Slovakia is, due to its history, small size and geographic position, very sensitive to any notion of territorial revisionism. World War I serves as a historical context or subtext of current Slovak geopolitical thinking, which also contributes to how the war in Eastern Ukraine is perceived by the public and the elite in the Slovak media discourses taken under review
There is almost complete national consensus regarding the Trianon Treaty ending World War I, which is seen as a cornerstone of modern-day Slovakia.Although this issue is seen by most political actors as a historic event, whichshould not negatively influence Slovak–Hungarian relations, the very different interpretations and narratives regarding the Trianon Treaty in both countries could potentially be used by external hostile actors as a pretext to stoke tensions.
Similar unanimity is not present regarding the Russian annexation of Crimea or the status of the so-called people`s republics in eastern Ukraine. Slovakia, as one of the most pro-Russian countries in the whole region, is particularly vulnerable to information operations aimed at presenting Russia as a victim of Western aggression and its activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as fully legitimate, despite evidence to the contrary.
Russian soft power in Slovakia is quite significant and includes an eco-system of various pro-Kremlin media outlets: electronic, print, online fringe networks of media, politicians, extremist organisations and influential individuals, cultural and sport events and educational activities. Slovakia also witnessed elements of active measures combining a stick-and-carrot approach involving rides by the Russian motorbike club Night Wolves, which recently established its European headquarters in Slovakia, active paramilitary groups and the hacking of state institutions.
The issue of separatism and territorial revisionism in Slovakia is visible mostly in relation to the situation in Ukraine, especially the status of Crimea and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Fringe media cover any issues related to Russia, including the conflict in Ukraine, much more frequently, and they closely follow the narrative and perspective of Kremlin, either directly using text from Russian sources or using their talking points and reasoning.
Mainstream media, on the other hand, follow the official foreign policy of Slovakia – supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the non-recognition of the Crimea referendum and Russian annexation. However, fringe media manage to drive much more interaction and engagement on social media; therefore, their content often outperforms mainstream media. There is also growing mutual support and recognition between some fringe media and fringe politicians. Fringe media further disseminate their Facebook posts and provide them with ample space to reach beyond their traditional bubble, while politicians often use in their posts narratives widely disseminated by these media outlets.
The fringe media narratives analysed in the report are connected by a single thread: the positive perception of Russia and it actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the demonisation of the West (EU, NATO, United States) and its policies towards Russia (sanctions regime, Crimea). The sanctions regime is hurting Russia and Crimea; therefore, it is the immediate short-term strategic goal of Russia to create fissures in the unanimous support for sanctions at the level of the EU, including in Slovakia.
The network analysis of fringe media sources revealed that the fringe media ecosystem in Slovakia has relatively weak internal links, since each of the outlets aims for slightly different audiences and they are often in competition with each other. While the total number of fringe sources is quite significant, the whole landscape is dominated by several big players or network hubs organising the fringe pro-Russian discourse. Hlavné správy is the most important and best connected fringe news portal, using significant amount of Russian language sources, including official Russian authorities, pro-Russian de-facto authorities in Donbass and various Russian media.
The analysis of Facebook pages confirmed that the best performing pages with content related to revisionism and separatism are pro-Russian pages promoting openly Russian narratives related to Crimea, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the sanctions regime. Unsurprisingly the best performing stories with such content are on pro-Kremlin media, while far-right stories attract significantly less attention.
While we are aware of the fact that differing national or historical interpretations regarding the World Wars and territorial changes between Central-European countries cannot ultimately or permanently reconciled, the Kremlin and its local allies are continually launching disinformation campaigns to antagonize EU or NATO member states based on current-day or historical revisionist ideas to legitimize the Kremlin’s geopolitics. The Trianon Treaty is used by pro-Russian Hungarian extremists and fringe media to incite hatred against Slovakia, Romania or Ukraine, while Slovak pro-Russian actors’ support of “separatists” drives a wedge between Ukraine and Slovakia. Therefore, these revisionist narratives, supported or disseminated by the Kremlin’s affiliates, present a direct national security threat for the Euro-Atlantic Community in general, and for the Central-European region in particular.