A Slovakian election could tilt its foreign policy toward Russia, like Hungary, leaving the Czech Republic as the only firm Ukraine ally among four small nations that include Austria.
In a nutshell
- Pro-Russian populist Robert Fico leads in Slovakian preelection polls
- Austria is neutral; Hungary opposes European Union policies on the war
- Support for Ukraine is safe but may be softening in the Czech Republic
On March 25, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the European Council in a video address. He expressed gratitude for the support of the European Union, which unfortunately had come a little late: “Because if it had been preventive, Russia would not have gone to war.” He then looked at the individual EU countries. The Baltic republics and Poland immediately sided with Ukraine. Among the smaller Central European countries, he noted the support of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He said he hoped that Austria will also cooperate with Ukraine.
Finally, he spoke about Hungary, addressing Prime Minister Viktor Orban directly: “I want to stop here and be honest. Once and for all. You must decide for yourself who you are with. You are a sovereign state. … Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol? … And you hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? And you hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide already.”
Some of them have already decided, and not in Ukraine’s favor. The four nations – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary – have collectively only 35 million people, slightly fewer than Poland. While the four smaller ones are all in the EU, they are not major European powers. But two of them – Hungary and Slovakia – border Ukraine, which can make Russian sympathies in both nations hard on Kyiv.
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The long-simmering conflict between Ukraine and Hungary intensified in May 2023 when Kyiv added Hungary’s OTP Bank to the blacklist of financial institutions cooperating with Russia. Budapest, the capital of the nation of nearly 10 million people, then canceled its participation in EU negotiations on the financing of arms to Ukraine. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto opposed the plan to allocate 20 billion euros for arms deliveries over the next four years. The EU is preparing for a long war, Mr. Szijjarto said on the sidelines of the meeting. But this war cannot be decided on the battlefield, “and the more weapons are supplied, the more people will die,” he said.
Prime Minister Orban has called Ukraine’s situation hopeless: “Russia’s goal is to make Ukraine an ungovernable wreck, so the West cannot claim it as a prize. At this, they have already succeeded. It’s Afghanistan now,” he said. “The land of nobody.”
Mr. Orban also has displayed a covetous attitude toward Ukrainian territory, harkening back to the Austro-Hungarian empire that dissolved in 1918. The westernmost part of present-day Ukraine, Carpatho-Ukraine, belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary and was assigned to Czechoslovakia in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. During the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, it was occupied by Hungarian troops. After World War II, it was absorbed into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In modern-day Ukraine, it is administered as Zakarpattia Oblast. In the 1991 census, only 150,000 of the 1.3 million inhabitants identified themselves as Hungarian, or Magyars. In Budapest, their protection is a top priority. Most Magyars have taken Hungarian citizenship without relinquishing Ukrainian citizenship, whose government does not recognize dual nationality.
Hungary’s stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine has been consistent. On July 23, 2022, Mr. Orban said: Since “we are members of NATO and we want to stay out of this war, our situation has become a delicate one. This is because NATO and the European Union have decided that, although they will not become belligerents, they will nevertheless supply arms and impose severe economic sanctions; and whether one likes it or not, this means that they are de facto – not de jure, but de facto – parties to this conflict.”
Mr. Orban condemned the invasion of Ukraine, but at the same time accused the West of not having considered the security guarantees demanded by Russia. “And the consequence of this refusal is that today the Russians are seeking to achieve by force of arms the security demands that they had previously sought to achieve through negotiation.” Since he does not believe Ukraine can win the war, “the task of the European Union is not to stand alongside either the Russians or the Ukrainians, but to stand between Russia and Ukraine,” the prime minister said.
In practice, however, Hungary is behaving more pragmatically than the official line would suggest. Although Budapest rejects the transport of armaments through its own territory, it allows deliveries by air through other countries. Hungary has reluctantly joined the EU’s sanctions against Russia and accepted Finland’s accession to NATO. The Hungarian parliament’s vote on Sweden’s accession has been postponed until autumn. The delay is due to Budapest’s anger at Swedish criticism of the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary.
Hungary’s path has increasingly isolated the country. It is putting a strain not only on relations with the United States and the EU, but also on the Visegrad Group, in which Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have unequivocally sided with Ukraine.
Slovakia’s support for Ukraine could end after the parliamentary elections on September 30. Like Hungary, Slovakia’s 5.4 million people border Ukraine, and similarly, most Slovaks fear getting involved in a war with Russia. In a 2020 survey, 78 percent of respondents said they considered Russia to be Slovakia’s traditional Slavic sister nation. After the full-scale Russian invasion, opinion changed temporarily, when 65 percent of respondents agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin “wants to restore the Russian Empire, therefore he is a threat not only to Ukraine but also to other countries.” Two-thirds also called the war in Ukraine “an unprovoked and unjustifiable Russian military aggression.”
However, a GLOBSEC survey published in May 2023 already showed a softening. Support for NATO membership fell from a high of 72 percent to 58 percent, 50 percent blamed the U.S. for endangering regional security and 69 percent feared that the Slovak government’s support for Ukraine would provoke Russia and bring the country close to war. The results of the surveys reflect the economic and social divide between the regions. In the western region of Bratislava, which is one of the richest in the EU, support for Ukraine is by far the strongest. In eastern Slovakia, where unemployment is highest, pro-Russian tendencies predominate. In the regions of central Slovakia, the population is more neutral.
The Slovak left-wing populist Robert Fico is benefiting from this mood. The three-time prime minister (2006-2010 and 2012-2018) leads opinion polls with a promise to end Slovakia’s support for Ukraine and veto the EU’s sanctions against Russia. Since a corruption and judicial scandal forced him to resign in 2018, coalition governments in Slovakia have failed. The unstable political situation favors Mr. Fico’s SMER-SD party, which combines criticism of the government’s support for Ukraine with social demagogy, which is well received in the economically less developed regions.
Since May 2023, the country has been led by a transitional government. Under the liberal-conservative coalition governments, the country was one of Ukraine’s closest partners. In April, Slovakia handed over its entire arsenal of MIG-29 fighter jets (13 aircraft) to Ukraine. In July, Bratislava delivered two state-of-the-art Zuzana 2 self-propelled artillery units developed in Slovakia, with a further 14 to follow in the coming months.
Mr. Fico wants to stop aid to Ukraine and stop arms deliveries immediately. He blames “Ukrainian fascists” for the war and calls military cooperation with the U.S. a betrayal of national interests. Mr. Fico has rekindled pro-Russian sentiment with an intensity not seen since the era of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who governed for about five years between 1993 and 1998.
Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Czech Republic, home to 10.5 million people, became the first NATO country to deliver Soviet T-72 tanks and rocket launchers, as well as modern Mi-24V attack helicopters, from its stockpiles. Already on February 27, 2022, the first shipments of weapons arrived in Ukraine.
Conservative Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala is proud of the speedy and effective aid his country is providing to Ukraine: “We clearly knew from the very first moment – perhaps thanks to our own historical experience – that we had to stand up for Ukraine. And we did it – not only the government, but the whole country, and it makes me truly proud. We were the first country to provide Ukraine with ammunition, even before the Russian invasion, and we have been looking for ways to quickly and effectively help the brave defenders of Ukraine since hour one of Russia’s aggressive campaign.”
Most recently, the Czech Republic equipped Ukraine with BM-21MT Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), a modernized version of the Soviet BM-21.
Since the Russian invasion, half a million Ukrainians have fled to the Czech Republic, which is granting them asylum and generous financial support. In August, the Czech Senate passed a resolution by a vote of 55-1 calling for an acceleration of arms deliveries, supporting Ukraine’s accession to the EU and classifying Russian war crimes on Ukrainian territory as genocide. Similarly, only Lithuania and Estonia had previously described Russia’s actions as genocide.
The two main opposition parties make economic arguments in opposing the government’s policies. They accuse it of endangering energy supplies, burdening the social budget by taking in Ukrainian refugees, and promoting inflation in the Czech Republic by supporting EU sanctions against Russia. Their argument is similar to Mr. Orban’s, whose stance they describe as exemplary. Their “welfare chauvinism” differs from Mr. Fico’s explicitly pro-Russian course in Slovakia.
In the Czech Republic, too, one poll found the willingness to support Ukraine has decreased: While in the spring almost 60 percent of Czechs supported the government’s position on Ukraine, in the fall it was only 40 percent.
Pro-Russian sympathies are nevertheless much less widespread in the Czech Republic than in Slovakia, partly because of the different experiences that Czechs and Slovaks had after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968. After the removal of reformist communist Alexander Dubcek, the Slovak Gustav Husak took over the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia under Russian pressure and served as president from 1975 to 1987. During this period, Czechoslovakia was federalized, which accommodated the national ambitions of the Slovaks in the common state. The Soviet leadership pitted the two-state nations against each other and favored the Slovaks. The Czech public has a correspondingly more negative attitude toward Russia.
Austria, with nine million people, is the only neutral country among these four Central European countries. It has maintained close relations with Russia for decades. The Austro-Russian special relationship is based on the “perpetual neutrality” demanded by the Soviet Union in 1955 as a prerequisite for the withdrawal of its occupying troops.
Most Austrians consider neutrality to be part of their identity. At the same time, the country sees itself as a bridge between East and West. Even in the middle of the Cold War, the markets in the East were open to Austrian companies, and long-term gas supply contracts with Moscow, which were signed in 1968, do not expire until 2040. At the turn of the millennium, conservative politicians tried in vain to abandon neutrality in favor of joining NATO. A neutrality debate renewed by Austrian security experts in view of the war against Ukraine was ended by Chancellor Karl Nehammer with the remark that “Austria was neutral, is neutral and remains neutral.”
Mr. Nehammer has most of the population behind him. In a comparative Gallup poll, 71 percent of Austrians and 71 percent of Swiss citizens declared themselves in favor of maintaining neutrality. But while 49 percent of the Swiss are in favor of closer cooperation with NATO, only 36 percent of Austrians are. According to the Eurobarometer 99 – Spring 2023 standard, support for the EU’s stance on the war in Ukraine is lower in Austria (43 percent) than in the Czech Republic (53), Hungary (48) and Slovakia (47). The EU average was 56 percent.
The war in Ukraine is seen by most Austrians as an unfortunate disruption of good relations with Russia, implicitly blaming the Ukrainians. In a poll conducted in February 2023, 65 percent called for Ukraine to cede occupied territories in peace talks.
Mr. Putin is courted in Austria, which he has visited more often than any other EU member. Former Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl’s curtsy after her waltz with President Putin, who had traveled to her 2018 wedding, symbolized the sugar-sweet servility toward the dictator that shapes the image of Austria in international perception.
Even the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine has failed to wake Austrians from their geopolitical slumber. There can be no talk of a “turning point” in relations with Russia, as in Germany. It is true that the Austrian government has condemned the invasion and voted in favor of all sanctions against Russia in the EU. However, in April 2022, Karl Nehammer became the first (and, so far, only) EU head of government to visit Mr. Putin in Moscow, ostensibly to make the EU’s position clear to him. Mr. Putin was able to show on this occasion that Russia is not isolated, but capable of driving a wedge into the EU.
The main scenario is that the longer the war lasts, the more the neutralist tendencies will manifest themselves politically in these four Central European countries. The willingness to accept a loss of prosperity out of solidarity with Ukraine will continue to decline. Slovakia is facing a change of power in the parliamentary elections. If Mr. Fico becomes prime minister again, he will try to impose a pro-Russian course. Unlike Hungary’s Mr. Orban, however, who has a solid majority behind his party, Mr. Fico will have to consider coalition partners, which limits his room for maneuver. In Austria, there is unlikely to be any significant change in neutrality. In the Czech Republic, the opposition parties are too weak for the foreseeable future to force a change in the conservative government’s pro-Ukraine policy.