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Worry and concern follow pro-Kremlin candidate's victory in Slovakia election

Chairman of Smer party Robert Fico (center) addresses reporters in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sunday.
Darko Bandic
Chairman of Smer party Robert Fico (center) addresses reporters in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sunday.

BERLIN — As Slovakia's election winner Robert Fico begins talks to establish a coalition government, officials in the European Union and NATO — along with people throughout Slovakia's civil society — are worried about how Fico's pro-Russian, anti-American Smer ("Direction" in Slovak) party may govern.

Fico — who's previously served twice as prime minister — campaigned on ceasing all military support for Ukraine, with the slogan "Not a single round" becoming a popular refrain of his party. He repeatedly urged Kyiv to begin peace negotiations with Moscow and claimed the United States played a role in starting the war.

Fico's pledge to stop all military aid to Ukraine, however, may lack any real-world impact, as observers say Slovakia has already exhausted much of its weaponry in helping Ukraine over the past two years.

After his party's victory on Sunday, with 23% of the vote, Fico reiterated his promise to not send any more military aid to Ukraine, but said he continues to support humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Kyiv.

He again called on Ukraine to enter peace talks with Moscow, a request that's also been made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban congratulated Fico on his party's win via the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, posting in English, "Guess who's back!" and adding, "Always good to work together with a patriot."

Cracks are beginning to show in the European Union's bedrock of democratic principles

The European Union has been watching developments in Slovakia closely, worried that after democratic declines in Hungary, another of its eastern European members will pursue policies that run against the bloc's principles.

"And depending on how the elections in Poland work out, we will have possibly three countries in the region where democratic checks and balances would be disturbed and where policies typical for illiberal democracies would be adopted, and that would showcase a democratic decline in the region," says Katarina Klingova, senior research fellow at the Center for Democracy and Resilience at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.

Poland's parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place Oct. 15.

Klingova warns that a government in Slovakia overseen by Fico could have several long-term implications for both the EU and NATO.

"For example, in the case of Ukraine possibly joining NATO or into the European Union, they could definitely hinder or slow down the process," she says.

Hungary is already skeptical of EU and NATO membership for Ukraine.

Many are worried, too, about the future of civil society in Slovakia under a Fico-led government.

Fico and his Smer colleagues are critics of non-governmental organizations that operate in Slovakia, commonly referring to them as "foreign agents."

"A lot of civil society organizations are worried after the elections on Sunday," Klingova says. "Civil society organizations have been at the core of attacks and smear campaigns and these kinds of attacks oftentimes get very personal."

In 2016, when Fico served a previous term as prime minister before being ousted, Klingova's organization GLOBSEC received a letter at its office with bullets inside of it. While police caught the suspect and he served jail time, the threat was enough to prompt the organization to move offices to a more secure location.

"You never know how people will react when they're subject to disinformation and conspiracy theories," says Klingova.

Fico's left-wing party must now search for coalition partners as it attempts to form a government.

The pro-EU Hlas ("Voice") party, which came in third with 15% of the vote, promises to be the key to any such coalition. The party's left-wing leader Peter Pellegrini, a former colleague of Fico's, has made no commitments yet.

"The distribution of seats confirms Hlas as a party without which any normally functioning government coalition cannot be put together," said Pellegrini.

Political analysts speculate that Fico may team up with both Hlas — which split away from Smer three years ago — and the Slovak National Party, which received a bit under 6% of the vote, to form a governing coalition.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.