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Anti-American populism is sweeping through Eastern Europe

September 8, 2023 - 10:00am

Ukraine faces decisive months ahead as key allies gear up for crunch elections. While early presidential campaigning in the US and a looming general election in Poland will grab the international headlines, a snap election in Slovakia on 30 September may prove every bit as consequential. 

With Robert Fico Slovakia’s former prime minister and one of the West’s most outspoken critics of the Ukrainian war effort poised to win the vote, a change of government in Bratislava could have a profound effect on EU policymaking. Fico has promised that if his party makes it into government “we will not send a single bullet to Ukraine,” proudly proclaiming that “I allow myself to have a different opinion to that of the United States” on the war.  

Fico has also claimed on the campaign trail that “war always comes from the West and peace from the East,” and that “what is happening today is unnecessary killing, it is the emptying of warehouses to force countries to buy more American weapons.” Such statements have resulted in him being blacklisted by Kyiv as a spreader of Russian propaganda.  

Yet the former prime minister spearheads a new brand of Left-wing, anti-American populism that has become a powerful force in Central Europe since the war began. Perceptions that “the Americans occupy us as one MP in Fico’s Smer party evocatively put it are shared with a similar groundswell of anti-Western opinion in the neighbouring Czech Republic.  

Yet Smer has been handed a chance to gain power thanks to the chaos which has engulfed Slovakia’s pro-EU, pro-Western forces. Personal grievances coupled with serious policy errors tore apart a four-party coalition formed after elections in 2020, leaving Fico to capitalise on heightened mistrust in establishment politics. Smer is expected to become the nation’s largest party after this month’s election, with an anticipated 20% of the vote.  

Whatever the specific makeup of the new government, if Smer is the largest party it will likely pursue a foreign policy similar to that of Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary. A halt to until-now generous Slovak arms shipments to Ukraine is Fico’s central electoral pledge, while the arrival on the scene of another Orbán-style government prepared to obstruct EU aid efforts for Ukraine would create a serious headache. That is particularly the case as Brussels struggles to win support for both short and long-term war funding commitments. 

Victory for Fico would also amplify Orbán’s scepticism about the overall Western narrative on Ukraine a scepticism which the Hungarian Prime Minister recently conveyed to Western conservatives during an interview with Tucker Carlson. Orbán portrayed Ukraine’s attempts to win back the territories taken by Russia as ultimately hopeless and claimed that Donald Trump’s promise to end the war quickly makes him “the man who can save the Western world”. 

Like Trump in America and Orbán in Europe, Fico is hated with a passion by establishment forces. But in Slovakia, the pro-Western establishment itself has become so mistrusted that power may soon pass to a man intent on shattering what’s left of European unity on Ukraine. 


William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

I think leaders like Fico and Orban are sick of being treated like second-class citizens, and being forced to accept all the latest fashionable beliefs imposed upon them by the great and good in the west. Come to think of it, I think we’re finding that many in the west share this sentiment.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s interesting isn’t it. On UnHerd, more and more comments criticise western governments. In France Macron is a disaster, in the UK we have the weak Tories, in Canada we have Trudeau, in the USA we have Biden. We need strong leaders!!!
But if anyone criticises the West, then the ranks are closed. The alternatives are China and Russia – with strong leaders but, obviously, the wrong type of strong leaders. Trump is neither weak nor strong but ‘populist’, which means not serious.
So, we have universal suffrage. Would anyone care to describe how we get strong leaders, the right strong leaders – democratically elected, not populist, burning more gas and oil, cutting taxes, encouraging industry, forcing people on benefits to work…?
It is to easy to keep criticising everything and yet, not coming up with solutions.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
7 months ago

I’ve worked in Switzerland for several years. It is stable and affluent, the crime rate is low, the health service is vastly better than the NHS and the transport system is great. Does Switzerland have a strong leader? I wonder how many Unherd readers could even name him/her? The Federal Council is the head of sate and the head of government. Council members take it in turns to be president and the term of office is one year. Currently, the incumbent is Alain Berset.
How “strong” is the president? That’s a simple question to answer. When the federal council votes and the result is a tie, the president’s vote counts double. And that’s it.

Last edited 7 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

Maybe it’s all those referendums. Instead of using garbage polls, they actually vote.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
7 months ago

The political party system rewards non-activity, stasis, stagnation. Two is the worst, more doesn’t seem to help. And since these parties literally control the mechanisms of government they find it easy to quash any agitation. (Bernie Sanders might have been a real agent of change, directly or indirectly. Thus, he never stood a chance.)
So an extra-political solution is needed; somewhere between voting and shooting. More of us, especially the political science types, need to start seriously discussing ideas. Complaining, whether about Trump or Biden, isn’t helpful.
For some years I’ve been pushing the idea of breaking up the USA, for the obvious reasons. Secretly,I think that process would destroy the hegemony of the uni-party before the final breakup. Maybe give us a shot at an improved constitution. But everyone is too devoted to the devil-they-know to even discuss it.
There’s also the possibility of (hold on to something!) “sortition”, political positions filled by common citizens chosen by lottery. Look it up.

Last edited 7 months ago by laurence scaduto
Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
7 months ago

I worked for many years for an American company and visited all parts of the country. This often involved a few beers and we would start to talk about the world. Over and over I heard “I’m proud to be American.” I never said, “I’m proud to be British.” We just don’t say it over here.
I can’t imagine your country splitting up. I can see how it would be beneficial but I just don’t see it happening.
In the UK, I am from Wales, an area of 3 million people against 68 million in the UK. I preach that Wales should be independent – just because I would be one voice in 3 million instead of one in 68 million. I would have more control over my destiny. Non-thinking people would be afraid to take this step because they would feel too exposed to the events beyond their control, out in the big world.
Thanks for your excellent comment.

Last edited 7 months ago by Caradog Wiliams
Waffles
Waffles
7 months ago

“Nothing straight has ever been built from the crooked timber of humanity”.

What the West has achieved is staggering. Material progress and technology that would have been seen as magic any time up to a few hundred years ago.

The West has been making expensive things ever cheaper, turning precious luxuries into cheap basics. Think tea, coffee, sugar, candles, cars, computers.

Thanks to the West, the trend is cheaper, better, more.

It’s not perfect, but the West is the least bad society on offer so far.

To the Wokes who despise the West, which alternative should be the replacement? Chinese totalitarianism? Russian gangster capitalism? Middle Eastern theocracy? These are the only real world alternatives whose models have survived contact with reality.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
7 months ago

Unherd classifies this article as an “Explainer”. It describes the political situation in Slovakia, but I would have liked some explanation as well. For example, for the ordinary citizen, why does Fico’s rhetoric strike a chord? Do some Slovakians have nostalgia for the Soviet era? Has Slovakia been asset-stripped by post-Soviet capitalist cowboys?

More depth for an “Explainer”, please Unherd.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
7 months ago

I second your call for a more in-depth explainer.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, many of the Communist-oppressed states in the former East saw a chance to recover lost glories and greatness, a trajectory interrupted first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. And they saw leveraging the US’ mischief-making for their own aggrandisement.
With US politicians openly stating that the war in Ukraine is great for the US, since the US is able to harm Russia without any Americans dying, and can keep this going until the last Ukrainian. East Europeans are beginning to twig that the US has the same future in mind for them – instead of them leveraging the US, they find that they’re the cannon fodder, like they were for the Nazis and the Soviets.
Thanks to far-sighted and truly great politicians both sides of the Rhine, France and Germany were able to find peace after WW II. The historical baggage dividing the East is no less complex, but as the example of Germany and France shows, with an effort, it can be overcome.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
7 months ago

I second your call for a more in-depth explainer.
I had elaborated on that, but my post was censored.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

I’m not surprised, why should they support the new breed of Washington neocon spreading war into their territories in the name of reconstructing the old Cold War blocs?
The Cheney tendency has been up to this for the last 20 years. They doubtlessly targeted the Ukraine as the new object for the New American Century when Cheney learnt that the Pentagon would NOT back his plan to invade Iran through Iraq.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
7 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

This whole project started with the American Enterprise Institute’s Project for a New American Century.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
7 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I’ll think you’ll find that it was a different country that ‘targeted Ukraine’.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
7 months ago

The gall to claim that “war always comes from the West and peace from the East” while in the same breath mentioning the war in Urkaine…

Iris C
Iris C
7 months ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

East and Libya. It could also be said that by the romising NATO membership to UkraIne (taking the Westerm alliance to Russia’s border was a provocation

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

If he’s that against the Americans, perhaps he should remove his country from NATO? If he believes war comes from the west and peace from the east then surely he has no reason to need the Wests defence pact from Russia. Let’s see him put his money where his mouth is

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Is it possible to join an alliance to protect yourself from a threatening neighbour and not want to indulge the warmongering of that alliance’s most powerful member? I’d say yes.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

But that’s not what his rhetoric is implying. War from the west, peace from the east is his analysis, yet he wants to protection from the country to his east by the countries to his west. All sounds rather hypocritical

Last edited 7 months ago by Billy Bob
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Are you suggesting a politician’s rhetoric is confused, nay, nonsensical? Heaven forfend! With his ostensible protector far away and Russia waging war on his neighbour, one suspects he and a great many other regional politicians are saying some very odd things.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Not if you are GBplc sadly.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
7 months ago

Is that another name for Airstrip One?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Yes!

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
7 months ago

The headline “Anti-American populism is sweeping through Eastern Europe” is of the same caliber as the titles of those aggravating YouTube videos that turn out to be nothing but click-bait. You know: China is imploding, America is doomed, Climate Change will kill us all …

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Someone should explain to them that the Democratic Party is not deliberately evil. It’s just bought and paid for by Wall Street. Somebody needs to use the weapons (they couldn’t all be dumped in Afghanistan) so that Wall Street can recycle more billions of US taxpayers money into its own pockets by making more of them.
The ordinary American is as much a victim of this as anyone in Eastern Europe.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Four legs good! Two legs bad!

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
7 months ago

What makes this “populist”? Because it’s popular or is something else going on?

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
7 months ago
Reply to  Gary Taylor

The leader of a multiparty coalition hardly sounds populist to me? A get it Re balance of power. Seems a particularly European issue. Coalition governments.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
7 months ago

It seems to me that there is also the fact that Russia doesn’t want and fears NATO / EU in Ukraine and therefore a few hundred miles from Moscow. And the same can be said that NATO / EU don’t want Russia in Ukraine and therefore on the Polish border…another Cold war stalemate brewing..

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
7 months ago

If Western aid is sufficiently diminished, the Ukrainians will go insurgent and eventually Ukrainian guerrillas and Russian soldiers will be shooting at each other right on the Slovak and Hungarian borders. I hope it doesn’t come to that but if it does I’ll be anxious to hear Slovak and Hungarian public reaction.

Steve Houseman
Steve Houseman
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim McDonnell

I believe Poland will enter the fray long before that.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

It sounds like Slovakia and Hungary want to leave NATO. Bye.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Agreed. There was a very fine military parade in Beograd on Friday.

Blood & Soil stuff. Ethnic outfits.

MiG29s flying down the street above the Palace.

And even managing not to fall out of the air.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dumetrius
Waffles
Waffles
7 months ago

Fico has also claimed on the campaign trail that “war always comes from the West and peace from the East,”

[spits out coffee]

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

“war always comes from the West and peace from the East….what is happening today is unnecessary killing, it is the emptying of warehouses to force countries to buy more American weapons.” ‘Yet the former prime minister spearheads a new brand of Left-wing, anti-American populism that has become a powerful force in Central Europe…’

and on Fox news.

Paul T
Paul T
7 months ago

Seriously though…why do you have so many of these “America is a basket case” when it isn’t, really, articles?

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

I didn’t get that from this article at all.

The SNP-Green Party union is close to breaking up

Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie. Credit: Getty

April 23, 2024 - 2:30pm

When the SNP-Scottish Green Party power-sharing deal was signed in 2021, it was supposed to herald a new era of cooperation in devolved politics. It was supposed to unite Scotland’s pro-independence parties and force the UK Government to deliver a second referendum on Scottish secession. It was supposed to ensure Scotland was a “world leader in confronting the climate emergency”.

Three years later, however, and not only have none of those lofty ambitions been realised, but the power-sharing deal itself is increasingly in jeopardy, as Green co-leader Patrick Harvie has conceded that the coalition between the two parties may not hold. Today, Alba MSP Ash Regan tabled a no-confidence motion in Harvie after he refused to accept the findings of the Cass Report on gender identity, which he denied was a “valid scientific document”.

The prospect of a second independence referendum did recede in late 2022, when the Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Government had no power to organise a vote of its own, and Westminster remained unwilling to grant one.

But the real pressure on the Bute House Agreement — as the SNP-Scottish Green power-sharing deal is grandly titled — began earlier this month. On 18 April, Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary, Maìri McAllan, confirmed the SNP-Green administration had been forced to drop its target to reduce carbon emissions by 75% before 2030, as well as abandon annual reporting on its progress towards reducing emissions. The announcement was a deep humiliation for the SNP, which had frequently boasted how Scotland had “the most stretching [emissions reduction] targets in the world”.

But it was more damaging still for the credibility of the Scottish Green Party, which — still an environmentalist party at heart, at least in theory — had supported an even more ambitious (and unfeasible) 80% reduction in emissions by 2030. Harvie admitted the failure to meet the 2030 target left him “angry and disappointed” but many grassroots activists feel this is not enough, and have forced an emergency vote, currently planned in May, on whether the power-sharing agreement itself should be scrapped.

The row over emissions targets in particular is reminiscent of when the Liberal Democrats — themselves in coalition after the 2010 election — broke their pledge not to raise tuition fees, with Harvie’s credibility among activists and voters at risk of being undermined just as Nick Clegg’s was.

Yet it would be a mistake to view the threat to the Bute House Agreement as coming solely from the Scottish Green Party. Many in the SNP have been equally discontent with the power-sharing deal since its inception and would be happy to see it scrapped. Former SNP Health Secretary Alex Neil spoke for many when he warned this week that sharing government with the Green Party had done “enormous damage” to the Nationalists’ credibility.

For his part, First Minister Humza Yousaf seems determined to stick by his Green colleagues, having repeatedly refused to countenance terminating the power-sharing agreement since he inherited the SNP leadership from Nicola Sturgeon more than a year ago. Yet his will alone may not be enough to stem the growing discontent with the arrangement among members in both parties. If the dissent cannot be contained, it risks making the SNP appear even more divided just months away from what is already anticipated to be a tricky general election campaign.

Should that happen, far from helping solidify the pro-independence cause, the SNP-Scottish Green Party power-sharing agreement may well prove an important factor in undermining it.


Andrew Liddle is a political commentator and historian based in Edinburgh.

ABTLiddle

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 hours ago

On 18 April, Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary, Maìri McAllan, confirmed the SNP-Green administration had been forced to drop its target to reduce carbon emissions by 75% before 2030, as well as abandon annual reporting on its progress towards reducing emissions.
The last clause is the most telling, of course.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
4 hours ago

Well spotted, but the quoted article does not mention it. The closes I could find is this:

“The Scottish government will also scrap its annual emissions reduction targets, which ministers have missed eight times in the last 12 years.”

Skink
Skink
2 hours ago

The Greens went off the rails a long time ago…