Larger than life - Who is afraid of the Big Bad Russia? - Slovak Country Report
The current research presents a novel approach to the understanding of Russian soft and sharp power in Slovakia. Our analysis is part of a regional project led by Political Capital institute and funded by the National Endowment for Democracy that explores the vulnerability and resilience to everyday Russian hostile influence in Central Eastern Europe (CEE), focusing on the horizontal, online “grassroots” communication between citizens. An explicit aim of the research was to leave behind the “elitist,” top-down approach of analyses on hybrid warfare and investigate ordinary conversations taking place day-by-day between citizens by mapping 686 thousand spontaneous online conversations related to Russia in Slovakia and more than 3 million online messages in the three countries under revision (Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic).
- Of the three countries analysed, online conversations in Slovakia appear to be the most pro-Russian with 28% having positive sentiments towards Russia. This comes as no surprise as it is in line with other sociological data confirming relatively high support for pro-Russian views and attitudes in Slovakia.
- While in the Czech Republic and Hungary, the majority of sentiments appearing in the online conversations were anti-Russian, these constituted only 23% in Russia-related conversations in the Slovak online sphere in line with other data on Slovak geopolitical attitudes.
- Despite Slovakia having the most pro-Russian online conversations out of the three countries analysed, neutral perceptions of Russia dominate in online conversations collected by Social. This can be explained by a variety of factors:
- The use of mainstream, credible media still dominates over disinformation outlets. Disinformation outlets play a crucial role in spreading pro-Russian narratives, but their reach is still marginal.
- The dominant perceptions of Russia in the observed period were anti-Russian - viewing Russia as an “Aggressor” and an “invisible Influencer.” These attitudes are mostly prevalent in mainstream media reporting both on current issues and conflicts such as Skripal poisoning, the Crimea annexation or the Syrian war, as well as historical events, such as the 1968 occupation.
- Facebook data confirm that disinformation outlets cover Russia-related news disproportionately more than mainstream media. Moreover, in their coverage of those events, they reproduce the Kremlin narratives and try to portray Russia as an ally and a protector. Out of 40 sources analysed, the two top Facebook Pages posting the most about Russia were disinformation outlets Hlavné správy and Slobodný vysielač, both pushing various strands of the ‘mighty Russia’ protector and ally narrative.
- Furthermore, pro-Russian narratives are promoted by dedicated Facebook groups and pages of the far-right extremist and paramilitary groups. These project the image of the Russian Federation as the only protector of the so-called ‘traditional values’ against the decadent West, which is in line with Kremlin’s strategic objectives.
- Another explanation of the high share of neutral and pro-Russian sentiments could be linked to potential psychological drivers, namely the Slovaks’ strive for individual or national survival, geopolitical self-definition or the lack of it, and the inferiority complex. The existence of such identity crisis is clearly supported by findings of the GLOBSEC Trends 2018 on geopolitical orientation of Slovakia, according to which the majority of Slovaks think that their country belongs somewhere in between the West and East. This is in contradiction to the fact that Slovakia, as an active member of the European Union and NATO, is and for the past 15 years has been a fully integrated member of western international organizations. However, strategic communication explaining the benefits of the membership of Slovakia in the EU and NATO is severely lacking in the country.
- The lack of clear communication about Slovakia’s geopolitical orientation by state representatives and their own contradictory perceptions and public declarations further deepen the public’s identity crisis in terms of Slovakia’s geopolitical belonging. This lack of understanding of where Slovakia belongs to causes feelings of insecurity, which is utilized by pro-Kremlin actors fuelling pro-Russian perceptions.
- Both the overall pro-Russian Slovak sentiments and existing negative perceptions of Russia can be attributed to a limited number of core users based on the analysis. Within 686 000 conversations analysed online, only 20 900 unique users were identified, which potentially hints at either a strong presence of bots and trolls in the conversations occurring in Slovak online outlets or passionate individuals engaging in related online conversations and spreading pro-Russian narratives.
The complete Country Report is available here (pdf, 1,194 KB).