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Is Central Europe Rendering Itself Un-Central to World Affairs?

Slovakia has made its way into western headlines. Just not in the way its people probably hoped. Here are some recent ones (emphasis ours): 

    • Following Syrian Refugees into an Unwelcoming Slovakia 
    • A small town in Slovakia held a vote on accepting refugees; 97% said no 
    • Slovakia sends police to guard Hungary’s borders against migrants

But the West has made its way into Slovak headlines, too. For the first time since the country’s EU and NATO accession, the most pressing foreign policy issues are a major topic in Slovak campaign discourse (parliamentary elections are scheduled for March). The refugee crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West make the front page of Slovak newspapers more often than domestic issues.

And both of these issues are indeed consuming Slovak—and, more broadly, Central European—consciousness. But even as Central Europeans are reminded how connected they are to the rest of the world, their reactions and behavior are isolating them again and anew.

Slovakia’s stance is that it wants to be connected to—and, indeed, be a part of—the West. As has been said, it elected to join both the EU and NATO. However, since the Ukrainian crisis broke out, Slovakia has, even while under pressure from the EU and U.S. to impose stricter sanctions on Russia, been exposed to Russian hybrid war, including use of propaganda.

The Slovak public proved to be quite vulnerable to the ubiquitous spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Frustrations with the economic performance of the country, combined with an intensive information war, turned into protest marches in Bratislava both against NATO, which was labelled an aggressor, and, more recently, against refugees allegedly threatening the European civilization and the values for which it stands. And, the protesters said, Slovak values, too.

With the influx of refugees coming through the Balkans, the Slovak official position and public discourse focused almost exclusively on the question of mandatory quotas for redistribution of 120,000 asylum-seekers proposed by the European Commission. Recently, the Slovak Ministry of Justice announced that Slovakia will challenge the EU interior ministers’ approval of the quota mechanism by filing an official lawsuit at the European Court of Justice claiming that it was a breach of EU rules.

In an interview with Der Standard, Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that Slovakia did not intervene in Libya or the Middle East, and therefore the country should not be forced to bear a burden of accepting refugees—hence the lawsuit.

This is not the only argument against accepting refugees put forth by the Slovak government. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior claimed that Slovakia cannot accept Muslims because the country does not have any mosques. The statement was even picked up by a popular HBO talk show, and was ridiculed by its host, John Oliver, who handily illustrated the quality and depth (or lack thereof) of Slovak political discourse.

Government officials often talk about Slovakia being only a transit country for the refugees. This reality could be used to start a debate about reforming the ineffective migrant integration policies so as to make the country more attractive for foreigners. Instead, it is used to argue against quotas. This will likely not change after elections in March, even if a new party does come to power: No prominent opposition figure in Slovak politics has challenged the government narrative. Some opposition party leaders have taken even more radical views, claiming that Germany and the European Commission are breaching rules and are even fueling already-heated discourse by reinforcing xenophobic stereotypes. The only politician in the top position openly criticizing the current approach, calling for solidarity and warning about consequences, was President Kiska in his speech to the Parliament in early October.

While Slovakia is the only country to challenge the quotas in court, it was among a group of four member states opposing mandatory quotas. All four are Central European. Their attempt to create the blocking minority failed, and the qualified majority approved the implementation of the proposition. While it is perfectly valid and legitimate to challenge any decision in the EU, the question now arising is what, exactly, the purpose is of bringing this particular program to court, and what the outcome is likely to be.

Brussels insiders say the case has little chance of success. But beyond how the quotas hold up in court, there is another issue, which is this: Slovakia—and the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and Poland—joined the European Union, ostensibly at least in part because they believed in its values (admittedly ambiguous in definition though they may be). And yet, when those values are put to the test in time of crisis, the reaction of these four countries and those in them is to move farther from, not closer to, Europe.

SMER-SD, the governing Slovak party, which recently changed its campaign slogan from “We Work for the People” to “We Protect Slovakia,” is now being warned about possible expulsion from the Party of European Socialists, a political faction in the European Parliament. Several reports claimed a diplomatic quarrel between Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák and his French counterpart took place in Brussels during the negotiations about the quotas. These developments, combined with an ambiguous position towards Russia, as demonstrated in Slovakia’s critical approach towards sanctions and questionable defense contracts, are painting a picture of a country unsure of where it lies on the geopolitical map. The NATO allies will meet in July at the Warsaw Summit. The Russian challenge to the international order is expected to be one of the key issues to be addressed. It will be interesting to see how Slovakia will contribute to the discussions—and the extent to which its contributions will be heard.

One of the great successes of the Slovak democratic transition was getting out of isolation and successfully ascending to Western Euro-Atlantic organizations such as NATO and the EU, challenging the idea that there even is an “Eastern Europe.” With the recent steps taken by the governments in the Central European region, however, the East-West split is entering the European discourse once again. If these governments continue to refuse the call for solidarity with their partners and allies, they might well end up isolated once again. With Russia arguably on the rise, this could have consequences for the whole region. It is one thing to make Western headlines for misdeeds. It is another to be absent from them entirely.