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28 September, 2018  ▪  Olha Vorozhbyt

The anatomy of Slovak russophilia

How Russia is building a network of influence in Slovakia

In mid-July, the Slovak media reported that a group of parliamentarians and entrepreneurs headed by independent MP Peter Marček was going to visit Crimea on 1-4 August. Moreover, they wanted to travel to the occupied peninsula from Moscow, which is contrary to Ukrainian legislation. Ukrainian Ambassador Yuriy Mushko warned about the consequences of such a trip, stating that the delegates who travel to the Crimea through Russia will most likely be banned from entering Ukraine in the future. He also advised them to avoid making appearances that could be used for propaganda purposes.

 

Even the head of the Slovak parliament Andrei Danko who, if we track his statements and actions, also has a rather pro-Russian position on many issues, decided to react to the warnings of the Ukrainian ambassador. The speaker and head of the right-wing Slovak National Party, which for some time was a junior partner in a government coalition with ruling party “Direction – Social Democracy”, is quite a frequent guest in Moscow. On a recent visit there, he waxed lyrical about Slavs and Russian icons, emphasising that "We, small peoples, can only turn to the great powers – without their help we are unable to achieve peace". In a post on Facebook, Danko demanded that Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák recall the Ukrainian ambassador because of his warnings to Marček. "If any citizen, never mind a deputy of the National Council of Slovakia, wants to go somewhere, no ambassador will tell him whether he should do that or not," wrote the politician. In addition, Danko did not react at all to a rude and unethical comment under this post from Russian diplomat Dmitry Kovalkov. Opposition MPs have suggested sending the latter out of the country for such unworthy behaviour.

 

As for Marček himself, as noted by political analyst Pavol Demeš in a comment to Slovak website noviny.sk, this MP has never showed much interest in foreign policy. However, a video taken in the airport before his departure to Crimea nevertheless appeared on his Facebook profile. He did indeed travel to the occupied peninsula. According to Marček, his delegation included another 4 parliamentarians and 10 entrepreneurs. Slovak media has reported that it is unknown who financed the diplomats' trip to Crimea. On the eve of the visit, the odious politician also made a comment to Russian newspaper Izvestia stating that he considered Crimea to be Russian. This position does not coincide with the official position of the Slovak Foreign Ministry, nor that of some of Marček's parliamentary colleagues. Moreover, in the situation described above, there were also MPs who expressed their indignation at the actions and statements of this politician. However, according to surveys, the level of Russophilia in Slovakia is the highest among the Visegrád Group, which is a very disturbing trend for a country that is Ukraine's immediate neighbour. For example, in last year's survey of Slovaks by the International Republican Institute, the majority of respondents (75%) stressed that Russia should be seen as a partner in the European security system and should be returned into European security structures.

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More July events in Slovakia were another alarm bell not only for Ukraine, but also for the EU. The infamous biker group Night Wolves has opened its own base in Slovakia in the small town of Dolná Krupá near the capital Bratislava. The Night Wolves, along with their leader, nicknamed the Surgeon, are close to Vladimir Putin, and members of this group also participated in the annexation of the Crimea and hostilities in the Donbas on the side of the invader. The area that the Moscow bikers call their European base looks similar to a military facility and photos taken from the air show that military exercises are taking place there.

 

Journalists who managed to obtain photos of the base say that there is military equipment and tanks on its territory. This hardware belongs to the Slovak Ministry of Defence and was leased to the Night Wolves by the chairman of the Slovak Institute for Military History. The latter has already been brought to justice for these actions.

 

It has been stated that the territory on which the military base is located belongs to Jozef Hambalek, a close associate of former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák. He heads the Slovak branch of the Night Wolves. Hambalek, like ex-minister Kaliňák, is also an ardent biker. His nickname is Džono and on the Honda Tuning website he recalls that he and Kaliňák rode all around Slovakia for 10 days in 1999. It is important that this information about Kaliňák and Hambalek can be found on the investigation site aktuality.sk, co-authored by Ján Kuciak, whose murder several months ago brought tens of thousands of Slovaks to the streets.

 

American magazine Newsweek reports, citing the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that government representatives are concerned about the presence of the Night Wolves in Slovakia. However, they go on to say that members of this group have not done anything illegal yet. Yesterday, Slovak president Andrej Kiska spoke about his concern around the presence of the Night Wolves. "Their founder is on the sanctions list and cannot travel to the EU. These are not innocent motorbike lovers, but a tool of the regime that participated in annexing a part of Ukraine, which is a violation of international law," said the Slovak president. In his opinion, the European headquarters of the Night Wolves in Slovakia is a serious security risk for the country.

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Twitter users sharing images of the base are concerned and have compared the presence of the "bikers" to the build-up to the occupation of Ukrainian territory. Slovak analysts, in particular Daniel Kráľ, argue that the launch of the aforementioned base could give new impetus to the support of the far-right in Europe. One way or another, this is another opening Russia has found to spread its expansionist policy towards the West.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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