Slovak foreign policy after the 2012 elections: What to expect

The main features of the foreign policy program of the new Slovak government led by Robert Fico have already been decided. The first important signal to emerge was the appointment of ex-Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who in 2010-2012 served as managing director for Russia, Eastern Neighborhood and Southeastern Europe at EEAS. In addition, Prime Minister Robert Fico has declared that foreign policy should be stable, strengthen Slovakia’s position in the EU and foster good relations with its neighbors.

Foto: Creative Commons/ President of the European Council

Until recently, foreign policy has not been a priority of Fico’s Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democratic) party. Neither in its first term in government (2006-2010) nor during the past two years in opposition did Smer present a representative responsible for foreign policy affairs within the party. Both of the party´s foreign ministers during its time in power – Ján Kubiš (2006 – 2009) and Miroslav Lajčák (2009 – 2010) were career diplomats and not party members. The other foreign policy faces of Smer like Boris Zala (the chairman of the Slovak parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in 2006-2009) or his successor Juraj Horváth, didn’t play a significant role in shaping the party’s foreign policy. Smer, however, seems to have started paying more attention to foreign policy. Besides being a foreign minister, Lajčák has also been appointed a deputy prime minister.

At the same time, Smer has also improved its relations with other European social democratic parties. This is in contrast to the past, when it formed a coalition with the radical rightist Slovak National Party (SNS). In 2006, the Party of European Socialists reacted by suspending Smer’s membership in the party for two years. During this period, the only social democratic party Smer keep in close contact with was the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD). Things have changed though. In November 2011, Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), visited Bratislava. He and Fico unveiled a social democratic concept for EU reform, based on the strengthening of the social dimensions of European integration. They promoted not only the introduction of a financial transaction tax, but also called for tax harmonisation and active measures to support economic growth and creation of new jobs.

EU optimists, Atlantic pragmatism

According to Smer´s program documents and Fico’s statements, the European Union is the crucial referential framework of Slovak foreign policy. The EU is “the source of political, economic and social security of Slovak citizens”. The political program of Smer before the recent elections was the highly Euro-optimistic; however, its goals were not very concrete. We can only guess that Smer will continue its support for more EU integration, including the Fiscal Union. The other priority of the “European” policy of Smer will be support for the continuation of EU cohesion and the modernisation of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The new Slovak government supports EU enlargement in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries. After the EU accession of Croatia, an upcoming election in Serbia (with an expected victory of nationalists) and signals that Macedonia is headed for destabilisation, the Western Balkans is going to become the challenge for the EU again. Slovakia is interested in the stabilisation and integration of South Eastern and Eastern Europe because of its security and economic interests. However, the cultural proximity of the respective countries and a Slovak minority in Serbia play important roles in Slovakia’s support of EU enlargement. Lajčák confirmed the renewed focus of Slovakia on the Western Balkans during a meeting with Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Lukšić. Fico promised the continuation of development aid to Montenegro, and the transfer of Slovakia’s transformation and integration know-how. The new stress on the Balkans, however, will not bring a significant change to the Slovak position on the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, as the consensus among Slovak political forces is that such a step requires Serbian approval.

According to Fico, Slovakia will continue to honor its obligations to NATO, including participation in the mission in Afghanistan. Slovakia will support NATO enlargement as well – mainly in South Eastern Europe – but Lajčák has also mentioned Georgia as a possible candidate. In the Visegrad group, Fico’s government will prioritise development of smart defense cooperation, which has to consider the decreasing military expenditures of Central European countries, while helping them to meet their NATO commitments. We may assume the new Slovak government will continue with the common project of energy security based on the construction of interconnectors binding the gas pipeline systems of V4 states.

Important neighbors

Similarly to the  Fico’s first government, the strengthening of Visegrad cooperation will be a priority of Slovak foreign policy. Fico’s first visit state visit abroad was to Prague, despite ideological differences between the current Czech and Slovak governments.

Certain risks are emerging in bilateral Slovak-Hungarian relations. Nevertheless, the first contact between the new government and Budapest occurred in quite a different atmosphere than the one in 2006–2010. Unlike in 2006, when Fico formed a coalition with radical right SNS, which contributed to tensions with Hungary and the Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. This time, Smer was able to win the election without playing the “Hungarian card”, that is, without inciting nationalism. The absence of the SNS in parliament will likely have a positive impact on Slovak-Hungarian relations.

Fico appears to favor continuing the moderate course established during the government led  by Iveta Radičová. He is avoiding emphasizing points of contention between the two countries. Hungary has thus far chosen a similar approach. After the results of the Slovak elections were announced, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stressed the two countries’ mutual interest in the development of cross-border structures, including a new bridge over the Danube.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Slovak-Hungarian disputes have disappeared and that they won’t resurface when it serves the interests of one side or the other. On one hand, both Slovakia and Hungary have governments with strong political mandates. Therefore, they could find compromises on the issues where traditional approaches have stood in the way. On the other hand, such efforts to compromise might run into complications. Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi has stated that a Hungarian demand for the abolition of the Beneš Decrees will remain a priority in its dialogue with Slovakia. However, such words were spoken for the benefit of Hungarian voters, as part of the political competition between the ruling Fidesz party and the opposition radical-right Jobbik party. Yet it is hard to imagine a compromise on the issue of dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians living abroad. While the law adopted in 2010 is the matter of consensus for Hungarian political parties, the minimisation of its negative consequences regarding Slovakia is the consensual priority of the mainstream of Slovak political representation, including a major part of the opposition.

The international position of Slovakia seems to be better compared to Hungary, not only because of the more constructive position of Slovakia in European affairs but also because of the results of the parliamentary election, when Slovak voters (both Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians) refused to elect extremist party candidates to the parliament.

Closer to Russia?

The declared commitment of the new Slovak government to the principles of European integration and multilateral NATO guarantees of security is accompanied by warm promises of improved relations with Russia, a policy that has been sharply criticized by the opposition. The centre-right opposition parties consider Fico a pro-Russian politician because of his good relations with Russian politicians and positive expressions about Vladimir Putin, his support for Russian stance in Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and his one-sided criticism of Ukraine during the gas crisis at the beginning of 2009.

Fico declared his support for some Russian investment projects in Slovakia as well. Yet, in spite of the above mentioned political declarations, Fico’s interest in maintaining good relations with Russia is not a departure from the policies of Mikuláš Dzurinda, who preceded Fico’s first government. The 2005 Bush–Putin summit took place in Bratislava, under Dzurinda’s watch. Paradoxically, major Russian investments in Slovakia were finalized under centre-right governments. These included the privatization of the oil pipeline company Transpetrol by Russian company Yukos and the privatization of Cargo Slovakia by other Russian investors. (Fico seems to prefer a merger of Cargo Slovakia with Czech partners.) Currently, the opposition has been sharply critical of the most controversial Slovak-Russian joint project, a broad-gauge railway. That project  was not rejected by the previous Transport Minister Ján Figeľ, after a visit to Moscow in February 2011.

In his first government, Fico assumed the position of “friendly pragmatist” in relations with Russia. This was not an obstacle to active support of the EU Eastern Partnership program, in spite of a crisis in relations with Ukraine in 2009 and support of Russia in the war with Georgia in 2008. The sign of such “pragmatism” was Fico’s participation on the United Russia party´s congress in September 2011. However, until now, the new Slovak representation has not send any particular message to Ukraine or Moldova, in spite of the current Slovak engagement in the support of their integration ambitions and transformation processes. The government’s program has mentioned the Easter Partnership as an area where the interests of Slovakia are present. However, the government is more focused on the economic interests of the country than on human rights issues.

The establishment of a one-party government with strong support in the parliament (83 seats out of 150) sets conditions for a predictable foreign policy. The main priorities of the new government are the consolidation of the economy and public finances, mitigation of the consequences of the financial crisis and reduction of  unemployment by supporting economic growth. Consequently, its foreign policy will be focused primarily on the strengthening of ties with the EU and cooperation in its closer neighborhood. Unlike the previous government, which put emphasis on human rights issues, Fico will prefer pragmatic approaches. Such pragmatism is the result of the fact that in the past foreign policy was not the top priority of Smer. This party is only discovering its foreign policy identity. In the near future, we will see if Smer will be  successful in balancing its EU and NATO commitments against its responsive gestures towards Russia – as it did before 2006.

Juraj Marušiak

Juraj Marušiak

works at the Institute of Political Science at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. In his research he focuses on the political development in the region of Central and Eastern Europe.