Honeymoon of Ukrainian-Slovak relations

Impressive intensity of bilateral contacts in recent months: Slovak observers called Ukraine the most frequent destinations of Slovakian officials.

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Discussion paper was written by Maryna Vorotnyuk, Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” expert, for Institute of World Policy

Ukrainian-Slovak relations are hard to explain in black-and-white tones of world perception. Their history abounds in both positive examples of cooperation and more controversial and comples issues. At this moment of time, an analyst or an average Ukrainian citizen would find it hard to attach a straighforward label of “friend” or “opponent” in Europe to the Slovak Republic (SR). Our Slovak interlocutors acknowledge that Slovak society and political circles have a mixed approach to Ukraine. In turn, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict became a test which exposed the value contradictions in a society with its own post-Communist syndrom.

Ukraine is an unknown neighbour, which, in contrast to Hungary or Austria, is perceived as a distant periphery of Europe. And this is not only due to the fact that Bratislava, the epicentre of Slovak policy-making, geographically borders the afore-mentioned countries, whereas Ukraine lies on the extreme opposite border. It is also because the “iron curtain,” which in communist times separated the Central European countries not only from Western Europe, but also from their neighbours in the USSR, remained intact in its mental, rather than physical, form. The events in Ukraine drew attention to it but the problem of recognition for Ukraine and Ukrainians in Slovak Republic was not resolved. The existing information vacuum is further filled with distorted ideas and stereotypes.

The reason for the historical “coolness” of Slovaks to Ukraine is that they view it through the Russian prism. Slovak nationalism, in contrast to Ukrainian or Polish nationalism, has been traditionally pro-Russian. Slovaks have always been open to the ideas of Panslavism . According to Slovak expert Alexandr Duleba, “Taking the history of Slovak and Ukrainian nationalism together, it is hard to find examples of common interests and cooperation in the past. On the other hand, unlike Polish-Ukrainian relations, there are also no historical conflicts which could be a source of national animosity or conflict in the future. Rather, Slovaks and Ukrainians are historically indifferent to each other”.

«We have a common border with Ukraine but it looks like many have forgotten that beyond this border is Ukraine and not Russia».

This is the way a Slovak MP described the situation with the Slovak position to Ukraine during a discussion on the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Russia is a separate cultural stratum in the Slovak collective conscience. The Prague spring oppression in Czechoslovakia in 1968 did not necessarily deal an identical trauma to the Czech and Slovak society, and opposing the Kremlin’s dictatorship did not become a part of the Slovak genetic code. As a result, opinion polls register a rather indifferent attitude towards the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

To the Slovak Republic as to many other countries, Russia is an heir to everything which represents the Russian (in a wide sense) culture, which is treated with respect by Slovaks. According to Eurostat, SR is fourth among the EU Member States in terms of school children who chose Russian as a second foreign language (after Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia), with 20,5% in 2013. So in the eyes of many Slovaks, a harder stance on the Russian aggression in Ukraine is tantamount to Russophobia, which plays into the hands of the Russian propaganda in the country.

Starting from the end of 2015, experts describe the Ukranian-Slovak relations as a “honeymoon period” — at least in regards to political dialogues.

The bilateral meetings usually feature praise for Ukraine from the Slovak partners, who say that in the last two years Ukraine has made a breakthrough in reforms, unprecedented in the last two decades. The Ukrainian decision-makers appreciate the realization of the “small reverse” gas flow project as a “gesture of friendship” from Slovakia, which helped to diversify Ukraine’s energy supply and decrease the gas dependence on Russia. Both countries joined efforts in opposing the Russian project “Nord Stream-2”. In the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2016 of the European Council on Foreign Relations Slovak Republic received the highest “leader” grade on the issue “Support to Ukraine” (alongside Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Poland and Lithuania), which is mainly due to the gas reverse. In 2014, the Ukranian expert community included Slovakia in the top-10 according to the results of the expert opinion poll «Who is Ukraine’s friend in the EU?», mainly because of the gas reverse project.

The intensity of bilateral contacts lately is spectacular: Slovak foreign policy observers refer to Ukraine as a top destination for Slovak policy-makers.

The Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, Miroslav Lajčák, paid several visits to Ukraine, meeting the President, the Prime Minister, the Head of the Verkhovna Rada and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The key points for discussion was the support for large scale reforms in Ukraine, visa liberalization for Ukraine, and functioning of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. These discussions were especially important given the Slovak Presidency in the EU Council of Ministers in July-December of 2016.

However, Slovakia’s position can also be described as controversial, given some messages that Ukraine and the international community received from the Slovak government. Despite the fact that the Slovak Republic traditionally follows the common EU foreign policy course, the Slovak government — and especially Prime Minister Robert Fico is famous for its statements on not being willing to accept Muslim refugees. Fico also claimed that sanctions against Russia were counterproductive. However, it is important to underline that Slovakia never officially questioned sanctions in Brussels — in contrast to the issue of the EU migrant quotas against which the Slovak government filed a lawsuit.

Currently, the interests of Ukraine and the Slovak Republic match in a number of spheres.