Slovakia’s governing coalition has come to an end following Monday’s resignation of the remaining ministers from the SaS party. The uneasy alliance which SaS had forged with Sme Rodina (We are Family) and For the People, as well as coalition leader OLaNO, had been teetering on the brink of collapse for months, but finally buckled right as the country is facing a cost-of-living crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prime Minister Eduard Heger is now hard-pressed to rally support for his government. Failing this, the country could be looking at a snap election, the first in Slovakia’s history.
However, the coalition’s collapse comes at a remarkably undesirable time. Although the government was synonymous with chaos and indecision on the domestic front, it had been united in its support for Ukraine, with Bratislava among Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters in the EU as the war drags into its sixth month.
With memories of Soviet dominance over the region still fresh in mind, Slovakia and the other the former Warsaw Pact countries have mobilised like never before, advocating for continued action to bolster Ukraine’s defence. However, Slovakia’s internal reshuffle along with Poland’s the exacerbating confrontation with Brussels and Berlin as well as ethnic tension in Estonia, threaten to distract the EU’s commitment to Ukraine at a time when Kyiv must rely on external support more than ever.
Ukraine’s neighbours Poland, Romania and Moldova have opened their arms to millions of refugees, while Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries have all contributed with military and humanitarian aid. Only Hungary, whose president Viktor Orbán is a staunch ally of Moscow and has called Volodymyr Zelensky an ”opponent”, is breeding significant disquiet.
Slovakia, in particular, has been punching above its weight. A “ring swap” scheme, through which the country will donate Soviet-era armoured vehicles to Ukraine in exchange for modern German tanks, is only one recent example of Slovakia’s strong desire to keep Ukraine fighting as July revealed a downturn in new pledges of military support from Europe. Perhaps even more remarkably, Slovakia recently inked a deal with NATO neighbours Poland and the Czech Republic, in which Warsaw and Prague will patrol Slovakian skies, freeing up Bratislava’s Soviet-era MiG-29s to send to Ukraine.
Although the external fight is being fought in unity, events on the home front could have deleterious effects for Slovakian foreign policy. With the coalition upended, Slovakian PM Heger is facing uncertain times that will only exacerbate the existing underlying issues that partially led to the coalition’s demise. Indeed, the government lost its credibility almost immediately after it came to power, following several domestic scandals last year.
Most worrisome among them is the fact that the country’s rule of law situation has plummeted, highlighted by the government’s apparent efforts to get rid of inconvenient opposition figures through coerced testimonies of witnesses, in a system which a judge referred to as a “prison factory.”
Stories of forced testimonies of forcibly detained witnesses shook the nation, and have also caught the attention of Brussels, which in response will send a delegation of the Civil Liberties Committee to Slovakia in the second half of September. The visit will be highly uncomfortable for Heger, given that the delegation will “discuss the ongoing judicial inquiry into the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, the reform of Slovakia’s justice system, the protection of journalists and whistleblowers, and media freedom.”
Worse, Slovakia is not the only concern for Brussels, because the situation is not much better in Poland. While strong and secure when it comes to Ukraine, Warsaw has seen unprecedented internal feuds, an increasing fight over the rule of law with Brussels and over the long-concluded issue of war time reparations with Germany.
These internal political struggles are taking place against the backdrop of a bitter dispute with Brussels, which refuses to release the €36 billion in pandemic recovery funds earmarked for Poland over concerns regarding the rule of law. The eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS) has often come under criticism from EU leaders. Points of contention included its erosion of minority rights, a belligerently tough stance on immigration, and above all, its attempts to bring the judicial system under political control by suspending independent judges and replacing them with loyal party assets.
The stand-off between PiS and Brussels escalated the inflammatory and populist rhetoric used by Polish conservative elites to paint the EU as an invading, imperialist force bent on undermining Poland’s independence. These tensions are threatening to deepen both the internal rift within Polish politics, and the country’s relationship to the EU. As the day of the election draws near, political hostility will only increase.
In Estonia meanwhile, tensions are rising between Estonians and the country’s sizable Russian population, threatening the social peace fostered in the nation for decades. The Tallinn government’s decision to remove the last vestiges of Soviet rule in the form of war memorials triggered a backlash from the Russian minority who sees those monuments not as symbols of occupation, but as a remembrance of the heroes in the Red Army. Typically one of the most stable economies in Eastern Europe, Estonia is now also dealing with a colossal inflation rate, which at 23.2% is the continent’s highest.
The small picture
It’s laudable that the EU is largely unified in its support for Ukraine. But that shouldn’t be a diversion from internal struggles that are threatening long-term resolve against Russia. The domestic political situation in Central and Eastern European countries like Slovakia, Poland and Estonia risks unravelling the united front the EU has tried to project from the beginning of the war.
For the European Union to truly emerge as the geopolitical leader it wishes to become, it must protect the integrity of the European project against local kleptocrats, would-be authoritarians or internal ethnic tensions. The war in Ukraine should serves as the clearest proof for the tantamount importance of a shared European vision.
Image: Rock Cohen/Flickr