In April–May 2019, Slovakia was preparing for elections to the European Parliament. After the presidential election in March 2019, won by the pro-European candidate Zuzana Čaputová, the designated archenemy of pro-Russian and conspiratorial media, the European elections became the main issue in public and political discourses.
Issues related to the EU and its policies, the process of European integration, in particular its current state, the attitudes and activities of individual political parties and politicians became the spotlight of attention.
Pre-Election Discourse: Polarization on the EU vs. Anti-EU Axis
Before the elections to the European Parliament, Slovakia had seen a remarkable political momentum due to specific circumstances with regards to the increased mobilization of two electoral segments.
The first was the electorate of the pro-European electoral two-party coalition Progressive Slovakia –Together-Civic Democracy (PS – SOD), which supported Zuzana Čaputová in the presidential election. The voter support of this centrist coalition, measured in representative opinion polls, climbed to 13-14%. Čaputová’s victory undoubtedly contributed to the consolidation of this support.
However, at the same time, the fascist party ĽSNS has reached its highest ever level of support in opinion polls since 2009, the year it was founded – it also stood at 13-14%, although the candidate of this party in the first round of the presidential elections, Marian Kotleba only came fourth with 10% and did not qualify for the second round of election.
Undoubtedly, Supreme Court’s controversial decision on the destiny of ĽSNS contributed to consolidating the support of this right-wing extremist formation. The Supreme Court considered the Prosecutor General’s proposal to dissolve this party and eventually, after two years, rejected the proposal and did not dissolve the ĽSNS.
For some radical-minded but still hesitant radical nationalist voters this was an encouraging signal. They perceived the whole case as if the Supreme Court had cleared the ĽSNS of all unjustified charges of fascism and extremism (although in fact the court only found that the Prosecutor General’s proposal did not contain sufficient evidence to justify party’s dissolution).
After the Supreme Court’s decision, virtually all opinion polls measured an increase in the voter support of the ĽSNS.
In the rivalry of political forces before the EP elections, there had been strong polarization between the two most prominent political actors actively working with the EU agenda.
One of these actors, ĽSNS, represented the most radical anti-European, openly xenophobic attitudes, including the promise of leaving the EU. The second actor, PS-SOD, was among the country’s relevant political parties advocating for the closest possible ties between Slovakia and the EU and held de facto federalist stances.
The aforementioned polarization also concerned the overall positions of two formations in the country’s foreign policy and external security orientation: while the ĽSNS was anti-West and pro-Russian, the PS – SOD, on the contrary, was strongly pro-Western and had clearly critical views on the Russian Federation’s foreign policy.
Factors of Voter Turnout: Slovak Paradox
In the previous EP election (2014) voter turnout in Slovakia was the lowest in the whole EU – only 13%. Although opinion polls conducted in the pre-election period in April 2019 signaled a slight increase in citizens’ interest in voting in European elections compared to 2014, the expected (i.e. declared by the respondents) voter turnout was still relatively low – 21%.
However, support for country’s membership in the EU and trust in the EU and its institutions, according to surveys, remained steadily high in Slovakia.
This Slovak paradox – high support for membership in the Union and low voter turnout – has long been the subject of lively discussion among experts. In addition to various reasons (weak mobilization activities of political parties, lack of competitive character of the campaign, lack of attractive information materials about EU, etc.), it was also an overall satisfaction with the fact that “the EU works well without our efforts”. “The EU is OK and it is functioning well without my voice” – this was relatively widespread individual narrative among many ordinary Slovaks.
There are numerous people who support Slovakia’s membership in the EU and they are happy with it, but they do not participate in European elections. These voters constitute the largest part of Slovak constituency.
By their non-participation in the elections, however, they increase the weight of the votes of those who go to the elections but have different views on the EU and on Slovakia’s membership in the Union, including even those who want Slovakia to leave the EU.
While in the previous elections to the European Parliament (2004, 2009, 2014) such attuned voters did not have an electoral offer from a strong political entity to turn their ideas into a political strategy and, therefore, were less motivated to participate in the elections, in 2019 such political entity already existed – it was the fascist party ĽSNS, which has been a parliamentary formation since 2016, with consolidated voter support.
In democracies, there is a well-known phenomenon where, in the case of generally low turnout, the smaller (even often quite marginal) political parties with a disciplined and highly motivated voter base can achieve solid electoral gains.
This precisely describes the electorate of the anti-European and pro-Russian ĽSNS, which, in the 2019 European election campaign, was sufficiently motivated and seemed to be quite highly mobilized to achieve a good result with an expected 20% of voter turnout.
The PS-SOD coalition, which, according to surveys, also had rather motivated voters, seized the opportunity to define itself as a counterpart to ĽSNS, as a real force capable of effectively fighting against the rise of fascism.
The problem at the time, however, was that many believed that even if this coalition achieved a good election result, it would not have a large enough portion of the electorate supporting it to either tackle or at least seriously complicate the fascists‘ journey to Brussels. This would require wider mobilization of the electorate by the mainstream, moderate pro-European parties.
Their potential to reach many of their supporters through their pre-election activities was unclear until the last minute, especially with the expected low voter turnout.
The majority of the mainstream pro-European parties through their key slogans and messages defined themselves in relation to the EU (“Brussels“), they promised voters “to fight for Slovakia’s national interests in Brussels,” they communicated less about the content associated with the further developments and prospects of the Union.
An ordinary citizen could have the impression that the parties were competing not with each other, but with some mythological Brussels which, moreover, lacked “common sense” and therefore only these parties’ representatives could enforce this “common sense” in the EU if they got into the European Parliament.
The Political Activism of the Pro-Kremlin Media
For the conspiracy-disinformation pro-Russian media platforms, the situation before the European elections created a good opportunity for spreading the traditional anti-EU narratives in the context of parties‘ messages seeking electoral support. Pro-Russian media’s obvious intention was to weaken pro-European and strengthen the anti-European political forces.
The ideological aspect of the electoral competition in 2019 manifested in a much more pronounced form than earlier. A frequent target of Slovak pro-Kremlin media outlets was liberalism as an ideological and political stream, liberal ideas and their holders (politicians and activists).
In this setting, Slovak pro-Russian media platforms fully corresponded to state-run or pro-government Russian media.
Before the European elections 2019, the Slovak pro-Kremlin media had evoked the idea about contemporary Europe that internally resists ”liberal“ attacks that weaken European civilization. The dissemination of this narrative was boosted by the presentation of liberalism exclusively in negative connotations, together with the West, Europe, the EU, NATO, and always as an enemy of national and conservative values, aspirations for sovereignty and independence.
For example, in the most read disinformation online daily Hlavné správy, liberalism was characterized as ”pathologically dangerous“ since it allegedly causes the “dissolution of functional standards, usually moral standards, under various pretexts, that look very wise and logically justified.“
In the West, a “civilizational change“ took place due to the destruction caused by liberalism, and the values on which the successful Western civilization had grown have allegedly been completely dissolved.
“Christianity, from which these norms came, is almost in complete ruins, broken by liberalism in the form of humanism and by various other ideologies (especially neo-Marxism) bound with it. Society is therefore emptied, being tired of itself, without vitality, and unable to reproduce.”
In this optic, only those political forces that prefer traditional values, authority, national sovereignty, cultural exclusivity, which are “genuine protectors of Europe” deserve respect and support.
Therefore, in the pre-election period, the Slovak pro-Russian media acted as enthusiastic actors of political competition and they directly supported those politicians whose value orientation they considered to be identical or close to their own illiberal creed (among other things, critical to the EU and favorable to Russia) and they aggressively opposed to the proponents of the opposite, the pro-Western and pro-European views.
The pro-Kremlin media reported with much sympathy about a visit of Marine Le Pen, leader of the French party National Assembly, in mid-May 2019 in Bratislava, where a meeting of radical Eurosceptic parties was held under the auspices of the Movement for Europe of Nations and Freedom.
Apart from Le Pen’s formation, the Italian party Lega of Matteo Salvini, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Greek New Right party and the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders were involved in the movement. The domestic organizer of meeting in Bratislava was Boris Kollar’s We are Family movement, which announced several days earlier that it was joining this newly forming party group.
The meeting of European hard Eurosceptics raised serious media attention. In front of the River Park Hotel, where representatives of the Movement for Europe of Nations and Freedom met, the opponents gathered to express their disagreement with the presence of radical-nationalist politicians in the city.
The Infovojna server, referring to the event, has marked protesters as “ultraliberal extremists from the Progressive Slovakia party,” as ”slanders” who are constantly trying to provoke conflict and are able to “aggressively attack anyone who does not share their perverted liberal values.” The report published by Infovojna stated that while the talks of representatives of individual radical parties from Europe at the meeting were constructive and substantive, the “aggressive ultraliberal lunatics showed their ”true faces.”
Hlavné správy also reported about this meeting. In a post published under the title “In front of the River Park Hotel at the conference ’For a Europe of Sovereign Nations,’ the real fascists presented themselves,” the periodical labelled protesters ”fanatics” and representatives of ”the real fascism that has recently begun to terrorize Slovakia, to shut up the mouths of silent majority and to order it what it should think.”
According to Hlavné správy, these people should be “punished by law, and should not be able to freely exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression, opinion and association.”
In the ongoing electoral campaign, Hlavné správy were in fact on the side of ĽSNS. Two weeks before the vote, the outlet attacked the civic initiative “Young Against Fascism,” the members of which – according to Hlavné správy – launched a campaign directed against ĽSNS in order to prevent it from being elected to the European Parliament after the Supreme Court did not dissolve it and thus allegedly confirmed that the “party is not fascist and does not violate any democratic values.”
The daily characterized the members of the ”Young Against Fascism“ initiative as ”liberal fanatics” who spread the West’s ”perverted values“ (“LGBTI agenda, migration, multiculturalism and similar perversions“).
It particularly emphasized that these ”perversities“ are coming from the West, not from Russia or from China. The summary of what was at stake in the European Parliament elections made by Hlavné správy was clear:
“In the European elections in May, it will be decided whether the European Union will continue with its neoliberal structures supporting all the perversities of the world, the loss of sovereignty and further centralization of Brussels’ power, or people will choose the national candidates who will try to return the European Union to its original goal of economic cooperation between national and sovereign countries.”
The Traditional Pro-Kremlin Repertoire Is Not Forgotten
Although the key topics in disinformation media‘s content in the run-up to the European elections were mainly related to the functioning of the EU and its institutions and the ongoing electoral competition, pro-Kremlin media did not omit traditional topics that were long-term and organic part of their arsenal.
They fed an anti-American discourse, blaming the US for sacrificing Europe in a war against Russia, for the US’s aggressive intentions towards Cuba and Venezuela (however, praising Russia for deploying a modern weapons systems in the Kaliningrad area that should be oriented against NATO member states’ armies). They spread anti-migration sentiments, cited examples of the failures of the integration process of migrants in individual EU member countries, pointed out the persistent ”Islamic threat“ as a result o the large number of refugee arrivals from Asia and Africa to Europe.
The European Union has been accused by pro-Russian media of trying, in cooperation with the global IT companies (such as Facebook), to restrict the freedom of expression and to introduce censorship on the Internet under the guise of the fight against disinformation. At the same time, however, they positively described the Russian policy of blocking access to pornographic websites for Russian users.
In the 2019 EP elections Slovakia witnessed a voter turnout of 23%, almost 10 percentage point more than in 2014 (however, it was still the lowest level of participation in the entire EU). Mainstream moderate parties succeeded to get the vast majority of seats – 12 out of 14.
The coalition Progressive Slovakia – Together-Civic Democracy (PS-SOD) won 4 seats with 20.11% of votes, left-leaning Smer-SD won 3 seats with 15.72%, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) won 2 seats with 9.69%, the libertarian party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) won 2 seats with 9.62% and the center-right movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) won 1 seat with 5.25% of votes.
The good results of the political mainstream, nevertheless, did not prevent the right-wing extremist People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) from entering the EP: it booked the third highest result – 2 seats with 12.07% of votes. The Slovak neo-fascists, the most dangerous neo-fascists in the whole EU, broadened their operational space.
Over several years, they have progressed from having a marginal position, being a part of an “empty space” of the party system to earning a domestic parliamentary status. In 2019, pro-Kremlin media undoubtedly played an important role in their success.