ISSUE 2-2016
INTERVIEW
STUDIES
Роман Темников Cristina Juan Carrion
RUSSIA AND SLOVAKIA
Михаил Ведерников Jakub Csabay
OUR ANALYSES
Тенгиз Аблотия
REVIEW
Мария Русакова
APROPOS
Владимир Воронов


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

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RUSSIA AND SLOVAKIA
SLOVAK FOREIGN POLICY AND RUSSIA: THE ART OF KEEPING THE BALANCE
By Jakub Csabay | student at University of Glasgow, Slovakia | Issue 2, 2016

When Slovakia recently defeated Russia in the European Championship in France, it has proven once more that sport is one of the few areas Slovakia can be occasionally somehow superior in this unequal, yet for Slovakia continuously significant relationship.

Historically, Slovak-Russian relations are dating back to late 18th century, when the current territory of Slovakia was within the Habsburg Empire, yet some Slovak intellectuals were promoting the idea of pan-Slavism as an opportunity for national revival, in which the Russian Empire would have played a dominant role. Consequently, during the 20th century Slovakia, mostly as a part of Czechoslovakia, had rather “difficult” experience with the Soviet Union, which includes but is not limited to events of the Communist take-over of 1948 as well as the Soviet invasion of 1968. Even though covering all of these would be relevant, it is not realistic to cover all of them in a single article, yet it is important to mention that Slovakia or its current territory has always been in a typically Central European geopolitical context of being part of or in between greater powers.

More recently, after Slovakia became independent in 1993 there have been two main interlinked dimensions with regard to the Slovak-Russian relations, political and economic. In terms of economic relations, as stated by the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Slovakia the items imported from the Russian Federation are mainly primary commodities while manufactured goods are exported in the opposite direction.[1] Import of primary commodities is rather moderately put reality of almost full dependence on oil and gas supplies from Russia, which is why Russia is more important trading partner for Slovakia than Slovakia is for Russia and why it is always important for Slovakia to be on “good terms” with Moscow. This was confirmed in 2014 when Slovakia and Russia signed a contract on supply and transit of oil for the upcoming fifteen years. The extent of the dependency was also visible during both gas crises in 2006 and 2009, when the supply though Ukraine had been interrupted due to disputes between Russian and Ukraine, as well as during the recent conflict in Ukraine. However, the above highlighted energy dependency is a fact that has continuously been the main aspect of the economic relations between Slovakia and Russia, yet it would be flavourless without taking into consideration the political dimension.

The political relationship between Slovakia and the Russian Federation since 1993 and in particular the foreign policy of Slovakia towards Russia has been influenced by two main factors, domestic politics and broader geopolitical context, which are interrelated, thus Slovakia always had to sensibly balance them along with the economic factor. In relation to domestic political situation, the initial period of Slovak independence under the rule of Vladimír Mečiar having lasted until 1998 was famously characterized by Madeleine Albright as the black hole in the heart of Europe. The democracy deficit criticized by the European Union and NATO pushed Slovakia away from the Euro-Atlantic integration process, towards which Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland were heading at the time, and willingly or not was moving Slovakia closer towards Russia. However, it is worth noting that it had been a complicated period for Central European countries in terms of geopolitics as after the fall of the U.S.S.R., a geopolitical vacuum was created in the region of Central Europe.

A milestone change had taken place in 1998 when Vladimír Mečiar’s government was replaced with a new one, with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, setting a clear policy direction towards reforms and EU and NATO membership and thus marking a start of a second period, which, one can argue, in terms of domestic political situation as well as Slovak foreign policy has lasted until now. All the governments, whether centre-right like the ones of Mikuláš Dzurinda(1998-2002, 2002-2006) and Iveta Radičová(2010-2012) or centre-left of Robert Fico(2006-2010, 2012-2016, 2016-until now[2]) have, to a stronger or lesser extent, been supporting pro-Euro-Atlantic policy orientation while maintaining constructive relations with Russia.[3]

In terms of rhetoric of the governments‘ manifestos, the centre-right governments were more dissident than center-left governments in terms of sticking to the traditional aim of building constructive relations with the Russian Federation, which is a significant trading partner of Slovakia. This can be demonstrated, for example, by the government manifestos of the governments from the periods 2002-2006[4] and 2010-2012[5]. In the former case, Russia had not been directly mentioned possibly due to upcoming accession to the EU, which is similar to the case of the current government, when the government is to take on the EU Presidency. In the latter instance (2010-2012), it was stated that Slovakia was interested in good relations with Russia, in particular in energy and economic sectors, but more importantly that it is also interested in democratic and pluralistic Russia respecting the freedom of an individual, which Slovakia was to support bilaterally and through EU, NATO and other organisations. Such statement was in terms of language not just a clear signature of the Liberal school of International Relations but also leaving an impression of a stronger position of Slovakia in these relations given the reference to the domestic situation in Russia.

However, as Slovakia is a small country, actual rhetoric of a government and its policies are always result of a combination of national interest tied with the economic factor, EU and NATO affiliation and broader geopolitical happenings creating the need for a balanced and sensible approach. While the initial governments in the post-1998 period had maintained constructive relations with Russia bearing in mind the dependence on the supply of oil and gas from Russia, their main policy objective was NATO and EU membership, which came true in 2004. However, rapprochement between the USA and the Russian Federation had been taking place at the time, for which Slovakia had served as a sensible venue when Bush-Putin summit had been organized in 2005. In the subsequent period, the government as well as the following one kept national interest stance when faced with gas crises of 2006 and 2009 caused by the dispute between Ukraine and Russia, though in both cases backed up by the European Union.

The government in the period of 2006-2010 had also made its position towards two geopolitical events in 2008 somehow characterizing Slovak-Russian relations, the independence of Kosovo and the war in Georgia. Slovakia recognized neither Kosovo nor South Ossetia and Abkhazia, from which the position on Kosovo was contrary to the position of most of the EU countries and the same position as Russia was having. During his speech at MGIMO in 2009, Slovak Foreign Minister, Mr Lajčák, consequently explained such stance on the basis of the application of the same principles of International Law[6], yet at the time it opened questions regarding closeness of Slovakia not only with Serbia but also with Russia. However, it is also worth noting that the same government moved Slovakia even further in terms of EU integration as Slovakia joined Eurozone the very same year Mr Lajčák had his speech.

After the 2010-2012 government lost vote of confidence due to failing to gain support for Euroval, Robert Fico was able to form a one party government, which continued with the balanced approach with regard to new geopolitical struggles. In the follow-up of the Ukrainian crisis, while the Prime Minister, Róbert Fico, criticised the EU sanctions against Russia, his government allowed for the reverse flow of gas in support of Ukraine and his Foreign Minister, Mr Lajčák, maintained EU’s stance on sanctions and aimed for constructive criticism of Russia. That had been extremely difficult situation for Slovakia given the dependency on Russian oil and gas. Similarly, Róbert Fico as one of few European statesmen attended last year’s celebration of victory in the World War II in Moscow, yet the same Róbert Fico has been continously critical of the Nord Stream 2 project, which is in interest of two strong players Slovakia is usually trying to keep good relations with, Germany and Russia, arguing that it is not taking into consideration the interests of Slovakia and Ukraine.

However, with the new coalition government enhancing a clear Euro-Atlantic foreign policy direction and mentioning Russia only indirectly with regard to energy issues and the crises in Ukraine in its manifesto[7], arguably given the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the European Union starting in July 2016, slight devations from the balanced approach might be observed. This was also the case when the Slovak Ministry of Interior issued a statement this June acknowledging the threat of the Russian propaganda.[8] However, this has to be considered also in the context of the recent rise of radical groups in Slovakia, some of which promote ideas of pan-Slavism and are suspected by some media to be financed by Russia, while one has even successfully run for the parliamentary elections in March 2016. Such shift can thus, as suggested above, be attributed to a combination of the Slovak Presidency and the domestic situation. On the other hand, for the sake of happy ending, it is important to stress that Slovakia has not suddenly given up the balanced approach for Prime Minister Fico proudly informed both media and the public how he discussed the upcoming EU Presidency with President Putin[9] only a week after the above mentioned statement by the Ministry of Interior while Foreign Minister Lajčák will certainly need Russian support if he is to become the first Slovak Secretary General of the United Nations.

Overall, Slovak foreign policy towards the Russian Federation is unlikely to change dramatically with the new government and is likely to stick to the balanced approach to enhance the national interest, combining the oil and gas dependency on Russia, EU and NATO affiliation as well as broader geopolitical challenges, as it has been observed since 1998. While in terms of economic relations and trade it has been more beneficial for Slovakia to keep good relations with Russia, it has been reverse in terms of pure political dimension due to occasional support from the side of Slovakia as an EU member state.

Even though the new government’s manifesto clearly expresses the objective of stable and continuous orientation towards EU and NATO, omitting the role of Russia in the manifesto does not fully account for its weakening role as several issues related to it, including energy, remain to be priorities, yet a significant shift towards it would be very surprising. On the other hand, parliamentary level can become much more lively in this regard given the considerable Euro-sceptic and NATO-sceptic or even extremist rhetoric. However, only time will provide evidence for such conclusions, though as it is the case of foreign policy of a small country, external developments might play stronger role than domestic forces as one modified diplomatic saying states: it does not matter if two elephants make war or love, everyone in the grass must be extremely cautious.


[1] Embassy of the Russian Federation in Slovakia (2016) Russian-Slovak Relations, http://slovakia.mid.ru/web/svk/rusko-slovenske-vztahy[accessed 15th June 2016]

[2] The current government is a broad coalition government in terms of right-left political spectrum with Róbert Fico’s SMER as the leading party.

[3] For the sake of simplification, the governments were put into categories of center-right and center-left of the political spectrum, though the coalitions were more complicated in reality.

[4] Government of the Slovak Republic (2002) Government’s Manifesto, http://www.vlada.gov.sk/data/files/980_programove-vyhlasenie-vlady-slovenskej-republiky--od-16-10-2002-do-04-07-2006-.pdf[accessed 15th June 2016]

[5] Government of the Slovak Republic (2010) Government’s Manifesto, http://www.vlada.gov.sk/data/files/18_programove-vyhlasenie-2010.pdf [accessed 15th June 2016] 

[6] Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (2009) English Translation of the speech by M. Lajčák at MGIMO, http://www.vlada.gov.sk/data/files/6483_programove-vyhlasenie-vlady-slovenskej-republiky.pdf [accessed 15th June 2016]

[7] Government of the Slovak Republic (2016) Government’s Manifesto, http://www.vlada.gov.sk/data/files/6483_programove-vyhlasenie-vlady-slovenskej-republiky.pdf   [accessed 15th June 2016] 

[8] aktuality.sk(2016) Kaliňák’s Ministry acknowledges: Slovakia is subject to Russian influence, http://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/344132/kalinakov-rezort-priznava-slovensko-je-predmetom-posobenia-ruskeho-vplyvu/[accessed 15th June 2016]

[9] Pravda (2016) Fico was phoning with Putin, http://spravy.pravda.sk/domace/clanok/396143-fico-telefonoval-s-putinom/ [accessed 15th June 2016]

 

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