A planned bilateral defence agreement (DCA) between Slovakia and the US that was approved by the country's rightwing government last week has divided Slovak politics and society over Russia. The treaty has faced growing opposition since it was presented at the end of last year.
The DCA would allow the US airforce to use Slovak military airports of Malacky-Kuchyna and Sliac and potentially other facilities without a request of rental payment, for a period of 10 years.
The two main centre-left opposition parties are now planning to launch a referendum on US military bases in Slovakia.
Slovaks tend to be more sceptical of Nato and more tolerant of Russia than their Central European neighbours, according to opinion polls. Stationing foreign troops in the country remains highly controversial because of the experience of Russian military occupation after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invaded the country to crush the 1968 Prague Spring liberalisation drive. The ramping up of tensions over neighbouring Ukraine has heightened these concerns.
Slovakia started negotiating the defence agreement with the US three years ago when the opposition was in power. The then leadership of the Ministry of Defence decided not to continue the negotiations in 2019, a year before the parliamentary elections that resulted in a change of government, justifying this on the grounds that it was against creating legal conditions for foreign troops to operate in the country.
On January 18, a protest organised by the extra-parliamentary Socialisti.sk party against the DCA took place in front of the parliament. The protesters supported the parliamentary opposition, namely the opposition party Smer-SD led by Robert Fico, which plans to press for a public referendum on the DCA.
Fico stated that within the DCA Ukrainian insurgents could be trained in Nato’s eastern border with Ukraine, such as Poland, Romania and Slovakia, referring to the article by the New York Times which allegedly cited representatives of the US administration.
As reported by the Slovak News Agency (TASR), Fico said that the specific DCA provisions stated that vehicles, vessels and aircraft of the US Armed Forces would be allowed to move freely in Slovakia. "Now, imagine how easy it will be to train a Ukrainian insurgent here and then transport them without any problems to Ukraine so that they can fight in a potential conflict," Fico was quoted by TASR as saying.
"Smer-SD doesn’t want any US bases in Slovakia, it is against the contents of the DCA, and definitely doesn’t want Ukrainian insurgents to be trained in the country," he added, stressing that this is a sufficient reason to trigger a public referendum on whether the Slovak citizens want "US military bases and the training of Ukrainian insurgents" on their territory.
“The agreement contains a lot of negative impacts on Slovakia. It only imposes duties on us, while significantly curtailing the rights that Slovakia will have in relation to the USA," said Socialisti.sk party chairman Artur Bekmatov, who led the protests, in support of Fico´s attempts. He added that it is irresponsible to adopt such an agreement now amid the worsening relationship between Russia and the US over Ukraine.
Also, nationalist extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (SNS) leader Andrej Danko sees DCA as a violation of Slovakia's sovereignty, claiming that DCA disrupts the relationship with Nato by promoting the agreement with one country above the interests of others.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected speculation published by the New York Times, saying that ”we are calling on politicians and conspirators in Slovakia to pay more attention to what is important to Slovakia, namely the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as our immediate neighbour, than to fabricated statements in the press and scaremongering that uses the Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US.”
According to Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, the DCA is an important goal of the Slovak four-party government and shows the government is serious about the country’s security and defence policy.
“If we declare that Slovakia has a clear stance on international relations and a pro-Atlantic orientation, it is not just on paper, but at such important moments as when we want to strengthen defence in accordance with these declarations,” Korcok said, as quoted by daily Sme.
Also, the Defence Ministry rejected Fico´s claims. "Such an occurrence, which allegedly originates from an ´unspecified source´ in the US administration, has never been discussed with Slovakia either at the bilateral or multilateral level. The information isn’t based on reality," the ministry’s statement provided to TASR reads.
On January 18, parliament decided to reject a proposal by Smer-SD to put DCA to a public vote in a referendum. A move gained support only from the opposition.
Both Fico and former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini (chair of the non-parliamentary centre-left Hlas-SD/Voice-SD) have voiced their disagreement with the government´s politics and actions for some time already. In the past year, they made several unsuccessful attempts to call a public referendum of early elections.
The latest discussion on the referendum on early elections should have been held on January 18, for which the House Chair Boris Kollar (the junior government partner We Are Family) convened a roundtable between the coalition and opposition. However, none of the other members of the governing parties showed up.
Kollar proposed to amend the Constitution in order to allow early elections by referendums, but only after 2024, which has been rejected by the opposition. Fico complained the coalition once again showed how ignorant of the Constitution and rules of democracy it is.
"The coalition has turned their backs on people by not showing up. There's no way to pass any amendment to the Constitution today, seeing as we don't have 90 lawmakers. We can't agree with them proposing to make these changes come into effect only as of 2024. The people must have an option to oust the government in this current elected term, not just in the next one," Pellegrini was cited by TASR as saying.
"The early parliamentary election can be called for only via the amendment to the Constitution. And the only ones who can force the government to change the Constitution are the people," he added.
Claiming there is no way the early election will ever be passed in the lower house, both parties want to launch a petition for a referendum on changing the Constitution which will be linked with a referendum.