A return to power for Robert Fico, a brash strongman with sympathies toward Moscow, could break a key link in the Western military alliance supporting Ukraine.

A return to power for Robert Fico, a brash strongman with sympathies toward Moscow, could break a key link in the Western military alliance supporting Ukraine. (Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of Slovakia’s election this weekend is a populist former prime minister who was forced out of office five years ago amid public outrage over a journalist’s slaying, but who is now within reach of leading the country once again.

A return to power for Robert Fico, a brash strongman with sympathies toward Moscow, could break a key link in the Western military alliance supporting Ukraine. That has put outsize international focus on the vote in a country of just 5.5 million people. His party, Smer, won 22.9 percent of the votes, or 42 seats in the 150-seat parliament, according to preliminary results. But he would still need to build a coalition government to take power.

Here’s what to know.

Who is Robert Fico?

A former member of the Communist Party who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, Fico, 59, is known for his dogged ambition. Rankled at being overlooked for a ministerial post in 1998, he formed his own party, Smer, and erased his old one within five years.

Fico (pronounced FEET-so) played on his roots in the Slovak countryside to build a loyal support base, convincing the socially deprived losers of the transition from communism that he was their Robin Hood, said Milan Nic, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Meanwhile, he was building a cadre of support from the country’s newly minted oligarchs, Nic added.

Fico’s politics combine far-left social policy with nationalism and conservative positions more associated with the radical right. He has called adoption by same-sex couples a “perversion” and accused journalists of running an organized crime group.

In recent years, his rhetoric has become laced with fringe conspiracy theories and pro-Russian disinformation. He has accused financier George Soros of picking the country’s presidents and blamed “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists” for starting the war.

“War always comes from the West and peace from the East,” Fico said at a campaign event in late August.

“He has always had an anti-Western rhetoric,” Nic said. “He’s more than just pro-Russian. He loves anybody who stands up to the U.S.”

Why was Fico kicked out as prime minister last time?

A dominating force in the notoriously corrupt world of Slovak post-Communist politics, Fico served three previous terms as prime minister. His dramatic downfall came in 2018, amid the public outrage that followed the killing of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. Both 27, they were found shot dead in their newly purchased home. Kuciak had been investigating ties between Fico associates and the Italian mafia.

In the wake of the killings, Slovakians took to the streets demanding Fico’s resignation — in numbers not seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought down communism. With his coalition facing collapse, Fico bowed to pressure to step aside.

Successor governments have investigated cronyism and corruption under Fico, with top-level officials jailed. Fico himself was charged last year with abusing power and forming a criminal organization, but Slovakia’s parliament voted against lifting his immunity.

Fico’s resentment over being pressured out and then scrutinized, analysts and observers say, is now fueling his drive to become prime minister again.

“He wants revenge,” said Pavol Hardos, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava. “He is very open about wanting to come back and restore the old order. He is open about whom he will sack, what measures he will scrap once he’s back in power.”

Fico’s combative bid for a return to power under the shadow of legal investigations has drawn comparisons to former U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“For him, the most important thing is to have power once more and to stop further investigations,” said Iveta Radicova, who served as prime minister in the 2010-2012 gap in Fico’s run. “That’s it. That’s the main aim.”

How has Fico been able to make a comeback?

Fico is riding a wave that has boosted populists across Europe — from Germany and Austria to Finland — as parties capitalize on growing war skepticism and a cost-of-living crisis.

Fico has also benefited from deep distrust and dissatisfaction with the previous government of Eduard Heger, whose coalition was beset with infighting and toppled in a no-confidence vote in December. In Slovakia, public trust in government is at just 18 percent, according to polling by think tank Globsec.

Fico has successfully sown doubt about the validity of the investigations into his activities, casting those probes as an effort to wipe out political opposition, with legal pillars of the state going to “war,” Radicova said, noting the similarities to Trump’s messaging.

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Fico has tapped into rifts in Slovak society that have existed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, she said. Society has been split between those who saw their lot as better under communism and those who don’t.

“This polarization exists in Slovakia for more than 30 years,” Radicova said. “The supporters of the former regime are orientated toward Moscow, critical of Kyiv and Ukraine, critical of E.U., see more connections with Russian identity.”

What would a Fico win mean for Europe, Ukraine and Russia?

Fico has vowed to stop arms shipments to Ukraine, described sanctions against Moscow as “pointless” and said he will look again at security arrangements that allow the United States to operate military bases in Slovakia.

“What’s happening today is useless slaughter,” he said at a campaign event in August. “They are emptying military warehouses to force countries to buy more American weapons.”

Fico’s position on Ukraine would mark a major shift for Slovakia, which has been a leading ally to Kyiv — among the first to pledge fighter jets and tanks. Analysts expect that he will try to establish an illiberal axis within the European Union in collaboration with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, becoming a second spoiler.

But analysts also described Fico as a “pragmatist” who is more focused on domestic issues — and who could see his political decisions constrained by his coalition partners. Political scientist Juraj Marusiak noted that Fico criticized sanctions imposed on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but never did anything to stop those sanctions while in power.

Yet Fico has become more radical since his last stint in power, making his actions hard to predict. “He was always very aggressive, but now he is only aggressive,” said Radicova, who took part in moderated debates with Fico.

Will Fico be able to build a coalition after Slovakia’s Sept. 30 election?

As the leader in the election results, Fico will have the first chance to try to build a coalition. He is seen as being in a strong position to do that, particularly since Peter Pellegrini’s Hlas (Voice) party appeared to drop its objections to going into a coalition with him. Fico is also likely to call on the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party, which came out with just under 6 percent of the vote and has allied with Smer in government before, said Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.

“This is a very clear configuration,” Meseznikov said. Smer and the nationalist party have similar foreign policy, he added. “They are natural allies.”

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