Slovakia is poised to cut military aid to Ukraine after its pro-Moscow former premier Robert Fico won the country’s parliamentary elections on Saturday, threatening western unity over the war.
The 59 year-old’s SMER-SSD party secured nearly 23 per cent of the vote, earning the president’s nod to start talks to replace a technocratic government that has been backing Kyiv against Russia’s invasion.
“We are not changing that we are prepared to help Ukraine in a humanitarian way,” Mr Fico said at a news conference on Sunday. “We are prepared to help with the reconstruction of the state but you know our opinion on arming Ukraine. We have clear ideas, we have clear plans. If the mandate comes, I know exactly what to do.”
Mr Fico’s campaign call of “not a single round” for Ukraine had appealed to voters in the nation of 5.5 million, playing on anti-western and pro-Russian sentiment.
Slovakia, an EU and Nato member state, has until now been steadfast in its support for Kyiv, supplying surface-to-air missiles and helicopters, and even donating its entire fleet of retired MiG-29 fighter jets.
But Mr Fico said Slovakia has bigger problems than the war, including energy prices and living costs. He said his party would do everything possible to start peace talks in a bid to end the conflict.
Sloviakia’s liberal Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, PS) party came second in Saturday’s vote with almost 18 per cent of votes and wants to stay the course on backing Kyiv.
So Mr Fico may look to the moderate leftist HLAS (Voice) party, which came third with nearly 15 per cent of votes, as a partner along with the nationalist, pro-Russian Slovak National Party. He said coalition talks could take two weeks.
Those three parties would have a parliamentary majority of 79 seats if they joined forces in a coalition government.
In the capital, Bratislava, voters were divided on the country’s future following Mr Fico’s win. Martin Cisár, 24, warned “democracy is over” for Slovakia.
Petra, a student who had voted for Progressive Slovakia, voiced similar concerns. “What now?” she said. “Everyone in my neighbourhood voted for Progressive Slovakia, where are the people who voted for Smer?”
But others welcomed Mr Fico’s victory.
“I’m glad we won’t be trying any experiments. We don’t have time or space for that. I have to pay for my family life and that’s why I need security,” said Boris, 34.
When asked whether his election win also signalled victory for Vladimir Putin, Mr Fico said on Sunday that his opinion on Ukraine did not mean he backed Moscow.
“Respect that we have a different opinion on some things,” he said.
Mr Fico also pledged to tackle illegal migration and said re-starting border controls with Hungary would be a top priority.
“One of the first decisions of the government must be an order renewing border controls with Hungary. It will not be a pretty picture,” he said, adding force would be needed on the 400-mile long border.
The migrants, predominantly young men from the Middle East and Afghanistan, mostly come via the so-called Balkan route, entering Hungary from Serbia despite a steel fence that Orban had built after the 2015 refugee crisis that rocked Europe.
A government led by Mr Fico would signal a further shift in central Europe against political liberalism, which would be reinforced if the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) wins an election in Poland later this month.
Hungary’s Orban congratulated Fico on Sunday with a post on Twitter saying: “Guess who’s back!”
“Always good to work together with a patriot,” he added.
Despite Mr Fico’s victory, it remains unclear if Hlas leader Peter Pellegrini would be willing to take a junior role in what could be a polarising coalition.
Mr Pellegrini congratulated Fico on his victory but said that two former prime ministers in one government might not work well. “It’s not ideal but that doesn’t mean such a coalition can’t be created,” he said.
The PS party, which is liberal on green policies, LGBT rights, deeper European integration and human rights, also plans to court Hlas.
“We believe that this is very bad news for Slovakia,” PS leader Michal Simecka told a news conference on Sunday. “And it would be even worse news if Robert Fico succeeds in forming a government.”