Nina Hrabovska Francelova
When the 2018 UK investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in 2018 placed a heavy burden on the Russian state, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats. In an act of solidarity, other European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, also expelled Russian diplomats from their territories. Slovakia was not among them; in fact, it was the only one of its Central European neighbors that did not follow in her footsteps. That stance changed in August when the government of Igor Matovic, which won the 2020 parliamentary elections, announced the expulsion of three Russian diplomats for participating in what was termed a “serious crime”. “Slovakia is a sovereign country and diplomatic rules should be respected everywhere, including in Slovakia,” Prime Minister Matovic said at a press conference on August 12, adding that his country “is not a banana republic” and would not tolerate such behavior on his soil.
The expulsions are related to the fact that the Russian state defrauded the Slovak consulate in St. Petersburg by presenting false identity cards in order to obtain a Schengen visa that allows entry into the EU passport-free zone, covering most of the Member States, for one of its countrymen. The prime minister confirmed that an interested Russian citizen who obtained a visa is suspected of involvement in a murder in Germany. It is believed to be the murder in a Berlin park of a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, Zelimchan Khangoshvili, who had fought with Russian forces in the North Caucasus in the past. Russian President Vladimir Putin called him a bloodthirsty terrorist in 2012. In June, German federal prosecutors charged with the murder of a 49-year-old Russian citizen referred to as “Vadim K, otherwise known as Vadim S. The accused was detained shortly after the murder when he was spotted throwing a Glock pistol, bicycle and wig into the nearby Spree.
Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď stressed that the application for an EU visa would not have been possible if the submitted identity documents had not been forged in a highly sophisticated manner. Since then, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched an investigation into the issuing of visas at the consulate in St. Petersburg and the Slovak embassy in Moscow. There is no clue from the government as to when or whether the investigation will be made public.
Match the rhetoric
This new tough approach by the Matovic government has won the approval of many circles. “It was an adequate response to the incredible insolence of the Russian side that deceived the Slovak diplomatic service,” said Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs.
He added that committing such acts is unimaginable among countries that have normal, friendly relations. Mesežnikov argues that given Slovakia’s commitments to its allies, the state failed to respond adequately under Smer’s previous rule, be it under the leadership of Robert Fico (2006-10 and 2012-18) or Peter Pellegrini (2018-20). Back in 2018, Fico defended the decision not to expel any Russian diplomat after the meeting of the ruling coalition on March 27, 2018, arguing that “we want to have good business and economic relations” with Russia. Andrej Danko, chairman of the then Smer coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), backed this position, assuring us that: “We need Russia.” Danko says it is unfortunate that other countries have judged Slovakia’s loyalty to its Euro-Atlantic allies on the basis of his decision to expel Russian diplomats.
Mesežnikov says previous governments have often loudly declared their pro-European and pro-Atlantic credentials, but then questioned it with their actions. When Slovakia did not join the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the Western world, for example over the Skripal affair, it was really noticed by its European allies, said Pavel Havlíček from the Czech Association for International Affairs think-tank. “This expulsion of diplomats is long overdue,” said Havlíček. Havlíček notes that under previous governments there was a large discrepancy between the rhetoric and the concrete steps taken, which seems to be no longer the case in the new government. “Now, when we look at the statements of the Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď, we see that he is much more active; it is aware of the skeletons in the Slovak wardrobe, ”said Havlíček, adding that Naď is sending very strong signals and is very consistent on the subject.
A matter of security, not just solidarity
According to Alexander Duleba, an expert on Slovak domestic and foreign policy as well as Russia and Ukraine, the new government has definitely put Slovakia back in the western camp. “It seems that a new government had to enter Slovakia to act responsibly as a NATO and EU member,” said Duleba of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, a foreign policy think tank based in Bratislava. It points out, however, that the government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats is not only an act of solidarity with its allies, but also a security issue for Slovakia, signals to its allies that the country will behave responsibly under the new government and will take the necessary steps to protect itself and their security.
Duleba does not believe that the decision of the Slovak government to expel the diplomats has any significant impact on bilateral relations with Russia, as they are conditioned by EU-NATO relations with Russia. However, the greatest impact will probably be on the activities of the Slovak embassy in Moscow, as the Russians normally react to such moves on the basis of reciprocity, that is, they will expel three Slovak diplomats from Moscow. While Russians have over 30 diplomats in Bratislava, Slovaks have much less in Moscow, so reducing that number would be a significant loss. Even so, Duleba says that any expulsion of diplomats from either side will not really change or affect the current poor state of relations between the two countries. “The truth is that relations have been bad since 2014, when Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began,” he said.
The question remains, where is Slovakia going from here and how it can prevent a repetition of the vile Russian actions on its soil and against its institutions. Katarina Klingova, an analyst from the GLOBSEC think-tank, points out that apart from the EU and NATO, Slovakia’s own intelligence agencies warn against the subversive activities of Russian diplomats in Slovakia. In the latest available annual report for 2018, the Slovak Information Service (SIS) wrote that its monitoring activities showed that the Russians in the country were acting to the detriment of Slovakia and its allies. “Members of Russian intelligence operating in Slovakia, mostly under the diplomatic guise, tried to recruit collaborators in the basic organs of state administration, security services, and in the field of energy and defense,” reads the annual report.