In January–March 2019, pro-Russian media in Slovakia continued to spread their typical narratives concerning the European Union and Slovakia’s membership as well as Russia, Ukraine, and the military conflict between them.
Presidential Elections: Stances of Pro-Kremlin Media
The beginning of the year was the time for election campaigns. In Slovakia, the presidential election (with the first round held on 16 March and the second on 30 March) preceded the EP election. The topic of the European elections appeared in the media-information discourse rather sporadically, primarily through reports on how individual political parties are proceeding with creating their candidate lists.
The presidential election resonated in public discourse not only in the context of electoral competition itself, but also in the context of developments after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová (February 2018).1
The overall atmosphere after this event was marked by public calls for the renewal of the justice system, requests to investigate the brutal murder as well as other crimes, especially cases related to corruption.
Political developments have been affected by this atmosphere: in the municipal elections in November 2018 the civil-oriented opposition and independent candidates succeeded in winning seats in larger cities, while the ruling party Smer-SD lost numerous mayoral positions. In the presidential election, independent candidate Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer and civic activist supported by opposition parties, became the strongest candidate. Before the first round of the election, Čaputová polled as high as 50%. Eventually, she won the first round of election with almost 41% of the votes.
Issues related to the foreign policy and Slovakia’s membership in the EU constituted part of the discourse related to presidential elections, albeit in a very specific form. In an effort to present himself as a victim of a political conspiracy, former Prime Minister Robert Fico brought up the idea that citizens’ protests have been prepared abroad and implemented with the support of foreign forces. He spoke about meetings between President Andrej Kiska, who stood clearly on the side of protesters, with George Soros in New York (in September 2017, a long time before the protests erupted).
Fico called young protesters “Soros children”. Since Zuzana Čaputová was among those who spoke in front of thousands of citizens at the meetings, she also became a “Soros child”.
A united front of conspiracy-disinformation and left-nationalist media immediately emerged against President Kiska, organizers of civic protests and Zuzana Čaputová, who in the meantime announced her candidacy for the post of the head of the state. All these media are pro-Russian without exception, many oppose the EU, NATO and the liberal-democratic model of society. They support nationalist, anti-system or extremist politicians.
Actors with such profiles appeared among the presidential candidates, including Štefan Harabin, former chairman of the Supreme Court and Minister of Justice in the first Fico government, Marián Kotleba, leader of the neo-fascist ĽSNS party and Robert Švec, the chairman of the far-right Slovak Revival Movement.
The disinformation-conspiracy pro-Russian media outlets immediately took the side of these candidates, while Zuzana Čaputová became the main target of their attacks. They began to publicly discredit her for her alleged Jewish origin, liberal stances in the so-called cultural-ethical issues (LGBTI rights, reproductive behavior and family model).
Čaputova’s opponent ascribed her a positive attitude to migrants and refugees, presented her as a tool of foreign forces, including those politicians from the EU who allegedly intended to disrupt the traditional values on which the life of people in Slovakia is based.
The candidacy of Maroš Šefčovič, a vice president of the European Commission, brought a special context into the presidential campaign in relation to the EU. Šefčovič was supported by the strongest ruling party Smer-SD. This created a strange situation.
On the one hand, after Ján Kuciak’s murder, the Smer-SD employed Fico’s narrative on “Soros children” (according to FOCUS polling agency’s representative survey conducted at of the end of 2018, 35% of the respondents believed this narrative), which was absolutely dominant in the pro-Russian disinformation-conspiracy media outlets that spread the anti-European and anti-Western content.
On the other hand, the official Smer-SD’s candidate was one of the most important representatives of the EU, who has always been a clear supporter of the union, its institutions and policies, who claimed that he did not share the narrative about Soros’s role in Slovakia.
Therefore, part of the conspiracy-disinformation media included him on the target list of their propaganda. He was presented as a politician to whom the national interests of Slovakia are alien, who was devoted only to the interest of “Brussels”. However, Zuzana Čaputová still remained the main object of the attacks of conspiracy media.
Narratives on the EU
Continuing their propaganda pattern, pro-Kremlin periodicals presented the EU predominantly in a negative light, as a community of states with inequal relations that imposes policies on member states in Central Europe, clearly contradicting their interests.
As for the characteristic of the EU, the terms “Brussels,” “European elite,” “detachment from reality” have been used – all terms that provoked the aversion. Writers ironized the notion of “European values” and pointed out that EU policies were directed against Russia (they also criticized the US attitude towards Europe).
The Pro-Russian online conspiracy portal Infovojna [InfoWar] published an article written by an MP from the right-wing extremist ĽSNS party, Milan Mazurek, in which Slovakia’s membership in the EU was described as “staged democracy”. According to the author, in this system, “officials elected by citizens in democratic elections mean nothing at all compared to the will of the unelected bureaucrats from the European Commission.”
Other contributions published on this portal included sharp criticism towards Slovak and European politicians advocating for deepening European integration. In some of these contributions, the motive for why these politicians wanted to strengthen ties between individual member states was simply opposing Russia.
In one of the contributions, George Soros, who tried to attract public attention to the risk of strengthening the Eurosceptic forces in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, was named a “criminal”. In contrast, those European politicians who opposed the arrival of migrants and refugees received a positive assessment in these media outlets.
Infovojna published several articles that dealt with the EU’s fight against “disinformation” (the word was used in quotation marks that implicitly questioned the very fact of its existence). The portal called the EU Action Plan against Disinformation was the “introduction of censorship”.
The author of one of the articles argued that the EU was reinforcing the fight against disinformation as elections to the European Parliament are approaching, when “the Euro-bureaucrats get us through such censorship and interference with the freedom to disseminate information and opinions not only in the modern totality, but they work with their full commitment to influence the European elections for their own benefit”.
According to the article, only these activities have a large influence on the EP elections, not “the fictional Russian propaganda”. In another article, the same author called position of Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who drew attention to the danger of disinformation campaigns before the European elections, “total liberal evil and perverted”.
In an article published in the monthly magazine Extra Plus entitled “Europe has gone crazy,” the author, the former chairman of the radical-nationalist cultural-social organization Matica slovenská Marián Tkáč, claimed that pro-EU European politicians would like to “fulfil the dream of globalists: to exchange the European population for another, different, darker and with lower IQs” and that the EU member states which would not agree with such plans would be punished through the withdrawal of the EU funds and their exclusion from the Schengen Zone.
Narratives on Russia
Russia appeared in materials published by pro-Russian media primarily as a country that was a target of attacks and the unjust policies of the West. In any issue that these media dealt with related to Russia, authors of the published articles criticized Western states and Western politicians for their “anti-Russian” statements or actions against Russia; while, at the same time, they found diverse arguments in favor of Russia. They often took over materials directly from Russian media.
In terms of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, they were clearly on the side of Russia. They also positively highlighted those Western politicians who argued for a friendly attitude towards current Russian leadership.
Topics related to Russia were discussed in Extra Plus. In a lengthy article on the falsification of history, its author put the attempts to diminish the importance of the USSR in defeating Nazism in the World War II into the context of the alleged strengthening of anti-Russian sentiments in the “Western world” (the Skripal case and the exclusion of Russia from the Olympic Games served as illustrations).
Slovakia’s official Security Strategy discussed in the Parliament has been labeled by Extra Plus as a “kick to Russia” The reason for such criticism was the fact that – as author claimed – the document suggested that ”the threat to Slovakia is not represented by the Western powers, who we are at the mercy of and we diligently fulfill all what they dictate us, but the Russian Federation“.
An article about French public service television France 4, which “teaches French children that Russia is an enormous hoax factory,” was published on the portal of monthly Zem a Vek [Earth and Age]. Zem a Vek has also published an extensive article accusing the Slovak Public Television of failing to inform objectively about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict when television claimed that Russia was violating the ceasefire in Donbas.
The author argued that Russia did not engage militarily in the Donbas, did not have military units there, and “still called on both sides of the conflict [i.e., Ukraine and local separatists – GM] to keep calm”. The article contained notorious claims taken over from the Russian propaganda arsenal that a “neo-Nazi nationalist regime that was installed in Ukraine has seized power in Kyiv after the bloody coup d’état and Bandera’s neo-Nazi ideology was introduced as a state ideology”.
The monthly also reported about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Serbia. The commentary welcomed the fact that Putin came to Belgrade as a Tsar to “abolish the treason scenario” (as opposed to incumbent Serbia’s President Alexander Vucic, who was allegedly only the “West‘s puppet”). Zem a Vek wrote about Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder in a very positive manner who spoke in his interview to German daily FAZ in favor continuing the dialogue and economic cooperation between Germany and Russia.
Several contributions, directly or indirectly related to Russia, were published by online daily Hlavné správy [Main News]. One included information that US Navy Admiral John Richardson has reportedly called for an attack on Russia (and China). In fact, Richardson has stood up for a tougher US attitude towards Russia’s aggressive actions, especially in the context of the incident in Kerch Strait. Hlavné správy reported about the incident in full accordance with the Russian version of the events.
Another article in Hlavné správy was formulated in a critical spirit towards the US – a report on a US Air Force Reconnaissance flight near Crimea. The outlet offered space only for the Russian stance and the response of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, who warned against possible attempts to intervene against Russia.
Several reports have been taken over by Hlavné správy directly from the Russian media (state and “independent,” openly nationalist), including two contributions from Sputnik for commentary on the B9 Group summit in the Slovak city of Košice (NATO member states that joined the alliance after 2004), where NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was also present.
The first contribution quoted deputy chairman of Russian State Duma defense committee Alexander Sherin, who said that B9 Group should not behave like “Washington’s lackey.” In the second contribution, the former Slovak Prime Minister Ján Čarnogurský, who was called the person standing “at the forefront of the protest movement against NATO’s confrontational activities in Slovakia,” expressed his suspicion that under the pretext of enhancing the country‘s defense capabilities, the preparation for the construction of a “secret” US military base in Slovakia could take place (such suspicions have been repeatedly denied by the American and Slovak sides in the past). Čarnogursky claimed that „Slovakia is traditionally Russophilic.
According to the latest surveys, Slovakia is the most Russophilic country in Central Europe and, therefore, its inclusion into hostilities against Russia would not have a positive public response.”
Hlavne správy also took reports from Russian media informing about Russia’s achievements in the development and production of weapon systems, presenting them in a way that was supposed to encourage recipients to sympathize with Russia and to feel antipathy to the West, especially to the US.
Number of articles in Infovojna came out openly in support for Russia‘s policy, clearly criticizing “anti-Russian” Western policies and opposing Slovak politicians who pursued a pro-Western line in the country’s foreign policy.
These articles dealt with US attitudes to Russia, EU sanctions against Russia for the Kerch Strait incident, Russia‘s pro-family policy that addresses the demographic challenges, and the approval of the official Security Strategy in the Slovak Parliament.
Narratives on Ukraine
Pro-Russian media continued to present Ukraine as a state with unstable and undemocratic conditions, with a government that has dubious legitimacy, as a country where historical traditions of radical Ukrainian nationalism were renewed on an official level. All these narratives were in accordance with the Russian interpretation of the events in Ukraine and the circumstances of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2014–2018.
Slovo [Word], a left-nationalist pro-Russian and anti-Western online periodical, published an article entitled “Stepan Bandera’s Cult and the Glorification of Banderists, in which “Bandera’s cult” was described as a “part of the overall societal trend in Ukraine,” as an official state policy that allegedly seeks transcribing history and getting into conflict with other states (Poland, Russia), nations (Poles, Russians, Jews, but also Slovaks) and international organizations (EU, UN).
The author of the article interpreted the situation in a way suggesting that Ukraine was in the conflict with the “whole world” on the assessment of its past. He made this conclusion on the basis of votes cast on a UN resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism.
The UN General Assembly approved this resolution in December 2018 on the proposal of the Russian Federation. Ukraine voted against it along with the US (this was underlined by the author); however, all EU member states abstained, which the author did not mention at all.
He also failed to mention that the aim of the Russian proposal was to obtain additional support for a well-known narrative that the so-called color revolutions in post-communist states directly led to the glorification of Nazism, and Ukraine has to serve as an example of such development.
The article portrayed the situation in such a way that readers were given the impression that the Euro-Maidan was the establishment of “Bandera’s” government but not a successful revolt of Ukrainian civil society against a corrupt, oligarchic pro-Russian regime, not a step aimed at restoring Ukraine’s Euro-integration chances.
The monthly Zem a Vek published on its website a post reporting about the press conference of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The former leader responded to the verdict of the Ukrainian court, which sentenced him in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason and participation in the Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine.
Yanukovych argued that Petro Poroshenko’s regime was “legalized terrorism,” which had nothing to do with democracy and that political power in Ukraine belonged to criminals. The article contained clear traces of the Russian interpretation of events in Ukraine. In the same periodical, an article was published how president-in-office Petro Poroshenko had got into sharp verbal conflict with a man who put him in an unpleasant question during the pre-election meeting in Lviv.
The commentary depicted the head of Ukrainian state as a savage and described Ukraine as an inefficient state, unable to fulfil its obligations to citizens.
Article published in Hlavné správy tried to create the impression that the situation preceding the presidential election in Ukraine is chaotic and extraordinarily conflictual. The outlet informed that Oleg Liashko, a radical MEP, accused President Poroshenko of committing various crimes, including treason and suggested to punish him by firing squad.
Hlavné správy regularly takes over reports from the Russian sources on the situation in the regions of Eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia. For example, it published a report from the Russian online source PIK Inform about how “criminal” Ukrainian soldiers allegedly took revenge on the civilian population for the loss of their six comrades liquidated by separatists (“militiamen”).
The Russian-Ukrainian military conflict is portrayed in this report – similarly as in other contributions published in Hlavné správy – as an armed struggle of the Ukrainian regime against civilian population in Eastern part of the country.
The presidential election made the media and political actors in Slovakia focus on issues more related to the country’s internal political developments and less on foreign policy issues.
However, pro-Russian media continued to spread their traditional anti-Western messages and attempted to divert the debate on European topics in a way that was aimed to discredit pro-European and pro-Western candidates. It can be assumed that this approach of pro-Russian disinformation and conspiracy media will be prevalent to a much greater extent before EP elections, when EU-related topics will dominate the country‘s public and media discourse.
1 The unprecedented mass civic protests that broke out after this crime across the country led to the resignation of prominent members of the government, including Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, as well as the highest-ranking members of the police corps.