Soon after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday 24th February had begun, a number of European countries invoked article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty. The article states that allies can hold consultations whenever they feel the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any member of the Atlantic Alliance is threatened. Among those requesting consultations were Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. Of the EU states that share a boundary with Ukraine, only Hungary was not in the list.
Czechia doesn’t border with Ukraine, but together with its neighbour Slovakia – which does – has been taking Kyiv’s side against Moscow since the beginning of the crisis. Both Czechia and Slovakia belong to the European Union, to NATO, and to the Visegrád Group. They were reunited under socialism in 1946 and together they disengaged from it with a Velvet Revolution in 1989, only to part ways amiably with a Velvet Divorce three years later. Since then, the two countries played an important, but underrated game at the international tables. This is hardly surprising given that their combined population totals 16 million people, less than Romania. However, what numbers don’t tell is the strategic importance of Czechia and Slovakia – World War Two began within their once unified territory – whilst their cultural heritage was crucial in shaping the identity of contemporary Europe.
Both countries will turn thirty years old next year. And yet, for all of their historical and strategic relevance, they have often been overlooked by the international media. As for Czechia, this is due to change in July this year, when the country will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU for six months, taking the helm at a challenging time of instability. In spring 2024 Slovakia is also likely to be showing on the headlines with its parliamentary and its presidential elections due between February and April.
A Tale of Two Premiers
Today, it might look like the current governments of Prague and Bratislava have little in common. Czech prime minister Petr Fiala is the leader of liberal-conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), whilst Slovakia’s Eduard Heger is a member of populist movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽANO). Albeit both ruling parties lean towards centre-right stances, their views on some key issues diverge. The ODS is a conservative party which stemmed from late playwright and president Václav Havel’s Civic Forum in 1991. OL’ANO was founded twenty years later as an anti-corruption social-conservative party by millionaire businessman (and future premier) Igor Matovič.
Born in 1964, Fiala is a political scientist, a university professor and a former rector of Brno’s Masaryk University. He never worked abroad or in the private sector, while Heger – twelve years his junior – holds a degree in Economics from Bratislava University, but spent a decade in the United States where he was the country manager of a Slovak vodka producer. Whereas Fiala was involved in independent civic activism as early as the 1980s in Czechoslovakia and went into politics in 2011 as a chief aide of the then Czech PM, Petr Nečas, Heger started his rise in much humbler fashion. He was one of OL’ANO candidates in the 2016 parliamentary vote, but held little hope to be elected. Eventually, he did get into Slovakia’s parliament, where he soon became one of its most active members by presenting dozens and dozens of bills. In March 2020 his efforts paid off, as he was chosen as Minister of Finance in the Matovič Cabinet. One year later, when the PM stepped down due to a coalition crisis triggered by the purchase of Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, Heger was appointed new premier by president Zuzana Čaputová.
Pro-Ukraine Governments, Anti-NATO Protests
Even though the new Fiala government, in charge from November 2021, is formed by a coalition of three parties that used to sit in the opposition, when it comes to relations with Russia it matches its predecessor. Between April and May last year the Babiš administration expelled 63 Russian diplomats from Czechia as the final straw of a diplomatic row which had erupted between Prague and Moscow. These frictions date back to October 2014 when two explosions wreaked havoc in the southern village of Vrbětice, blowing up two military deposits of ammunitions and killing two Czech citizens. The government in Prague accused Russian intelligence agents of having carried them out with the purpose of destroying ammunitions that had been sold to Ukraine. Moscow denied any involvement in the blasts and Czechia replied by expelling Russian diplomats from the country with the accusation of having used their status as a cover for intelligence work. The Kremlin retaliated in the same fashion, expelling Czech diplomats from Russia and designating Czechia as an ‘unfriendly state’.
Since then the relations between the two countries have stayed tense and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has widened the rift between Moscow and Prague. Today Czechia, together with Poland, is one of the countries selling most ammunitions to Ukraine and the Fiala administration stands with the Ukrainian government and its people through these unprecedented times. The only pro-Russian voice in the Czech top political echelons used to be president’s Miloš Zeman, whose mandate will end in January 2023. However, after the Russian attack of 24th February even him called Putin, “A madman who needs to be isolated and defended against, not just with words but with concrete measures”.
Unlike neighboring Czechia, Slovakia was never labeled an ‘unfriendly state’ by the Kremlin. However Russia isn’t popular with the Bratislava government either. “Russian imperialism has to be stopped,” stressed PM Heger on 22nd February, before all hell let loose, “President Putin cannot feel that he can create a Russian protectorate in Ukraine by force. Our own security is being decided on the Ukrainian borders.” A statement mirrored by Slovakian president Čaputová, who regarded Putin’s recognition of the two separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as an occupation of a sovereign country. On 24th February, Heger called on his compatriots to show solidarity with Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Before the Putin-ordered military invasion unfolded, a significant part of the Slovakian public opinion mistrusted Russia less than the United States and NATO, which the country joined in 2004. This had become clear earlier this month, when the parliament in Bratislava approved the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the US. It will allow the US military to use two Slovak air force bases, Malacky-Kuchyňa and Sliač, for the next ten years upon paying 100 million USD to Slovakia. Heger backed the agreement, saying it will “significantly enhance our security”, but the DCA was contested by the oppositions, including former premier Robert Fico, and far-right groups. They brought thousands of people to the streets of Bratislava to protest against the treaty, claiming it might undermine Slovakia’s sovereignty. Also, in January this year, a poll had found that 44% of Slovaks blamed the US and NATO for Ukrainian-Russian crisis, while less than 35% of respondents believed Moscow was responsible. It is unclear whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed their view or if anti-Americanism in the country, fueled by widespread misinformation and Russian propaganda, is still ongoing against all odds.
Playing Different Notes than Budapest & Warsaw
Meanwhile, political analysts claim the Visegrád Group (V4) Czechia and Slovakia belong to is undergoing difficult times. On the one hand, the group was never as cohesive a political entity as the four Central Eastern European countries that established it in 1991 would have wished. On the other, lately the V4 has often been perceived abroad as a Polish-Hungarian-led quartet, with little voice given to Prague and Bratislava. Indeed, since Poland and Hungary started becoming more confrontational towards the EU with media laws, justice reforms, sovereignty calls, and disregarding Brussels’ worries on the rule of law, they tried to drag the V4 on their side. However, for all their recent political instability and corruption scandals, Czechia and Slovakia have been distancing themselves from Budapest and Warsaw.
The recent development in Ukraine might bring both countries closer to Poland (less so to sanctions hesitant Hungary) on some key issues, but not on others. On 16th February, when the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU funds can be withheld if member States fail to uphold the rule of law, Czechia welcomed that decision, hence irritating the Morawiecki and Orbán administrations.“Hungary and Poland are nowadays in a serious dispute with the rest of the EU, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not playing the same notes,” confirmed Czech EU Affairs Minister, Mikuláš Bek. Even though Heger’s Slovakia seems to be lagging behind Fiala’s Czechia in following this new democratic score, there is little doubt that both countries are now leaning towards Brussels and not towards Warsaw and Budapest.
Cover Photo: Czech Prime minister Petr Fiala hold a press conference after his first government meeting – Prague, December 17, 2021 (Lukas Kabon / Anadolu Agency via AFP).
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