A New Troublemaker for the EU and NATO?

April 09, 2024

Slovak parliament speaker Peter Pelligrini, known for nationalist rhetoric, defeated pro-Western diplomat Ivan Korčok in their country’s presidential election runoff on April 6. Following a fierce campaign, in which public debates sometimes turned into pugilism, Pellegrini obtained a strong mandate with just over 53% of the vote from a record turnout of 61%.

Pelligrini’s victory is a significant win for populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who returned to that office for the fourth time in October 2023. Both are close political allies since Pellegrini’s party agreed to embrace Fico as head of government, becoming a junior coalition partner alongside the far-right Slovak National Party. The future president, unlike incumbent Zuzana Čaputová, who could thwart some of Fico’s plans by triggering constitutional court reviews, will not use his powers to become an institutional counterweight.

Pellegrini’s victory is not the scenario Brussels wanted. Fico has already shut down the special prosecutor’s office, which investigates major crime and corruption cases. He has also secured greater control over the Slovak secret service and now appears to have the media in his sights. More state capture is a threat with a compliant president, and the democratic backsliding may result in a tussle between the European Commission and Slovakia over the country’s share of the EU Cohesion Fund. Brussels may toe a tough line to safeguard its credibility on governance standards after being criticized for the way it handled illiberal reforms in Hungary and Poland.

The election outcome confirms Slovak fatigue of Ukraine, a major campaign issue. Pelligrini boasts of being on the “side of peace and not on the side of war” and repeatedly labelled Korčok a “warmonger”. Calling for a “sovereign foreign policy”, Pellegrini aligns with Fico on Ukraine. The prime minister has already stopped state aid—only private companies may supply weapons—while cultivating a rapprochement with Russia.

This is one reason why Slovakia’s relations with its allies are already being tested. That Fico earlier this year spread on-the-record rumors about Western partners’ considering bilateral deals to send troops to Ukraine is another. A President Pelligrini is likely to exacerbate the situation. Slovakia may not have blocked important EU or NATO decisions related to Ukraine yet, but the Fico government, benefitting from a political tailwind, may now feel emboldened to do so. Bratislava could follow Budapest in pursuing a transactional foreign policy, and the two could join forces to spoil EU sanctions and assistance for Ukraine, and undermine NATO cohesion, much as Hungary did by holding out on approving Sweden’s joining the alliance. Pelligrini’s call for Slovakia “to look in all directions” may imply closer ties with China, another prospect that will not please the transatlantic allies.

The Slovak election brings the strategic division in Central Europe to the fore. While Poland and Czechia increasingly agree on staunch support for Ukraine, Slovakia is progressively entering Hungary’s orbit, revealing a bleak outlook for Kyiv.