When Ukrainian refugee Nadiia Honchar first came to Slovakia after the Russian invasion of her country she was astonished by the sympathy shown her by ordinary Slovaks. “People were helping ordinary Ukrainians, providing them with food [and] it felt good,” she recalls.
“I was very stressed, but thanks to the services and opportunities provided by the Slovak state, which included humanitarian aid and access to healthcare, I was able to overcome it,” she says.
Honchar was able to become an online teacher for Ukrainian children, mainly refugees but also those in the Russian-occupied zone, as part of the EU-funded and Bratislava-based project School To Go.
But now she is questioning her future after leftist populist Robert Fico’s Smer party won last month’s election with a campaign that played on Ukraine fatigue, questioned aid for refugees and pledged “not a single round” of bullets for Ukraine. Slovak military aid has already been suspended pending the arrival of the new government.
Fico has parroted Kremlin propaganda that the war in Ukraine was started in 2014 “when the Ukrainian fascists murdered civilians of Russian nationality”. He was appointed prime minister this week as head of a government that also includes the pro-Russian Slovak Nationalist Party, leading to Smer’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists (PES) umbrella grouping.
“I was thinking about leaving for a different country,” says Honchar.
The United Nations Human (UNHCR) data for September puts the number of Ukrainians who have sought refugee status in Slovakia at 109,116. According to Eurostat, this figure makes Slovakia one of the biggest recipients per capita in the EU of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian aggression.
However, a public opinion survey compiled by the Centre for Social and Psychological Sciences (CSPV) of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) released earlier this month shows that nearly half of Slovaks think that Ukrainians "are being helped a way too much" and that there should be a time cap to this.
“We have identified fatigue from solidarity in the [survey] responses,” said social psychologist Jana Papcunova of CSPV SAV. She added that economic issues, and the aggressive election campaign, which included frequent attacks towards refugees in general, have contributed to this fatigue.
Her words are echoed by Honchar’s fellow Ukrainian colleague at the School To Go Project, Hanna Trishycheva, who told bne IntelliNews that, though “my every experience [in the country] is positive”, she recognises that also many “Slovaks long for improvement” of their living conditions and that this played a role in the outcome of the elections.
Rudolf Tesar, co-founder of School to Go with Pavol Riska, admits that Slovak funding for their project has fallen, in a possible sign of donor fatigue. “The willingness of private donors went down,” he says. “We were lucky to find the European Commission to continue the project.”
School To Go began by providing online education and support to 300 Ukrainian children worldwide in 2022, with the figure quickly rising to 1,300 this year.
“We allow the children to stay connected with Ukraine,” says Tesar. “The children have to keep a strong connection with Ukraine for the country to have a future.”
Riska and Tesar told bne IntelliNews that some of their students are in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and that they’ve experienced cases of the children’s parents being threatened with being shot and their children deported to Russia if their children were connected to the platform.
There have also been “attempts at penetration [of the project] by Russians posing as Ukrainian teachers,” says Riska, adding that they have had to train the teachers to take security precautions. “At first, teachers were taking pictures of sensitive data,” Riska recalls.
Trishycheva says that training extends to the children using the platform, pointing out that the “first thing Russians did when occupying parts of Ukraine was to force children to visit Russian schools.” She also added that “Russians control their [children’s] mobiles for signs of Ukrainian language or symbols.”
Both Trishycheva and Honchar see working for School To Go as more than just a job.
“Russians are afraid of Ukrainian education,” Trishycheva says, explaining how Ukrainians in the occupied territories are “waiting for the Ukrainian flag” and for the rightful authorities to return and that “the number of children seeking our platform is growing rapidly”.
She also stresses that Ukrainians have become more “proud of being Ukrainians” and “have begun to educate themselves more about Ukraine”.
But in Slovakia there are many, mainly older, voters who remain sympathetic to Russia and do not want their country to help Ukraine defend itself.
Unlike the pro-EU-oriented younger Slovaks, “older people who remember the Soviet Union do not understand why we are fighting the Russians, and are saying that we are brothers,” Honchar says.
These voters also blame the war for the soaring cost of living. Honchar says her pharmacist blames Ukraine for the increased costs of gas and electricity and complains that “everything was cheaper before the war in Ukraine”.
Security analysts, officials and politicians interviewed by bne IntelliNews say pro-Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories have blended with the local extremist politics and are megaphoned by digital “information infrastructure,” directly into people’s computers and mobile phones.
Tomas Krissak, manager at Gerulata Technologies, a technology company providing tools for fighting disinformation and propaganda, points out that “we are dealing with a wild development of technologies”.
Fico has been able to capitalise on this information infrastructure, turning his Facebook page into nothing short of his personal television channel. “Fico does not need media” to address his base, say Beata Balogova, editor of the liberal daily SME, and and Eva Mihockova, editor of the Slovak Foreign Policy journal.
In the new cabinet, Environment Minister Tomas Taraba of the SNS is a far-right conspiracy theorist, while Culture Minister Martina Simkovicova is a presenter at disinformation television Slovan.
War on NGOs
Following his election victory, Fico said “as of this day, the rule of political NGOs in Slovakia has ended”, potentially threatening support for civic projects funded from abroad that he disagrees with.
Riska says that he expects aid to Ukrainian children to “drop further down the government priorities” but that his project should not be affected.
“We do not expect any support from the new government, but we do not expect any obstacles [in our work] either,” he says, adding that “so far, we take [Fico’s threats] with a pinch of salt”.
Analysts say that Fico’s immediate focus will probably be directed towards anti-corruption NGOs, which have already criticised previous cabinets led by Smer, and that various forms of economic and legislative pressures against these organisations could be implemented under Fico’s cabinet.
“We are watching the continuation of the “search for an enemy” agenda, to which he [Fico] attributes his fall in 2018,” political scientist Jozef Lenco told Voxpot, before predicting that Fico could be going after NGOs such Zastavme korupci [Let’s stop corruption], Transparency International, or Open Society.
The teachers from the School To Go project try to remain positive.
Honchar says that “it is a challenge for Slovakia to overcome this stressful [period] and progress towards something new,” while Trishycheva added, “I cannot predict what will happen, but perhaps the situation will actually improve” as people become frustrated with the Fico-led cabinet.