World

It’s One of Ukraine’s Fiercest Allies. But an Election Could Change That.

When Ukraine discovered civilian mass graves in an area recaptured from Russian troops, Russia’s ambassador in neighboring Slovakia countered with his own discovery.

The mayor of a remote Slovak village, as the ambassador announced last September, had bulldozed Russian graves from World War I. Ambassador Igor Bratchikov demanded that the Slovak government, a robust supporter of Ukraine, take action to punish the “blasphemous act.”

The Slovak police responded swiftly, dismissing the ambassador’s claims as a “hoax,” but his fabrication took flight, amplified by vociferous pro-Russian groups in Slovakia and news outlets notorious for recycling Russian propaganda.

A month later, the mayor of the village, Vladislav Cuper, lost an election to a rival candidate from a populist party opposed to helping Ukraine.

Today, the same forces that helped unseat Mr. Cuper have mobilized for a general election in Slovakia on Sept. 30 with much bigger stakes.

The vote will not only decide who governs a small Central European nation with fewer than six million people, but will also indicate whether opposition to helping Ukraine, a position now mostly confined to the political fringes across Europe, could take hold in the mainstream.

Vladislav Cuper, the former mayor of Ladomirova, Slovakia, at his home in the village. Mr. Cuper says he was smeared by pro-Russian forces in Slovakia.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

The front-runner, according to opinion polls, is a party headed by Robert Fico, a pugnacious former prime minister who has vowed to halt Slovak arms deliveries to Ukraine, denounced sanctions against Russia and railed against NATO, despite his country’s membership in the alliance.

A strong showing in the election by Mr. Fico and far-right parties hostile to the government in Kyiv would likely turn one of Ukraine’s most stalwart backers — Slovakia was the first country to send it air-defense missiles and fighter jets — into a neutral bystander more sympathetic to Moscow. It would also end the isolation of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary as the only leader in the European Union and NATO speaking out strongly against helping Ukraine.

“Russia is rejoicing,” Rastislav Kacer, a former foreign minister and outspoken supporter of Ukraine, said in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “Slovakia is a great success story for its propaganda. It has worked hard and very successfully to exploit my country as a wedge to divide Europe.”

Thanks to widespread public discontent with the infighting between pro-Western Slovak politicians who came to power in 2020, and deep pools of genuine pro-Russian sentiment dating back to the 19th century, Russia has been pushing on an open door.

A survey of public opinion across Eastern and Central Europe in March by Globsec, a Bratislava-based research group, found that only 40 percent of Slovaks blame Russia for the war in Ukraine, while 51 percent believe that either Ukraine or the West is “primarily responsible.” In Poland, 85 percent blame Russia. In the Czech Republic, 71 percent think Russia is responsible.

The World War I cemetery in Ladomirova that the Russian ambassador to Slovakia falsely said had been destroyed.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Daniel Milo, director of an Interior Ministry department aimed at countering disinformation and other nonmilitary threats, acknowledged that “there is fertile ground here for pro-Russian sentiment.” But he added that genuine sympathy rooted in history had been exploited by Russia and its local helpers to sow division and sour public opinion on Ukraine.

Those helpers include Hlavne Spravy, a popular anti-American news site, and a bikers group called Brat za Brata, or Brother for Brother, which is affiliated with the Kremlin-sponsored Night Wolves motorcycle gang in Russia.

A freelance writer for Hlavne Spravy, Bohus Garbar, was convicted of espionage this year after being caught on camera taking money from Russia’s military attaché, who has since been expelled.

Brat za Brata, which has a large following on social media and close ties to the Russian embassy, has meanwhile worked to intimidate Russia’s critics.

Peter Kalmus, a 70-year-old Slovak artist, said he was beaten up by members of the biker group last month after he defaced a Soviet war memorial in the eastern city of Kosice to protest Russian atrocities in Ukraine. In March, the bikers reduced to pandemonium a government-sponsored public debate about the war in a town near the Ukrainian border attended by Mr. Kacer, who was then still a minister. Fiercely pro-Russian protesters bused in by the bikers, recalled Mr. Kacer, “jumped on the stage screaming and spitting at us.”

Many Slovaks, said Grigorij Meseznikov, the Russian-born president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava research group, “have an invented romantic vision of Russia in their heads that does not really exist” and are easily swayed by “lies and propaganda” about the West.

The Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Ladomirova. The former mayor said that in his view, Russia did not care who won the election in the village, but had spotted a good opportunity to “present itself as a victim.”Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

That, he added, has made the country vulnerable to efforts by Moscow to rally pro-Russian sentiment in the hope of undermining European unity over Ukraine. Slovakia is a small country, Mr. Meseznikov said, but “if you take even a small brick out of a wall it can crumble.”

That is certainly the hope of Lubos Blaha, a former member of a heavy metal band and the author of books on Lenin and Che Guevara who is now the deputy leader of Mr. Fico’s surging political party, SMER. He is also one of Slovakia’s loudest and most influential Kremlin-friendly voices on social media and regularly denounces his country’s liberal woman president, Zuzana Caputova, as a “fascist” and pro-Ukrainian ministers as “American puppets.”

“The mood in Europe is changing,” Mr. Blaha said in an interview, describing the conflict in Ukraine as “a war of the American empire against the Russian empire” that cannot be won because Russia is a nuclear power.

Insisting he was “not pro-Russia, just pro my country’s national interests,” Mr. Blaha predicted that countries hostile to arming Ukraine would soon “be in the majority while supporters of Ukraine will be in a small minority,” especially if Donald J. Trump wins the next presidential election in the United States.

In the run-up to Slovakia’s own election, the usually placid country has been swamped by heated accusations on all sides of foreign interference. Mr. Fico has accused NATO of meddling in the campaign, while his foes have pointed a finger at Russia.

Describing Mr. Fico’s SMER party as a “Trojan horse” for Russia, Jaroslav Nad, a former defense minister who led a push to send arms to Ukraine, claimed this summer that, according to intelligence reports, a Slovak citizen he didn’t identify had visited Russia “to receive financial resources to benefit SMER.” But, citing confidentiality, he produced no evidence, and his claim has been widely dismissed as a pre-election smear.

Still, the Russian ambassador’s fabricated story of desecrated war graves highlighted Russia’s skill at fishing in Slovakia’s troubled waters. It also provided what Mr. Milo, the interior ministry official, called “a very rare smoking gun” directly implicating Moscow in scripting a fake scandal. “They usually act more cleverly and try not to get caught red-handed,” he said.

Children climbing on Soviet and German tanks at a World War II monument outside Ladomirova. In the run-up to a general election, Slovakia has been swamped by heated accusations of foreign interference.Credit…Akos Stiller for The New York Times

During a visit last week to the still-intact graveyard in Ladomirova, Mr. Cuper said that in his view Russia did not care who won the mayoral vote there, but had spotted a good opportunity “to distract attention from mass graves in Ukraine” and “present itself as a victim.”

When the ambassador visited Ladomirova, he met with Mr. Cuper’s bitter rival, a former mayor whom Mr. Cuper had accused of embezzling village funds and who was convicted of fraud in 2019. The former mayor’s wife, Olga Bojcikova, who declined to be interviewed, was at the time running against Mr. Cuper, who was backed by pro-Ukrainian parties, in the local election last October. She won.

The ambassador’s story of “razed” Russian graves, though debunked by the police, was, Mr. Cuper recalled, “blown out of all proportion” by Kremlin-friendly Slovaks, particularly the Brat za Brata bikers.

The bikers posted incendiary statements on Facebook denouncing the mayor’s “blasphemous act” and rallied its members to respond. This set off calls for Mr. Cuper to be “executed,” “buried alive” and “flogged like a dog.”

Slovakia’s prosecutor general, Maros Zilinka, who has a long history of sympathy for Russia and hostility to the United States, added fuel to the fire by announcing that the mayor could be liable for criminal prosecution for a “morally reprehensible act” that needed to be investigated.

Mr. Cuper said he never touched the graves but had removed stone border markers because they were falling apart. Nor did he touch a notice board put up as part of renovation work financed by Russia in 2014: It falsely described the cemetery as the resting place of 270 Russian war dead. The cemetery contains the unidentified bodies of soldiers from various countries, including Russia, killed in a World War I battle.

The ambassador’s story, he said, was “entirely untrue” but still “created a national uproar.”

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