Bratislava, Slovakia – Earlier this month Slovak lawmakers approved by a narrow margin a defence agreement with the United States after weeks of controversy, shedding some light on deeply entrenched anti-Americanism in the Central European country.
A short majority of 79 MPs in the 150-seat Parliament voted in favour of the so-called Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA), paving the way for its ratification shortly after by Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová.
Slovakia and US ink defence agreement deal
Described as a mere formality by its supporters and making Slovakia NATO’s last eastern frontier country to adopt such an agreement, the deal faced fierce opposition in Parliament and in the streets.
“The agreement is giving us an opportunity to modernize, together with the United States, our defence infrastructure,” argued Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď. “Our allies are guaranteeing our sovereignty. That’s exactly what alliances are about.”
Prime Minister Eduard Heger, Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok and President Čaputová also expressed their support for the agreement, which they said would increase Slovakia’s defence infrastructure and strengthen the country’s Western and pro-Atlantic orientation.
“This agreement makes it easier for our militaries to coordinate on common defensive efforts, like conducting joint training, exercises,” said the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “It will create more regular consultation between our countries on threats to our people, to international peace and security”.
Opposition parties, particularly Smer, Hlas and far-right groups, fueled by widespread disinformation websites and social media accounts, accused the government of selling out Slovakia’s sovereignty to Washington and to NATO forces.
Former Prime Minister Robert Fico called it “treacherous [and] dirty” and called for a public referendum on the issue. Negotiations for the agreement had already started back in 2017, when Fico’s Smer was in government, and were cut short in 2019 after the opposition of Smer’s then-coalition partner the Slovak National Party (SNS), in control of the Defence Ministry.
Opposition grows loud over sovereignty concerns
Fico went on to call President Čaputová “an American agent”, while a group of opposition MPs later published a so-called “list of traitors” detailing the names, photos and hometowns of lawmakers who voted in favour of the defence agreement.
“The agreement contains a lot of negative impacts on Slovakia. It only imposes duties on us, while significantly curtailing the rights that Slovakia will have in relation to the United States,” opined Artur Bekmatov, chairman of the extra-parliamentary party Socialisti.sk.
Thousands of people protested in front of the Parliament building in Bratislava ahead of the vote, with banners such as “Stop USA Army”. Demonstrators expressed concerns the deal would allow US forces to be permanently stationed in Slovakia or enable the deployment of nuclear weapons – two claims both the US and Slovak governments have denied.
Some small scuffles also broke out between lawmakers inside Parliament.
Inflaming tensions at a time of renewed tensions between Russia and Ukraine – who shares a small and mountainous land border with Slovakia – the treaty allows US forces to use two airports in Slovakia at Sliac and Malacky-Kuchyna rent free for the next ten years, including to store military equipment.
Qualifying Slovakia for $100 million in US funds to modernize its infrastructure and particularly the two military airbases, the bilateral agreement would allow US troops deployment on Slovak territory only after formal governmental and parliamentary approval.
Similar agreements have already been signed by 23 NATO member states, including other Eastern frontier countries like neighbouring Poland and Hungary.
NATO scepticism in Slovakia
The controversy surrounding the bilateral defence agreement once again brought to the surface the high level of anti-Americanism in Slovakia and exemplified deep divisions in Slovak society on the topic of Russia. With widespread disinformation and disingenuous party politics thrown in the mix, the situation was bound to escalate and make headlines.
In January, a poll found that 44% of the Slovak population blamed the US and NATO – which Slovakia joined in 2004 a few years after its three Visegrad partners – for the current situation at the Ukrainian-Russian border. Less than 35% of respondents believed Russia was responsible.
The possibility of foreign troops stationed in the country remains highly controversial for many Slovaks, linked to the experience of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Paradoxically, large parts of the population who experienced these events, as well as younger Slovaks who may have only heard about it from their parents or at school, appear more sceptical of the US and NATO than about Russia.
“The fact that Slovakia was actually invaded by the Soviet Union in 1968 and occupied by mainly Russian forces until the fall of communism is, perversely, used to justify opposition to a conjectured “occupation” – by America,” the Center for European Policy Analysis summarized in a recent paper.
Keeping a balance
In 2020, a global survey found that just half of Slovakia’s population (51%) views NATO favourably, and a similar share of respondents believed that it was important to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia. In comparison, other surveys put the level of support for the North Atlantic alliance at 80% or more in neighbouring Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary.
Proof of the persisting divisions on the issue, 23% of Slovaks said they would side with Washington if pushed to decide, according to the Pew Research poll, while 22% would choose Russia.
Talking about the role of party politics in the recent debates, Vladimir Tarasovič, researcher at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association think-tank, explains that Smer “are very well aware what is the current security situation, they’re not amateurs.”
“But taking into considering how Slovak voters paradoxically understand the US and favour Russia, it is clear that the more they stir this up, people who are not committed to the security question and do not follow developments beyond our borders will hear it.”
Reminding that neither Bratislava nor Washington wants additional permanent US military bases in the region, commentators have nevertheless criticized the Slovak government for failing to properly explain the benefits of the deal, specifically the access to funds needed to upgrade its defence infrastructure. This lack of pedagogy opened a boulevard for fake news to multiply in a population notoriously prone to conspiracy theories.
While reasons for Slovakia’s anti-Americanism are complex and go back decades, they are only partly linked to the pro-Russian sentiment prevalent in a non-negligible but minority part of the population – many of whom see the era of communist Czechoslovakia in a positive light.
Successive studies have pointed out that most Slovaks see themselves as truly “central”, neither Western nor Eastern, and instances of what is perceived as American “imperialism” (whether military, economic or even cultural) pose a threat to that belief.
In the wrong hands and with disingenuous spokespersons, that belief leaves the realm of the personal and becomes a truly existential threat.
Highlighting a “naivety of Slovaks when it comes to foreign issues”, analyst Alexander Duleba believes that “Slovaks have a feeling that they are more moral when they reject military interventions abroad.”
The fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine never took the form of a clear-cut invasion but was carried out with insidious hybrid warfare tactics easily debunked by disinformation websites evidently played a role in how Slovaks perceive the current geopolitical situation.
And in how the perception of the US might evolve in the future.