Expulsion of Russian Diplomats Signals Return of Slovakia to EU-NATO Trajectory

The new Slovak government is taking steps to regain the respect of its EU and NATO partners after years of prioritising Russian economic ties.

When the British investigation into the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia placed the blame firmly on the Russian state, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats. In acts of solidarity, other European countries as well as the US and Canada also expelled Russian diplomats from their territories. Slovakia was not among them; in fact, it was the only one amongst its Central European neighbours that did not follow suit. That stance changed in August, when the government of Igor Matovic, who won the 2020 parliamentary election, announced the expulsion of three Russian diplomats for involvement in what was described as “a serious crime”.

“Slovakia is a sovereign country and diplomatic rules should be observed everywhere, including on the territory of Slovakia,” Prime Minister Matovic told a press conference on August 12, adding that his country is “not a banana republic” and would not tolerate such behaviour on its soil.

The expulsions are linked to the Russian state deceiving the Slovak Consulate in St Petersburg by submitting false IDs for the purpose of gaining a Schengen visa, which allows entry to the EU passport-free zone that covers most of the member states, for one of its nationals. The prime minister confirmed that the Russian national in question who obtained the visa is suspected of participating in a murder in Germany.

This is believed to be the assassination in a Berlin park of a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who in the past had fought against Russian forces in the North Caucasus. Russian President Vladimir Putin branded him a bloodthirsty terrorist in 2012. In June, German federal prosecutors charged a 49-year-old Russian national, identified as “Vadim K, otherwise known as Vadim S, over the killing. The accused was apprehended shortly after the murder, when he was spotted discarding a Glock pistol, bicycle and wig into the nearby Spree River.

Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď noted that the application for an EU visa would not have been possible unless the submitted IDs were forged in a highly sophisticated manner.

The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry has since launched an investigation into the visa issuing procedures at the consulate in St Petersburg and the Slovak embassy in Moscow. There is no indication from the government when or whether the results of the inquiry will be made public.

Matching the rhetoric

This new hardline approach by the government of Matovic has drawn praise from many quarters.

“It was an adequate response for the unbelievable impudence of the Russian side that deceived the Slovak diplomatic service,” Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs, said.

Committing acts like this is unimaginable amongst countries that have normal, friendly relations, he added.

Mesežnikov argues that taking into account Slovakia’s commitments to its allies, the state did not react appropriately under the previous governments led by Smer, whether that was under the leadership of Robert Fico (2006-10 and 2012-18) or Peter Pellegrini (2018-20).

Back in 2018, Fico defended the decision not to expel any Russian diplomat following the March 27, 2018 meeting between the ruling coalition members, arguing that “we want to have good business and economic relations” with Russia.

Andrej Danko, chair of Smer’s then-coalition partner the Slovak National Party (SNS), backed this position by asserting that: “We need Russia”. In Danko’s opinion, it was unfortunate that other countries evaluated Slovakia’s allegiance to its Euro-Atlantic allies based on its decision of whether or not to expel Russian diplomats.

Mesežnikov claims that previous governments had often loudly declared their pro-European and pro-Atlantic credentials, but then undermined that by their actions.

When Slovakia did not join the Western world’s expulsion of Russian diplomats in connection with the Skripal case, for example, it was really noticed by its European allies, said Pavel Havlíček from the Czech think-tank, the Association for International Affairs. “This expulsion of diplomats is something long overdue,” Havlíček said.

Havlíček notes that under previous governments there was a big gap between the rhetoric and the specific steps taken, which seems to no longer be the case under this new government. “Now, when we look at the statements of Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď, we see that he is way more active; he is aware of the skeletons in the Slovak cupboard,” Havlíček said, adding that Naď is sending very strong signals and is very consistent on this matter.

A matter of security, not just solidarity

For Alexander Duleba, an expert on Slovak domestic and foreign policy and on Russia and Ukraine, the new government has put Slovakia firmly back in the Western camp. “It seems that a new government had to come in for Slovakia to behave responsibly as a member state of NATO and EU,” said Duleba of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, a foreign policy think-tank based in Bratislava.

However, he notes that the government’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats is not merely an act of solidarity with its allies, but also a matter of Slovak security, in that it signals to allies that the country will behave responsibly under the new government and take the necessary steps to protect its own and their security.

Duleba does not think the Slovak government’s decision to expel the diplomats will have any significant impact on bilateral relations with Russia, as these are conditioned by the relations between the EU and NATO with Russia. However, the biggest impact will likely be on the operations of the Slovak embassy in Moscow, as Russians normally respond to such moves with reciprocity, meaning they would expel three Slovak diplomats from Moscow. While Russians have more than 30 diplomats in Bratislava, Slovaks have far less in Moscow, so a lowering of this number would be a considerable loss.

Even so, Duleba says that any expulsion of diplomats from either side won’t really change or impact the current poor state of relations between the two countries. “The truth is that relations have been bad since 2014 when the aggression of Russia against Ukraine started,” he said.

Information war

That leaves the question of where Slovakia goes from here and how it can prevent a repeat of nefarious Russian activities on its soil and against its institutions.

Katarina Klingova, an analyst at the GLOBSEC think-tank, points out that as well as the EU and NATO, Slovakia’s own intelligence agencies have been warning about the subversive activities of Russian diplomats in Slovakia.

In its 2018 annual report, the latest available, the Slovak Information Service (SIS) wrote that its monitoring activities showed Russians in the country were working against the interests of Slovakia and its allies. “Members of Russian intelligence operating in the area of Slovakia, mostly under diplomatic cover, were trying to recruit collaborators in fundamental bodies of the state administration, the security services, and in the fields of energy and defence,” the annual report laid out.

Klingova warns that Slovakia has not updated its defence and security strategy since 2005. Even though the previous government approved a new, updated version of it, it was blocked by SNS in parliament, as the party did not agree with the labelling of Russia as a security threat in the document.

The new government has pledged to work on getting the new defence and security strategy approved by the end of 2020, as well as begin work on an action plan for the coordination in the fight against hybrid threats and the spread of disinformation, which is becoming a big problem in Slovakia.

A GLOBSEC study, “Voices of Central and Eastern Europe”, published in June 2020, says that disinformation and conspiracy theories fuel negative perceptions about democratic processes and institutions. GLOBSEC compared how people’s views on conspiracy theories relate to their trust in the democratic system and found that those who believe in conspiracy theories tend to prefer a strong, autocratic leader over liberal democracy.

Out of all the countries in the study (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia), Slovaks were the most susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation (56 per cent). Popular disinformation websites in Slovakia, which tend to spread Russian propaganda, are infovojna.sk, slobodnyvysielac.sk, zemavek.sk and hlavnespravy.sk.

Klingova says revising the country’s defence and security strategy and taking action to counter disinformation, together with stronger government action when illegal activity is uncovered, are crucial if the country is to regain the respect of its EU and NATO partners.

“These are real steps with which the government can prove to our allies its resolve and to rebuild the reputation of Slovakia,” Klingova said.

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