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Czechia seeks to counter Orban's pull and keep Slovakia on Ukraine's side

For more than 70 years — with the exception of a period during the Second World War — the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one united state, Czechoslovakia. On December 31, 1992, this state split peacefully into the two Central European countries we know today.

In 2000, just four years before they joined the European Union, the Czech Republic and Slovakia signed a number of comprehensive agreements on language and social matters that strengthened their historically close ties.

To this day, the Slovak and Czech cabinets regularly hold joint meetings, and the first official visits of presidents, prime ministers and ministers alike is always to the capital of the other country.

Internationally, too, the two countries have so far walked if not in step then very close beside each other.

'The black hole of Europe'

There was one notable exception to this rule: Immediately after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia was labeled "the black hole of Europe" due to the actions of the nationalist authoritarian regime of former PM Vladimir Meciar (1993–1998).

It was excluded from the first round of NATO expansion and membership of the European Union because it did not meet both entities' democratic criteria.

In which direction will Slovakia move?

The recent election of Robert Fico and his national-conservative Smer party raises a number of questions.

Will relations between Prague and Bratislava return to the way they were during the Meciar era? Will, as one diplomat in Prague put it, Slovakia "succeed in staying in the Czech orbit"? Or will Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who repeatedly expressed his unequivocal support for Robert Fico in the run-up to the September 30 parliamentary election in Slovakia, manage to get the new Slovak government on his side.

Fico's pledge: not 'a single bullet' for Ukraine

The main bone of contention in all this is support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. The Czech Republic has been and continues to be one of Ukraine's greatest supporters in terms of both arms deliveries and financial and humanitarian support.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala was one of the first three European leaders to travel to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on March 15, 2022 — just weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Slovakia's new PM, Robert Fico, on the other hand, has pledged to stop his country's support for the war-torn country. One of his party's election slogans was "No more bullets for Ukraine."

He stuck to this line after the election, declaring in early October that "the roots of the war in Ukraine go back to 2014 when Ukrainian fascists murdered civilians of Russian nationality."

A change of tune regarding Ukraine?

So far, however, these strong words have not been followed up by many deeds, not least because of the diplomatic pressure from the Czech Republic.

As Slovak ministers made their traditional first trips to Prague after the election, it became clear that the refusal to send aid to Ukraine is not as clear-cut as it initially seemed.

The government in Bratislava will not terminate any of the agreements on the supply of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, not even those concluded by state-owned arms factories.

"Everything on a commercial basis will remain unchanged and will continue as before," said the new Slovak Foreign Minister, Juraj Blanar, after meeting his Czech counterpart, Jan Lipavsky, in Prague on November 6. "Slovakia has sent comprehensive humanitarian aid to Ukraine and we want to continue this support."

The new Slovak government sees mine clearance as part of this aid and has offered Kyiv the assistance of Slovak specialists.

Deeds count more than words, says Prague

In early November, the new government demonstratively rejected the previous government's plans for military aid in the form of ammunition from Slovak stock worth €40 million.

But none of this seems to rattle Prague. "I judge not words, but deeds," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky told DW. "Slovakia's ammunition deliveries to Ukraine — which are not insignificant — continue."

Fico wants to visit Prague

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala is also trying to keep Fico and the government in Bratislava close. The two men met at the EU summit in Brussels in October 2023.

"We will have different views on a range of foreign policy questions, that is true," Fiala said after the meeting. "We may have different ideas on this matter or that, but we must search for a common language; that is our obligation, and that is the way I approach it."

The two men agreed that Fico would come to Prague as soon as possible — potentially on November 24 — for his traditional first trip abroad as PM.

According to diplomatic sources, the biggest stumbling block is Fico's insistence that he be received by Czech President Petr Pavel. General Pavel, who was chairman of NATO's Military Committee until 2018, is staunchly pro-Ukraine.

According to diplomatic circles in Prague, both governments are currently negotiating a public declaration for Fico on support for Kyiv.

Czechs in no hurry to have Visegrad summit

In other areas, too, Prague is trying to diplomatically drive a wedge between Fico and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The Czech government, which currently holds the presidency of the Visegrad Group (V4), rejected Fico's request to call a summit of the group's prime and foreign ministers. Fico had hoped to persuade the V4 states — Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — to jointly reject the EU migration package. Both Hungary and the outgoing PiS government in Warsaw are opposed to the package; the Czech Republic supports it.

Prague rejected Slovakia's proposal, explaining that it would wait for a new Polish government under the leadership of the pro-European Donald Tusk, who is currently leader of the opposition.

"We don't just want to meet for the sake of meeting," said Lipavsky, "but to deal with actual, real politics of Central Europe."

Experts assume that if Tusk becomes Polish PM, Poland and the Czech Republic will join forces and put pressure on Fico and isolate Orban within the Visegrad Group.

Hungary is not taking this lying down

None of this is lost on Hungary, which is why Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto made a beeline for Bratislava on November 7, straight after his Slovak counterpart's visit to Prague.

"We don't forget the value of good neighborly relations with Hungary," Blanar said after the meeting.

For the moment, however, even after a few weeks in government, Fico's cabinet would appear to be focusing its attention on the Czech Republic. In so doing, it is leaning towards the Czech Republic's pro-European and — to a certain extent — its pro-Ukrainian stance.

This article was originally written in German.