Eastern Europeans still support Ukraine but cracks appear in public opinion

Slovakia’s leadership fears that politicians will fuel pro-Russia sentiment as elections loom

Slovakia's former foreign minister, Ivan Korcok
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A recent poll has found that public support for Ukraine remains strong in Central and Eastern Europe but that pro-Russia sentiment is on the rise in countries including Slovakia.

There the leadership fears that such sentiment will be fuelled by coming parliamentary election campaigns.

Titled “United we (still) stand,” the poll is conducted annually by the Bratislava-based think tank GlobSec and was published last week.

Its authors on Tuesday gave insights on their findings on the sidelines of a security conference in Slovakia’s capital.

The poll was conducted in March, with 8,000 respondents in nine countries.

It found that 34 per cent of Slovak respondents believe that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine

That was a much higher figure than in Poland (4 per cent) or Hungary (19 per cent), the only EU member with an openly pro-Kremlin Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

These findings have caused worry among Slovak officials, former foreign affairs minister Ivan Korcok told The National.

Mr Korcok fears that these opinions will translate in the ballot box in September and could signal a shift in the region’s public opinion.

The opposition, led by Eurosceptic former prime minister Robert Fico, is in the lead.

“If neighbouring countries see Slovakia go in Hungary’s direction, that could bring some [new] dynamics,” he said.

Mr Korcok, who is staunchly pro-Ukraine and was in government when Slovakia sent S-300 air defence systems to Ukraine as early as April 2022, blamed Slovak politicians.

“Thanks to pro-Kremlin propaganda and irresponsible mobilisation of a narrative saying that it’s Ukraine and the West that have been provoking Russia, our population is now more open to those who cannot determine who is the victim or who is the aggressor,” he said.

“Previous governments and the current government unequivocally support Ukraine.”

The poll also found that 65 per cent of respondents in Slovakia believe that the US is dragging their country into a war because they are profiting from it.

Support for Nato, which Slovakia joined in 2004, decreased from 72 per cent in 2022 to 58 per cent this year.

Most people in Slovakia and Bulgaria believe that Ukrainian refugees are receiving support at the expense of the local population. Pro-refugee stances are strongest in Hungary and Latvia.

“These are problems bubbling under the surface and in Slovakia. These kinds of narratives will resonate more and more,” said Katarina Klingova, senior research fellow at GlobSec’s centre for democracy and resilience.

“Depictions of Ukrainians as greedy and driving big foreign cars are going viral on social media platforms.

“We are four months before elections and this is the state of public opinion that can definitely play into the hands of pro-Russian actors."

Slovakia’s pro-Russian attitude is believed to be due to the historical idea of Russia as the country's “big brother”, created by Slovak leaders of the 19th century, said Dominika Hajdu, policy director at GlobSec’s centre for democracy and resilience.

“We tested this in 2020, and 78 per cent of Slovaks still believed that Russia is our big brother,” Ms Hadju said.

This was not challenged after 1989, when Soviet rule over Slovakia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, ended.

“There was never a reconciliation like in Poland or in the Czech Republic where there is a common understanding that Russia is a threat,” said Ms Hajdu.

“Prior to the war in Ukraine, the fact that Russia liberated us [from Nazi Germany] in 1945 had been much more in the public debate than the fact that they occupied us for 41 years.”

Ms Klingova stressed that Slovakia has “completely lost the information war”.

“We need to be more united,” she said. “We need to have our own national narrative about who we are as Slovaks and what kind of values we stand for.”

Updated: May 31, 2023, 6:03 AM