Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Slovakia.
Slovakia has been admired by its EU partners more for its economic success than for its foreign policy. The country’s GDP per capita has almost doubled since it joined the EU in 2004, and Slovakia’s economy has been one of the fastest growing in Europe.
As a small country highly open to trade, Slovakia has prioritized deeper integration with the eurozone (which it joined in 2009, amid the global financial turmoil), a strong relationship with Germany as its biggest trade partner, and regional stability. Important results of this pragmatic Slovak foreign policy include Central Europe’s increased clout in the EU’s decisionmaking and continuous regional cooperation within the Visegrád Group, which brings together Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
Since 2014, the Slovak political elites have only gradually come to terms with the Russian challenge and their country’s vulnerable position on the Eastern frontier of EU and NATO bordering Ukraine. Given the slow strategic adjustment in Bratislava to the crisis next door, we would rank Slovakia’s current foreign policy ambition 3 out of 5.
What explains Slovakia’s uninspired foreign policy? Three factors come to mind.
First, Bratislava views adherence to international law and strong rules-based multilateral institutions in Europe, combined with generous contributions to major international peacekeeping operations (in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and, briefly, Iraq), as enough of an insurance policy for the country’s defense. The other side of the coin is the low profile of Slovak security policy, which has led to complacency and a lack of strategic foresight.
Second, Slovakia’s transition to democracy was bumpier than for most other post-2004 EU member states. Brief and painful isolation under the authoritarian government of Vladimír Mečiar in the mid-1990s still serves as powerful legacy. As a result, Slovaks have had to fight for their Western and transatlantic identity: it was not simply given to them in a package deal.
The multiparty coalition that succeeded Mečiar entered office with a strong mandate to integrate Slovakia into the EU and NATO. Once that objective had been achieved, there was no comparable strategic goal and broader societal consensus as to what the country should do next.
On the one hand, Slovakia’s Western identity is based on the active export of the country’s transitional experience and an energetic civil society that is deeply involved in Belarus, Moldova, and several troubled Western Balkan countries, as well as in South Sudan. This legacy of civic activism includes the annual GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, which has established itself as the prime security forum in Central Europe.
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On the other hand, that identity also shapes domestic responses to populist free riding on the EU’s foreign policy. While Prime Minister Robert Fico has been one of the most outspoken critics of EU economic sanctions on Russia, President Andrej Kiska’s approach has been characterized by a strong Atlanticism and pro-Ukraine drive. Seen together with the more cautious balancing act of Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia’s leadership has been out of sync when it comes to articulating a coherent foreign policy response to the Ukraine conflict.
Fico’s critical stance on EU sanctions was mostly for domestic reasons: his party inherited post-Communist structures and voters. However, Slovakia has approved all levels of sanctions that Brussels has imposed, and the prime minister has repeatedly pledged that he will not break EU unity on this subject.
The third factor that defines Slovak foreign policy is the important role of external shocks for policy adjustments. During the 2009 gas supply crisis, Slovakia was the second most affected EU country after Bulgaria. Although Slovakia sits on an important transit route for Russian gas to Western Europe via Ukraine—a route that Moscow now wants to gradually switch off—energy security has been a neglected policy area for too long.
After the 2009 wake-up call, subsequent infrastructure upgrades and diversification of supply routes not only improved Slovakia’s own energy security but also allowed it to supply gas to Ukraine from mid-2014 onward. At that time, when Hungary switched off its reverse gas flow to Ukraine, allegedly as part of a wider deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom, Slovakia opened a new cross-border supply route with an annual capacity of 15 billion cubic meters—or about a half of the gas imports Ukraine needs. Once the route was operational, Bratislava stuck to its line, even after Russia’s heavy-handed response, which included a temporary 50 percent cut in Slovakia’s gas supply in the fall of 2014.
Despite some successes in its external relations, Slovakia’s foreign policy still cannot be defined as strategic. Political and diplomatic elites in Bratislava concentrate more on being tactical and pragmatic than on the coherent, value-based vision that was formulated by reformist governments a decade ago. This approach means that several long-term foreign policy dilemmas remain unresolved.
It is true that Slovakia was able to punch above its weight in the Western Balkans. Slovakia’s leaders and diplomats helped shape the EU’s enlargement policy at critical junctures over the past decade, including the start of Croatia’s accession process, the peaceful divorce between Serbia and Montenegro, and the European Partnership with Bosnia and Herzegovina. But at the same time, Bratislava is one of only five EU members that have still not recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
Slovakia’s dominant focus on this postconflict region was driven partly by domestic concern about a possible return of ethnic conflicts and geopolitical revisionism in Central Europe. Before World War I, Slovakia was part of Hungary, then of Czechoslovakia. Today, ethnic Hungarians form almost 9 percent of Slovakia’s population, linking the country to a larger regional issue concerning Hungary and its neighbors with ethnic Hungarian minorities (Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia).
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Similar concerns about Russian revisionism in the post-Soviet region were overlooked in Bratislava for too long. Slovak Eastern policy has been tormented by a contradictory two-pronged approach: Short-term domestic interests favor pragmatic, zero-conflict relations with Russia, reflecting Slovakia’s almost 100 percent dependence on Russian deliveries of gas and oil. Yet there is also a longer-term interest to support pro-EU state building in Eastern Partnership countries including Ukraine.
From 2010 to 2012, the center-right government led by Iveta Radičová advocated a principled approach toward Russia and the Eastern neighborhood. By contrast, both of Fico’s center-left governments (from 2006 to 2010 and again since 2012) have favored a good relationship with Moscow. Across the board, there has been general consensus in favor of trade liberalization and a gradual visa-free regime in Eastern Europe.
To sum up, Slovakia has over the last two decades succeeded in many aspects of foreign and security policy, but the manner in which it has done so has been too patchy and too pragmatic. It is time for Slovakia to rise to external challenges and outperform expectations, as it did with its economy. The next challenge on the horizon—besides Russia’s unpredictable moves next door—is the country’s turn at the helm of the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2016, just after the national parliamentary elections planned for March of that year. That could be a good start for a more strategic approach.
Milan Nič is the director of the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI).
Marian Majer is a senior fellow for security and defense at the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI).