Robert Fico has been appointed Slovakia’s prime minister for the fourth time and will attend an EU summit in Brussels this week, where the nation-first populist’s fellow leaders should get an early indication of how obstructive he intends to be.
President Zuzana Čaputová on Wednesday formally approved the new three-party coalition government led by Fico, whose party won elections last month on pledges to end military aid to Ukraine, slash immigration and defend Slovakian sovereignty.
“We will be a constructive government. You will see sovereign Slovak foreign policy,” Fico said at the ceremony. Čaputová told the new prime minister he was “not just taking over power, but also responsibility for the republic and its citizens”.
Analysts expect the country to move closer to the unashamedly nationalist policies of Hungary, whose illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán, Fico has said he admires – although many question how far he will follow through on his campaign rhetoric.
Fico’s Smer party finished first in last month’s ballot, with 23% of the vote, and formed a coalition with Hlas, a breakaway party led by the prime minister’s former deputy, Peter Pellegrini, and the ultra-nationalist Slovak National party (SNS).
The decision to govern with SNS led to Smer and Hlas being suspended from the socialist group in the European parliament, while Čaputová last week rejected the coalition’s first choice for environment minister, a climate sceptic.
Rudolf Huliak, a pro-Russian SNS MP who has denied the climate crisis and verbally attacked environmental campaigners, was replaced by Tomáš Taraba, another far-right politician and former member of the neo-Nazi LSNS party.
Fico backs humanitarian and reconstruction help for Ukraine but no further military aid. He also opposes western sanctions on Moscow and wants the EU to force peace talks, a line similar to Orbán’s that is rejected by Ukraine and its western allies.
Forced to resign in 2018 amid huge popular protests after the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, Fico has said his priorities now are cutting Slovakia’s deficit, “protecting our national interests” and cutting illegal immigration.
Diplomats and analysts have suggested a number of factors, including Fico’s past pragmatism as the head of governments between 2006 and 2010, and again from 2012 to 2018, could soften his more extreme rhetoric – at least on the international scene.
Domestically, said Michal Ovádek, a political scientist at University College London, the campaigns of both Smer and SNS had “clearly charted a path to illiberalism”. He added: “This government could be bad news for LGBTQ+ people, rule of law and public scrutiny.”
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However, Ovádek said on X (formerly known as Twitter) that there were reasons to believe “illiberal and undemocratic excesses” would be limited by the government’s slim majority in parliament and a pressing economic need to keep European funding coming.
While attacking Brussels and the US on the campaign trail, Fico has also consistently said that he has no intention of taking the country of 5.5 million people out of the EU or out of the US-led Nato military alliance.
Maintaining EU unity on continued support for Ukraine and the bloc’s controversial plans to tackle immigration are both likely to be high on the agenda of the EU leaders’ regular two-day summit, which begins in Brussels on Thursday.