As Russian forces continue to escalate the war in Ukraine, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an official request to join the European Union. The move comes following vocal support from several European leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
But arguably the most ardently formulated support came from Slovakian PM Eduard Heger (pictured), who demanded a “special track” for Ukraine towards EU membership. In an impassioned interview with Politico, Heger argued that Ukrainians “fight for themselves, they fight for us — they fight for freedom” and that “they are protecting our system, our values and we have to be together with them.”
Politically opportune rhetoric.
On the surface, Heger’s emotional plea seems to fall in line with the sympathy which much of the EU has shown for Ukraine. Indeed, the Ukrainian war has pulled the notoriously fractured bloc together in a time of unprecedented violent crisis right at its doorstep. Yet a closer look indicates that Heger may be acting in his own political self-interest: public approval for the OLaNO government he leads has fallen sharply since he became PM last April, with the party having languished between 8 and 9 percent in the polls since May 2021, far behind leading opposition parties Smer and HLAS.
At the same time, bitter infighting among Heger’s coalition partners has wiped out most of his political capital and the coalition is now desperately fighting off the threat of looming snap elections. That’s largely due to the fact that the OLaNO party has failed to live up to the anti-corruption platform that it was elected on in 2020.
The eternal question of corruption.
Indeed, two years later, the OLaNO-led government has actually worsened the situation, rather than cleaning Slovakia up. For starters, the purported anti-corruption drive seems to have developed a political tilt. The appearance on social media of a ‘hit list’ of individuals to be targeted by anti-graft investigators has led to accusations that the government is not only directing the investigations, but is involved in a purge against important figures connected to the political opposition, such as prominent businessman Miroslav Vyboh or the former chief of police Milan Lucansky.
This is even more concerning in light of allegations that many of those under investigation are being implicated by testimonies from indicted individuals who are reportedly pressed into collusion with prosecutors. With even Slovakian judges raising concerns over this practice, it’s clear that the rule of law is in a bad state in the Slovak Republic—an assessment evidently shared by several OLaNO members, such as deputy and ex-minister of agriculture Jan Micovsky, who quit the Party in January this year over Heger’s broken promises on fighting corruption.
With Slovakia in such evident disarray, Heger’s opportunistic desire to score political points during an emotional watershed moment in European history is understandable. Yet appealing to sympathy for Ukraine’s struggle is at best a temporary distraction, because Slovakia’s backsliding regarding the rule of law is becoming ever more evident. Case in point is a recent rule of law assessment by the World Justice Project, which placed the Slovak Republic 24th out of 31 countries in the European Union, European Free Trade Association, and North America region, as well as and 32 out of 46 among high income countries.
No time for diversions.
While Slovakia has a lot on its plate to get its own house in order, it’s important to remember that obtaining EU membership is no easy task, particularly for a country like Ukraine. Following the statements from Slovakia, Poland and others, Germany was quick to curb the enthusiasm coming from the EU’s Eastern members, with Foreign Minister Baerbock emphasizing that joining the EU is a long-term process.
EU officials equally made it abundantly clear that for Ukraine, EU membership remains a far-off prospect that takes years to become tangible given the political and economic requirements that need to be fulfilled. In a clear swipe at Heger and other supporters of a fast-track accession, one unnamed official made it known that “some people are getting carried away” in their statements.
For Slovakia, it’s important to keep the eye on the prize, namely the creation of a more accountable and functional socio-political system at home. With Heger under pressure as his coalition government reels under public distrust and internal factionalism, the only productive way out would be to focus on his promises – a genuine anti-corruption drive, instead of politically-motivated prosecutions – rather than engaging in cheap rhetoric.
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