Marching towards Eurasia
In 2009, Political Capital was among the first to call attention to East European far-right parties’ orientation towards Russia. Subsequently, in an analysis generating widespread international attention, in April 2014 we indicated that with the assistance of far-right parties’ pro-Russian policies “the promotion of Russian interests couched in national colors is proliferating throughout Europe,” and we also demonstrated that with their votes cast in the European Parliament, far-right and far-left parties had pledged allegiance to Putin and his regime. All this makes it patently clear that the Russian state’s political influence across Europe has increased in recent years. The European extreme right, with its Eurosceptic and anti-Western ideology, provided a fertile ground for the double-faced foreign policy of Russia – ideologically hostile, yet economically cooperative – towards Europe. Moreover, the current Ukrainian crisis clearly highlights the “vectors” and tools of Russian influence in Europe, as well as in Slovakia.
Traditionally, because of the religious (Orthodox Church), and ideological links (Pan-Slavism), Slovak relations with Russia has generally been strong. Furthermore, the current Slovak government is considered to be among the “doves” of the EU’s foreign policy when it comes to taking a harder stand against Russia, for example during the debates on imposing sanctions to retaliate against Russia’s actions in the Ukrainian crisis. While it is true that PM Robert Fico has opposed sanctions against Russia many times, the Slovak government is in fact walking a fine line of political pragmatism. While it tries to avoid open confrontation with the Kremlin, it also conforms to common Euro-Atlantic foreign policy by supporting the Eastern Partnership program and Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, providing reverse gas flow and military, as well as humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The Slovak governmental party Smer follows the Russia-critical mainstream stance of the center-left S&D political group in the European parliament.
This kind of foreign policy pragmatism is supported by public opinion, which is divided in two parts: on the one hand, it favors Ukraine’s independent democratic path and disapproves Russian intervention, and, on the other hand, rejects sanctions and confrontation with the Russian Federation. While there are some obvious attempts to reinforce pro-Russian attitudes in the public in the traditional and social media with an intense information warfare, the impact of these efforts on the broader public is limited. The Ukrainian-Russian conflict has changed the Russophile Slovak public, which perceives Russia as the main threat to Slovakia nowadays, at least in the short run. At the same time, the Kremlin’s influence on the farright and extreme right in Slovakia still relies on the Russia-friendly and Slavophil roots.
With the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Kremlin’s attempts at influencing the extreme right became more apparent. The political formations on the Slovak extreme right pursue Russia-friendly politics; both Slovak National Party (SNS) and The People’s Party - Our Slovakia (LSNS) blame the EU or NATO for the conflict, while evoking Slavophil sentiments. Some of the leaders of these parties can be linked to Russia on the basis of their personal and cultural networks.
The unique feature of the Slovak case is that Russia is endorsed not only by the political parties on the right, but also by some Slovak paramilitary organizations with far-right ideology. In the case of the paramilitary Slovak Conscripts, we can assume that active measures and transfer of political knowhow plays a direct role, since its leader gained his position after attending a training in Russia conducted by ex-Spetsnaz (Russian Special Purpose Forces) instructors. In this case, it seems that there are some successful attempts of some Russian circles to export possibly violent extremism to an EU member state.
In general, the military trainings delivered by ex-members of the Russian special forces in Slovakia and Russia unite the various figures of the extreme right paramilitary scene, presenting a security threat in the region, as (with the parallel Russian support for the Slovakian and Hungarian farright) age old territorial claims might become militarized and revived again in the CEE-region.
The specificity of the Slovakian case is the direct role of far-right parties and movements participating in the Eastern Ukrainian conflict, which is an important problem not only for Slovakia but the entire region. Slovak volunteers are fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. A notable example is a former member of the paramilitary far-right Slovak Conscripts, Martin Keprta, who has been fighting for the 15th international brigade of the DPR Army since autumn 2014. The Slovak involvement in direct fighting means that not only military training is put to use by far-right military actors, but the Kremlin’s influence in the Slovak extremist scene proves to be a geopolitical and international security risk, playing on the edge of Eastern-European national animosities dating back to WWI. The Hungarian (and also pro-Russian) Jobbik and its paramilitary satellite organizations harbor revisionist endeavors against Slovakia, Romania, and, first and foremost, Ukraine, basically wherever Hungarian minorities are present. Furthermore, there are Slovak and Ukrainian far-right organizations with actual military experience to counter Jobbik and its affiliates –one Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary organization called Karpatska Sic Guard has already threatened to annihilate Jobbik and the revisionist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, which is close to Jobbik, in April 2015.
Russia is operating a remarkable (wartime) propaganda machinery on the extreme right-wing and/or conspiratory online platforms and social media pages created in 2013 and 2014, which combine pro-Russian attitudes with conspiracy theories and anti-Western sentiments. One of the Russia-friendly media personalities is known to have close ties with the godfather of the Eurasianist ideology, Alexander Dugin.
On the other hand, the Slovak extreme right is afforded little exposure in the Russian media, as opposed to Hungary’s Jobbik, probably due to their weak institutional position and political support, and their consequently weaker ability to lobby and spread propaganda.
However, the extensive Russian influence on the entirety of the Slovak extreme right indicates that Russia has longterm plans with the Slovak extremists. The colorful palette of far-right players in itself fulfills the three major functions of Russian influence:
- smaller far-right parties legitimize the Russian regime;
- neo-Nazi and paramilitary formations have an important potential for destabilization;
- the different media channels connected to the Russian far-right spread direct pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Since a significant proportion of the Slovak public is known to harbor Russia-friendly sentiments for historic and cultural reasons, the pro-Russian messages, coming to them from the extreme or the mainstream, have a receptive audience.
The complete study can be downloaded from here (pdf, 486 kB).