Organized by the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) and the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, on March 27th, 2023, the “21st Annual Review Conference on the Foreign and European Policy of the Slovak Republic” hosted a series of panels at the Congress Hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bratislava. The Conference’s first objective was to evaluate the past year’s Slovak foreign policy and presence on the European and world stage, as well as the disaffection for the EU, Russian disinformation, and security in the light of the war in Ukraine. Opening remarks were delivered by Juraj Stern, SFPA’s Chairman, and Rastislav Káčer, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, who pointed out how growing misinformation and conspiracy theories are affecting the debate in the country. President Zuzana Čaputová too addressed the audience on Monday.
Slovakia, she said, must remain a member of the EU and NATO – “the two most prosperous and safest clubs in the world.” The Head of State stressed how foreign policy is increasingly getting terrain in the country, but also that Slovakia’s public support for NATO is the lowest in Europe. Regarding the war in Ukraine, she stressed how helping its neighbor Slovakia and international trade will benefit. The first of the three panels dealt with the thirty years of Slovak foreign policy and priorities, institution building, and civil society. This latter’s role was analyzed by Eva Mihočková (SFPA). People seem to be tired of the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, the importance of European-Western cohesion has become harder to justify in the era of Brexit and populism, Euroscepticism, and Trumpism.
SFPA’s co-founder Pavol Demeš addressed the difficulties the European institutions are dealing with. He remembered the early Nineties when Slovakia needed to enhance its credibility internationally. Former Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák remembered how Slovak foreign policy “started from scratch; not even 0, but -2”. If the Czech Republic had Václav Havel, Slovakia was mired in the “difficult” years of Vladimír Mečiar’s government. The fact that, unlike Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw, Bratislava was not admitted to NATO in 1997 was a major blow to Slovakia, making the process of integration with the EU even more complicated. Magdaléna Vášáryová, the first Slovak female ambassador, warned against the attempts of Russian disinformation, which have considerable influence on the Slovak electorate today. Just as in 1998, former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok recalled, Slovakia’s democracy and geopolitical posture are at stake with the September 2023 elections.
“I am shocked that someone is thinking that we should not be in NATO or the EU”, he stressed. Slovak foreign policy orientation and rule of law should not be just topics for the intellectuals: they are everyone’s issue, he insisted. Of the same tenor was the intervention of Prime Minister Eduard Heger, who during his term in office found himself dealing with complex issues that impacted Slovak foreign policy. Covid-19, the repatriation from Afghanistan in 2021, and the Russian aggression on Ukraine put Slovakia under much pressure. The attack on Ukraine is an attack on Western civilization, Heger affirmed. The intensity of Russian disinformation has a tragic impact on Slovak society. Citizens should not be tempted to listen to the disinformation: “Slovakia belongs to the West”, the Prime Minister warned. It “always belonged to Western civilization”. Vladimir Putin “seeks not bridges, but preys.” Slovakia is potential prey.
Marta Jančkárová, from RTVS, introduced the second panel focused on the EU and Slovakia. According to a Eurobarometer poll, 77 percent of Slovak believe the EU is advantageous, but general support for the EU in the country is quite low. EU is perceived as a cash cow, the State Secretary of the Foreign Ministry Andrej Stančík stated. Young generations do not know much about the European institutions and their functions: this leaves room for propaganda. Hence, the necessity to integrate European issues into schools and universities more efficiently. For a long time, politicians neglected the issue of the EU. Among the main reasons for the EU’s low appeal in Slovakia, Katarína Cséfalvayová from the Institute for Central Europe identified disinformation, but also the absence of tangible results that show that Slovakia has caught up with Western Europe in terms of socioeconomic standards.
The widespread delusion that Slovakia has not yet fully reached Western European standards has contributed to weak support for the EU. Thus, it is no surprise that the EU is viewed with dislike. But Slovakia needs the sad truth that the EU and its funds and help in any field. Vladimír Bilčík, an MEP, elaborated on the scarcity of affection towards the EU among the young generations. This goes hand in hand with disinterest in European institutions, such as the European Parliament. Radovan Geist (Euractiv) explained how Euroskepticism has become the banner of some politicians trying to score political points by attacking the EU, relying on Russian disinformation. The problem is not to criticize the EU per se, but whether these criticisms stem from deliberate lies. “Pravda” daily’s Andrej Matišák introduced the third panel on Ukraine and the change in the global security environment.
Last week Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad’ met with NATO secretary Jens Stoltenberg, and during Monday’s Conference confirmed that Slovakia will reach 2 percent of GDP in defense this year. Restructuring military facilities means increasing facilities and personnel, modernizing infrastructures and military capabilities, and warehouses. “We need Ukraine to win, no matter the cost,” the Minister stated. “Better to invest in Ukraine than trying to mitigate Russia.” The second part of the third panel saw Lucia Yar (Euractiv), introducing the topics of borders, security, and defense in the war in Ukraine. State Secretary of the Foreign Ministry Ingrid Brocková positively looked back on thirty years of Slovak foreign policy. With the war in Ukraine, a strong wave of solidarity and a commitment invested in Slovak society; a wave of energy that must continue till the end of the conflict.
The EU must be a protagonist in Ukraine’s reconstruction process – according to the World Bank more than 300 billion dollars will be necessary for this purpose. Reconstruction of Ukraine must go hand in hand with Ukraine’s European integration. A similar topic was discussed by Marián Majer, State Secretary of the Defense Ministry, who pointed out that last week’s cessation of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine took too long due to political motivations. Alexander Duleba (SFPA), explained how Hungary and Germany have big trouble managing Russian aggression. Berlin in particular has to reinvent its “Ostpolitik” and make new strategic choices. Finally, Katarína Mathernová, Deputy Director-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, came back to the extraordinary mobilization of the State, NGOs, and people in providing help to Ukraine. Slovakia’s support for the Ukrainian refugees was extraordinary, she affirmed; since February 2022, the country tripled its assistance to NGOs in Ukraine.
(Published on amedeogasparini.com)