sclerotic growth figures, chronic financial malaise in the Eurozone and a migration crisis (equal only in scope to World War Two), it appears that the sanctions against Russia are proving to be a rare example success in terms of EU solidarity among its twenty eight Member States, demonstrating an ability for the Union to agree upon and collectively enforce a concrete goal.

However, this all could change in January.

Slovakia: Russia’s Spokesperson?

Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia and current holder of the rotating Presidency of the EU Council, has criticised the sanction regime against Russia. Utilising the elevated platform of the EU Council Presidency, Mr. Fico has argued that these extensive sanctions have failed to achieve any tangible results and only caused economic hardship for Member States. Following a visit to Moscow in September 2016 to meet with Mr. Putin, President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Fico stated, “Personally, I think it is time to view the sanctions rationally and to say that they harm both the EU and Russia They have brought absolutely nothing to fix the sensitive questions which they were supposed to influence. We agreed with Vladimir Putin that our common pursuit is to revive our mutual trade again”.

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Robert Fico shaking hands with Vladimir Putin Photo credit: http://www.frontiere.info

Mr. Fico’s support for Russia comes into direct opposition with the EU’s declared objectives, and puts an expiry date on EU’s fleeting solidarity on the matter. However, this is not the first time that the Slovak government has turned its gaze to the East, to the dismay of its European neighbours. In fact, Slovakia’s affinity to Russia was a defining feature of its early years of independence.

Slovakia: A Legacy of Russian Affiliation

Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and the peaceful divorce with the Czech Republic on New Year’s Day in 1993, Vladimír Mečiar rose to become a highly influential individual on the political scene in the nascent Slovak Republic. With his People’s Party Movement for a Democratic Slovakias (ĽS-HZDS), Mečiar was elected Prime Minister in 1993 and began his protracted campaign to starve the country’s democratic transition efforts of oxygen. In its place, he quickly developed his brand of populist,  ultra-nationalist rule in the country. His authoritarian tendencies worried many international observers -including the EU and NATO – who raised concerns about Mečiar centralising power to his inner circle, intimidating opposition parties (even accused of kidnapping the son of the Slovak President, who came from the main opposition party) and interfering with media outlets and civic platforms.

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Vladimír Mečiar, former Prime Minister of Slovakia Photo credit: http://www.alchetron.com

Despite Mečiar’s pro-Western rhetoric in the appropriate fora and despite Slovakia’s continued membership of the Visegrád Group, Slovakia’s actions failed to demonstrate to the Euro-Atlantic institutions any sincere attempts at democratic reform. One of the core aims of the Visegrád group (a quartet composed of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland) was assisting each other in  EU and NATO admission processes. However Mečiar’s administration was condemned multiple times by EU institutions for forging such a decidedly anti-democratic path.

Nor did Mečiar follow the same trajectory of the Visegrád group in embracing the free-market economy. Rather, in 1993, Mečiar declared Slovakia’s post-Communist economic system to be “neither socialist, nor capitalist”. In fact, Mečiar administration followed more closely the neo-communist regimes of Ion Iliescu in Romania (1990–96) and Zhan Videnov in Bulgaria (1995–97), developing close-knit networks of patronage and clientelism to benefit his political inner circle and solidify Mečiar’s control of the country’s channels of power.

Most upsetting to NATO’s sensibilities, Mečiar did not hide his sympathetic stance toward Russia  In fact, he followed an unorthodox foreign policy option, aligning Bratislava to Moscow’s objectives in order prevent over-dependence on Western powers (which contradicted the stated aims of the Visegrád Group of further Euro-Atlantic integration). In late 1995, he declared, “If they do not want us in the West, we will turn to the East.”.

Deepening Slovak-Russian Ties

In 1996 ,the Mečiar government petitioned to sign a free trade agreement with Russia. Russia saw the opportunity to bring Bratislava into its orbit and away from Western influence, so it signed trade liberalisation agreements, established co-operation in arms manufacturing and co-operation between their central banks. Furthermore, they granted Slovakia observer status in post-Soviet Republic Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Even as an observer, Slovakia benefited from bilateral pricing systems which allowed Russia to sell energy to Slovakia at below market prices. As a result of this deal, over 80% of its oil and 100% of its gas needs were supplied by Russia with the main outcomes being an increase in Bratislava’s dependence on Russian energy imports.

At NATO’s Madrid Summit in July of 1997 the members of the Alliance refused Bratislava’s application for full membership. They cited Russian involvement and anti-democratic trends as the reason.Slovakia had to wait until 2004 before it was eventually admitted into the military alliance, a full five years after Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland joined in March 1999.

Mečiar lost his political leadership in 1998 as a result of a concerted groundswell of support among younger citizens in Slovakia, who saw deeper integration with the rest of the EU as pivotal for a brighter future. Mečiar’s party earned a single percent more votes than its main opposition party in the 1998. And when Mečiar couldn’t find coalition partners to form a full government, a new coalition of opposition parties came into power. The new government of Mikuláš Dzurinda stated its unequivocal intent to join the EU and NATO. As a result, a distancing from Russia began. Slovakia saw the benefits  accruing from Russian co-operation would be dwarfed in comparison to those that they could gain from European integration.

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Mikuláš Dzurinda, former Prime Minister of Slovakia Photo credit: http://www.cloudia.hnonline.sk/

The trajectory of Slovakia’s relationship with Russia since gaining it independence can highlight some of the recent developments we are seeing in Europe and offers some worrying implications.

 

Erosion of EU’s soft power: no more carrots or sticks at their disposal

Nowadays we are seeing strong echoes of Mečiar’s ultra-nationalism and populism reverberating on today’s political landscape, and is not just evident in Central Europe, but across the Western World From Greece to Venezuela, France to the US, political forces are looking inwards as the negative implications of accelerated globalisation are felt hard in the wake of one of the worst financial crises in modern memory. On the European continent, this new found nationalism is often accompanied by a strong dose of Euroscepticism and anti-Brussels frustration.

The mechanisms available to the EU to reassure or re-engage these disaffected Member States are limited. No longer can the EU institutions rely on the “carrot” of future EU integration. You cannot promise the benefit of EU membership to existing EU members. Furthermore, the punitive “stick” options that the EU have at their disposal are not being employed to curb unsavoury anti-democratic practices in Poland and Hungary. One strong mechanism that would send a clear message involves invoking Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union.  However, many voices in the EU fear that invoking Article 7 would only further incite anti-Brussels anger in these Member States rather than force them into submission. On a more practical level, any invocation of Article 7 would mostly likely be vetoed in the European Parliament by other CEE states, so it not really effective at deterring behaviour that the EU finds derogating from the rules.

The EU is overwhelmed by a revanchist Russia invading Ukraine, a migrant and financial crisis and its first ever instance of contraction following the shock Brexit vote to leave the EU. It leaves little room for the EU bureaucrats to inspire the frustrated European citizenry or convince them that the European project is the paragon of development and economic well-being that the post-Communist states worked so hard to join.

 

EU’s Weakness is Russia’s Strength

Russian interference is a growing concern for the EU, especially in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea, amounting to the first military take-over in Europe since World War Two. One could assume it was music to Mr. Putin’s ears to hear that the UK voted to leave the Union in June of this year. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia was at a nadir and incapable of projecting strength on the international stage. Boris Yeltsin, first President of the newly formed Russian Federation, signed a declaration in August 1993, promising that Russia would not oppose NATO expansion in Central Europe. But in the past two decades, the balance of power has changed and Russia has the confidence and resources to slow down the rate of Western encroachment at its borders and to encourage neighbouring European countries to work more closely with the Kremlin.

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Boris Yeltsin and Lech Wałęsa Photo credit: Peter Tumley, http://www.gettyimages.com

 

Will Visegrád split over Russia?

Not all Central European countries want the EU sanction regime to be lifted on Russia. The divergence of opinions on Russian sanctions demonstrates a crack in the Visegrád group.

Whereas the Polish Government see the illegal annexation of Crimea as a precursor to a real geopolitical crisis on the continent (and therefore advocate forcefully for sanctions to remain), Hungary and the Czech Republic appear to stand closer to Slovakia on this debate. Both the Hungarian and the Czech governments have favoured the end of sanctions – although they are not as vocal as Slovakia about the matter. All three countries view the sanctions from a much narrower perspective compared to Poland, regarding the sanctions as crippling their already weakened economies and provoking a frustrated Russia.

Milos Zeman, President of the Czech Republic and a sympathetic ear to Russia, propositioned Chancellor Merkel to end the sanctions when she visited Prague in September of this year. In response to these arguments to end Russian sanctions Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, responded by declaring that sanction would only be lifted if and when Russia fulfils its commitments under the Minsk agreements.

This strong divergence in Visegrád opinion could metastasise in the future. Russian influence may fill the vacuum left in its place to create further divisions in the group and across the EU project as a whole. The economic ties that brought Vladimir Meciar close to Russia in the mid-1990s are the same ties that are compelling Robert Fico to advocate for interests that benefit both countries. Unlike in the 1990s, the EU cannot tempt Slovakia away with promises of further integration as the country is a fully-fledged member of the Eurozone.

As a result of this, the EU needs to recalibrate its strategy to reunify the Central European states in support of the Russian sanctions.

Energy Union: a new carrot

Slovakia is highly dependent on Russia’s energy to keep the lights on in the country. Therefore, it must be a core priority of the EU to minimise this asymmetrical dependence between the two countries. One option that the EU can pursue (although it would be far from a panacea to strong anti-Brussels sentiments) would be to push forward more forcefully with the Energy Union project.

The origins of Energy Union come from proposals by Donald Tusk in 2014, who at the time was Prime Minister of Poland. Fresh in his mind was the recent cutting off of gas supplies to Ukraine by Russia, following payment disputes in 2009 and again in 2014. Being highly aware of the dependence of many Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries on Russia’s energy monopoly, Tusk foresaw Energy Union as a mechanism to ensure independence from Russia. Tusk did not want Russia to use its energy monopoly (and more specifically, its ability to cut off gas) as a tool for political gain.

The President of the Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, has classified Energy Union as an utmost priority in his Presidency and officially launched the project in 2015. Investment in physical energy interconnectors between Member States as well as installing bi-directional flow pipes to allow oil and gas to come from the West during energy crises in CEE countries are some measures that the EU plans to fully implement in order to ease the worries that if CEE countries antagonise Russia, they risk having their lights going out should energy by cut.

 

Nord Stream 2: A potentially unifying issue for the Visegrád Quartet

Opposition to Nord Stream 2 presents one clear priority issue around which the Visegrád group can coalesce again and show a refreshed sense of unity. Nord Stream 2 is a proposed pipeline that would double the capacity of the existing offshore gas flows between Russia and Germany. Its proposed route is via the sea so it would not need to pay transit fees to any interim countries through which the pipes travelled.

Observers estimate that Slovakia could lose up to half a billion euro in in transit fees per year if completed as Nord Stream 2 will replacing the need for a transit route via Ukraine and Slovakia.

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Nord Stream 2 Photo credit: http://www.uawire.org/

Despite the benefits that would accrue to Germany as a result of successful completion of the pipeline, Chancellor Merkel may have to sacrifice the benefits of Nord Stream 2 in order to seize the opportunity to unify the CEE states, and more importantly the Visegrád bloc, against Russian encroachment.

Furthermore, the current sanctions against Russia could preclude Nord Stream 2’s feasibility: Gazprom is owned by the Russian state. By supporting Nord Stream 2, this could make Germany appear hypocritical if it refused to lift sanctions for economically strained CEE states but pushing ahead with Russian projects that benefited Germany. At a time when EU solidarity should be a high priority aim for all EU Member States, continuing Nord Stream 2 could  have the opposite effect.

In conclusion, time will tell whether the EU will witness a continuation of low morale and disillusionment across its Member States. It cannot afford to let Euroscepticism fester at Russia’s border. Rather than allow Russia to exploit divisions in the Eastern bloc, the EU should address core issues affecting CEE countries. Energy solidarity may be the most relevant issue.

As Slovakia’s tumultuous past demonstrates, there has been a long history of  mercurial populists linked to Russian interaction and Euroscepticism in this country. The comparisons with today can be arresting. However the spoils on offer with EU membership were sufficient to turn Slovakia away from the arms of the Soviet and its promise of cheap energy in the 1990s. With this fresh wave of Euroscepticism washing over the continent and a loss of EU’s traditional soft power instruments, new incentives for strengthening EU co-operation must be conceived, with one very achievable priority being the achievement of full Energy Union among Member States.

 

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