When Ukraine discovered civilian mass graves in an area recaptured from Russian troops, the Russian ambassador to neighboring Slovakia responded with his own discovery.
The mayor of a remote Slovak village, as the ambassador announced last September, had bulldozed Russian graves dating from the First World War. Ambassador Igor Brachikov demanded that the Slovak government, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, take measures to punish “this blasphemous act”.
Slovak police responded quickly, calling the ambassador’s claims a ‘hoax’, but his fabrication took off, amplified by vocal pro-Russian groups in Slovakia and news outlets known to recycle Russian propaganda .
A month later, the village mayor, Vladislav Cuper, lost the election to a rival candidate from a populist party opposed to aid to Ukraine.
Now, the same forces that helped overthrow Mr Cuper have rallied for a general election in Slovakia on September 30, with much higher stakes.
The vote will not only decide who will govern a small central European nation of less than six million people, but will also indicate whether opposition to aid to Ukraine, a position now mostly confined to the political margins of the whole world. Europe, could impose itself in the mainstream.
The favorite, according to opinion polls, is a party led by Robert Fico, a pugnacious former prime minister who has pledged to suspend Slovak arms supplies to Ukraine, denounced sanctions against Russia and denounced NATO, despite his country’s membership of the alliance. .
A strong electoral performance by Mr. Fico and far-right parties hostile to the Kiev government would likely turn one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters – Slovakia was the first country to send him air defense missiles and fighter planes – in a neutral country. friendliest spectator in Moscow. It would also end the isolation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the only European Union and NATO leader to speak out strongly against aid to Ukraine.
“Russia is happy,” said Rastislav Kacer, a former foreign minister and strong supporter of Ukraine, in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “Slovakia is a great propaganda success story. He worked hard and very successfully to exploit my country as a rift to divide Europe.”
Thanks to widespread public discontent with the infighting between pro-Western Slovak politicians who came to power in 2020 and deep genuine pro-Russian sentiments dating back to the 19th century, Russia has pushed an open door.
A March public opinion survey across central and eastern Europe by Globsec, a Bratislava-based research group, found that only 40 percent of Slovaks blame Russia for the war in Ukraine, while 51 percent believe that Ukraine or the West are “mainly responsible for the war in Ukraine”. responsible.” In Poland, 85 percent of respondents blame Russia. In the Czech Republic, 71 percent think Russia is responsible.
Daniel Milo, director of an Interior Ministry department tasked with countering disinformation and other non-military threats, acknowledged that “there is fertile ground here for pro-Russian sentiment.” But he added that Russia and its local allies have exploited genuine sympathy steeped in history to sow division and sour public opinion on Ukraine.
These aides include Hlavne Spravy, a popular anti-American news site, and a biker group called Brat za Brata, or Brother for Brother, which is affiliated with the Kremlin-sponsored Night Wolves biker gang in Russia.
Bohus Garbar, a freelance writer for Hlavne Spravy, was convicted of espionage this year after he was filmed taking money from the Russian military attaché, who has since been expelled.
Brat za Brata, widely followed on social media and closely linked to the Russian embassy, has meanwhile tried to intimidate critics of Russia.
Peter Kalmus, a 70-year-old Slovak artist, said he was assaulted by members of the biker gang last month after defacing a Soviet war memorial in the eastern city of Kosice to protest against Russian atrocities in Ukraine. In March, bikers reduced to chaos a public debate organized by the government on the war in a city near the Ukrainian border and in which Kacer, then still a minister, took part. Fiercely pro-Russian demonstrators, bussed in by the bikers, Mr. Kacer recalled, “jumped onto the scene screaming and spitting at us.”
Many Slovaks, said Grigorij Meseznikov, Russian-born president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Bratislava-based research group, “have an invented romantic view of Russia in their heads that doesn’t really exist” and easily influenced by “lies and propaganda”. about the West.
This, he added, makes the country vulnerable to efforts by Moscow to rally pro-Russian sentiment in hopes of undermining European unity over Ukraine. Slovakia is a small country, Mr Meseznikov said, but “if you remove even a small brick from a wall, it can collapse”.
That is certainly the hope of Lubos Blaha, a former heavy metal band member and author of books on Lenin and Che Guevara, now deputy leader of Mr. Fico’s burgeoning political party, SMER. He is also one of Slovakia’s strongest and most influential pro-Kremlin voices on social media and regularly denounces his country’s liberal president, Zuzana Caputova, as a “fascist” and pro-Ukrainian ministers as American puppets.
“The mood in Europe is changing,” Blaha said in an interview, describing the conflict in Ukraine as “a war of the American empire against the Russian empire” that cannot be won because the Russia is a nuclear power.
Insisting that he was “not pro-Russia, but simply favorable to the national interests of my country”, Mr. Blaha predicted that the countries hostile to the armament of Ukraine would soon be “in the majority while Ukraine supporters would be a small minority,” especially if Donald J. Trump wins the next US presidential election.
As elections approached in Slovakia, the usually placid country was overwhelmed by heated accusations of foreign interference from all sides. Mr Fico accused NATO of interfering in the campaign, while his enemies pointed the finger at Russia.
Calling Mr. Fico’s SMER party a “Trojan horse” for Russia, Jaroslav Nad, a former defense minister who led a campaign to send weapons to Ukraine, claimed this summer that according to reports from the intelligence services, a Slovak citizen whom he had not identified had traveled to Russia “to receive financial resources for the benefit of the SMER”. But, citing confidentiality, he produced no evidence and his claims were widely dismissed as pre-election libel.
Yet the Russian ambassador’s fabricated story about the desecrated war graves highlighted Russia’s skill in fishing the troubled waters of Slovakia. It also provided what Mr Milo, the Interior Ministry official, called “irrefutable evidence” directly implicating Moscow in the fake scandal scenario. “They usually act smarter and try not to get caught in the act,” he said.
During a visit last week to the still intact Ladomirova cemetery, Mr Cuper said that in his view Russia did not care who would win the mayor’s vote, but had spotted a good opportunity “to hijack the attention of mass graves in Ukraine” and “presenting oneself as a victim”.
During his visit to Ladomirova, the ambassador met Mr. Cuper’s bitter rival, a former mayor whom Mr. Cuper had accused of embezzling village funds and who was convicted of fraud in 2019. the former mayor, Olga Bojcikova, who declined to be interviewed. , was running at the time against Mr Cuper, backed by pro-Ukrainian parties, in local elections last October. She won.
The ambassador’s story about the “razed” Russian graves, though debunked by the police, was, Mr Cuper recalled, “exaggerated” by Kremlin-friendly Slovaks, especially the Brat za Brata bikers.
The bikers posted inflammatory statements on Facebook denouncing the mayor’s “blasphemous act” and urging his members to react. This triggering calls for Mr. Cuper to be “executed”, “buried alive” and “whipped like a dog”.
Slovakia’s Attorney General Maros Zilinka, who has a long history of sympathy for Russia and hostility towards the United States, added fuel to the fire by announcing that the mayor could face criminal charges for a “morally wrongdoing” that needed to be investigated.
Mr Cuper said he never touched the graves but removed the stone markers because they were collapsing. Nor did he touch a billboard installed as part of Russian-funded renovations in 2014 that falsely described the cemetery as the resting place of 270 Russian war dead. The cemetery contains the unidentified bodies of soldiers from various countries, including Russia, killed in battle in the First World War.
The ambassador’s story, he said, was “totally false” but “created a national outcry nonetheless”.