IF you ever needed confirmation as to why “nationalism” has such negative connotations in the minds of some people, look no further than Robert Fico. Who?, I hear you ask.

Chances are many Scottish independence supporters will never have heard of Slovakia’s former prime minister and prototype nationalist populist whose Smer (Direction) party if polls are correct, is tipped to win the country’s snap election later this month on September 30.

Suffice to say Fico is a man who is happy to rub shoulders with the far right. He has done so in the past and doubtless will be more than happy to do so in the future should it help him return to power. To say that Fico is a controversial figure in Slovak politics would be an understatement. His name for years has been connected to Slovakia’s biggest corruption cases.

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So much so in fact that back in 2018 he was forced to quit as prime minister after the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who had been digging into secretive links between politicians, businessmen, judges, police officers and Fico’s Smer party at the time.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were gunned down in their home and the young journalist’s last report, published posthumously, showed high levels of corruption and triggered mass demonstrations that led to the resignation of Fico’s government.

But after Slovakia’s subsequent centre-right minority government fell on December 15 last year having narrowly lost a no-confidence vote, Fico could be set for a comeback in the coming election.

Apart from the obvious implications for the Slovakian people themselves, the prospect of Fico again as leader is anything but appealing for many of Slovakia’s neighbours, Europe or indeed transatlantic allies.

The National: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban  (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, FILE).

To begin with there is Fico’s brand of politics, one that is modelled on Viktor Orban (above), the “alt-right” leader in neighbouring Hungary who turned the country into a semi-authoritarian regime.

It was Orban, it’s worth remembering, who set up Europe’s most obvious example of nationalist-conservative rule only to find his methods copied in neighbouring Austria and even being cited as an inspiration, too, by some associates of Donald Trump. It was Steve Bannon if I recall correctly who dubbed Orban as “Trump before Trump”.

Fico – just like Orban – also shares his xenophobia and language of political intolerance. Though the charges were later dropped, Fico back in 2019 was charged with racism over his support for Milan Mazurek from the far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS) who lost his seat in parliament over racist remarks aimed at the Roma minority.

Fico released a video message in which he supported Mazurek, who had said: “The Gypsy anti-socials have never done anything for the nation and never will,” and compared Roma children to “animals in the zoo”.

But there are other reasons too why a Fico comeback is cause for concern. Anti-Western sentiment is on the rise in Slovakia, with Fico often accusing his political rivals of being American agents and “Soros-paid puppets”.

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This is a reference to the Hungarian-born billionaire, George Soros, a Holocaust survivor whom right-wing governments and antisemitic conspiracy theorists routinely traduce for his philanthropic activities in favour of liberal causes.

All of this anti-Western positioning Fico appears determined to harness as part of adopting an openly pro-Kremlin foreign policy. Right now Slovakia is one of the biggest supporters of Ukraine in its war against Russia. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Slovakia’s support has been unstinting – it being the first Nato country to send fighter jets.

But Fico’s return would almost certainly institute a complete 180-degree turn on that policy and Russian president Vladimir Putin (below) knows that, doing all the Kremlin can to stir the political pot with pro-Russian propaganda.

Last year, a video most likely shot by Slovakia’s security services was released which caught the deputy military attache of the Russian embassy offering money to a contributor to the country’s largest disinformation website to peddle Kremlin propaganda on the war in Ukraine and much more.

The National: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a videoconference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP).

“Moscow has decided that you will be a ‘hunter’ for two types of people: those who love Russia and would like to cooperate, who want money. And your relatives who may or may not be thinking about working for Russia. I need political information and communication between countries, within Nato and the EU,” the attaché is clearly heard saying on camera.

Fico has already surpassed Orban in his pro-Russian leanings and his Kremlin-friendly voice on social media was used in May to smear his country’s liberal woman president, Zuzana Caputova – who holds a symbolic post – as an “American agent” because of her foreign policy, especially her support for Ukraine.

The bottom line here is that Fico – who has repeatedly stressed that if he returns to power, his first action will be to stop sending Kyiv weapons or support – could add another challenge to Nato and EU efforts to maintain unity in support of Ukraine. It’s for these all these reasons why the outcome of this month’s election in Slovakia – a country with a comparable population to Scotland – matters hugely.

And speaking of the two countries, it’s worth pondering the fact that just over 30 years on from the 1993 “Velvet Divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia it may be the only post-war example of a peaceful dissolution of a sovereign state.

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Indeed, some advocates of Scottish independence pointed to it as an example of how such a divorce can be mutually managed and favourable for all concerned. The reality however was a little more complicated to say the least. For not only was the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s “divorce” far from smooth but the circumstances were not quite comparable with those of Scotland today.

As Professor Kieran Williams, a specialist in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe at Drake University summed it up in the online media outlet The Conversation earlier this year, “it is hard to imagine such an amicable and swift grant of independence to Scotland from the rest of the UK”.

That contentious issue however is one regularly visited here at The National by both writers and readers alike and doubtless will remain even more so in the future until Scotland’s sovereignty is secured.

But in the meantime do also keep an eye on Slovakia’s election this month and the toxic and dangerous brand of “nationalism” peddled by Robert Fico.