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Slovakia's elections could have big implications for Europe and war in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Voters in Slovakia, a country of 5 million that borders Ukraine, head to the polls tomorrow. The front-running candidate for prime minister is a Kremlin-friendly populist who's been prosecuted for his ties to criminal gangs. If his party wins, it would mark a dramatic about-face for what was once one of Ukraine's biggest supporters. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Bratislava.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: On a map, Slovakia straddles the border between Western Europe and a region influenced - and more recently, invaded - by Russia. And on the eve of a national elections, says political scientist Erik Lastic, Slovakia lies in the same political territory - sandwiched between illiberal, some say dying, democracies like Poland to its north and Viktor Orban's Hungary to the south. Then there's democratic Austria and the Czech Republic to its west, and to Slovakia's east, Ukraine, with Russia trying to close in.

ERIK LASTIC: So this debate about where Slovakia belongs, whether it's Western Europe or we have to be good friends with Russia.

SCHMITZ: That last option is the one preferred by the front-running party SMER, or Direction in Slovak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT FICO: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: Its candidate for prime minister, Robert Fico, is well-known to voters here. He's been prime minister twice before, and he and his left-wing party have campaigned on a pro-Russian, anti-American platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FICO: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: The only winner of war in Ukraine, said Fico in a campaign ad, are American weapons manufacturers who are controlling President Biden. Fico, labelled a populist by political analysts, repeats the Russian narrative about the war, calling Ukrainians Nazis and insisting the West starts wars and the East offers peace.

KATARINA KLINGOVA: You have conspiracy theories about foreign agents funded by CIA, funded by United States.

SCHMITZ: Katarina Klingova of the GLOBSEC Center for Democracy and Resilience says many Slovaks feel an affinity for Russia that goes back more than a century.

KLINGOVA: Slovaks are vulnerable to, let's say, pro-Russian sentiments. And there are several drivers of this Russian soft power. You know, you have generations since the 19th century who were taught about these Pan Slavic connections with the Russians.

SCHMITZ: Klingova's organization conducted a survey in Slovakia a few years ago that found 78% of Slovaks consider Russians to be, quote, "Slavic brothers." And Moscow has exploited these feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: A year ago, Slovak security forces filmed a diplomat from the Russian embassy handing over cash to a writer for a Slovak disinformation website.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: Russia's then-deputy military attache is heard telling the writer, I told Moscow you are such a good boy with many friends in the Slovak mafia. He then asks the writer to find others willing to cooperate with the Kremlin. The website is now blocked in Slovakia and the diplomat deported. One party pushing back on Russian influence is Progressive Slovakia, which is running neck-and-neck with Fico's party, and if elected, promises to keep Slovakia's priorities in line with the EU and NATO. Party vice chair Tomas Valasek says the health of Slovakia's democracy and its role in the EU is at stake in this election. He worries what will happen if Fico's party wins.

TOMAS VALASEK: My worry is that it will start to chip away on things we take for granted, which is freedom of media, NGO, non-governmental sector. They may redirect all of the public procurement contracts towards a few select oligarchs close to power.

SCHMITZ: This type of corruption has plagued Fico in the past. Dozens of officials, politicians and business people linked to Fico's party have been convicted of corruption. And when a Slovak journalist began writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and those associates, he was gunned down along with his fiancee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Slovak).

SCHMITZ: The killings prompted protests that led to the collapse of Fico's government in 2018. Fico later faced criminal charges for creating an organized crime group, but a pro-Russian prosecutor general stepped in and threw out the indictment. When NPR reached out to Fico, a party spokesperson replied that nobody from his SMER party speaks to foreign media. Political scientist Erik Lastic sees a parallel between how Fico frames the criminal charges against him in his campaign for prime minister with a political figure familiar to Americans.

LASTIC: He's using any criminal investigation against him or his allies as another example is they are going after him. So I'm fighting for you. They are trying to stop me. So this is similar to Trump.

SCHMITZ: Critics of Fico he's running for reelection in part to escape future criminal charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: In the old town of Bratislava, a musician plays while people hurry past along cobblestone streets. Nearly everyone I stop uses the same word to describe Fico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fico - Mafia.

SCHMITZ: But at a farmers market in the rundown outskirts of the city, a different opinion emerges.

MILAN: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: A young man who only gives his first name, Milan, says he likes Fico, but he will vote for the Republic Party, a far-right nationalist party. He calls Slovakia's progressives incompetent idiots and says nothing works in his country. He's not alone. Two-thirds of Slovaks leave their country after high school to live elsewhere in Europe. Those who remain will head to the polls on Saturday and decide between two very different futures for their country. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Bratislava. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.