Discontent is building in countries that were once most committed to the cause
Prague, Czech Republic
Discontent is slowly building in some of the European countries most committed to supporting Ukraine. Slovakia’s coalition government is splintering, while a huge protest in Prague this weekend rammed home the severity of Czech divisions on the war as economic crisis hits.
The Slovak coalition is collapsing due to bitter infighting over financial support amid the cost-of-living crunch. The liberal Freedom and Solidarity party departed from government on Monday after accusing the leader of the largest governing party of “raping the legislative process” from his position as Minister of Finance. Most do not expect a minority government to survive, so snap elections are likely.
This would leave the door open for an opposition led by Robert Fico, a man placed by Ukraine on its blacklist of pro-Kremlin “propagandists” in the West. Fico has complained that “everyone with a different opinion than the Ukrainian President is a criminal. That’s what liberal democracy is like.”
Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, 70,000 protesters on Saturday called for a reversal of attitudes to Ukraine and Russia. The rally, titled “Czech Republic First”, called for the resumption of energy cooperation with Russia, Czech military neutrality between West and East, and the regaining of political sovereignty from the EU — a policy programme owing much to Viktor Orbán. It also demanded institutional change at national broadcasters whose political coverage is felt to be biased.
The Czech establishment was stunned by the scale of the protest on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, and the response of Prime Minister Petr Fiala encapsulated an apparent metropolitan disdain for the concerns of rural Czechs frightened by the energy crisis. He said the event was “called by forces that are pro-Russian, are close to extremist positions, and are against the interests of the Czech Republic”. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry meanwhile described the rally as an “insult” to “the honour and dignity of Ukrainians who are defending freedom in Europe at the cost of their lives”.
Yet unease about the level of economic, military and social support being provided to Ukraine has been widespread in rural areas ever since the war began. Protesters want the government to resign by September 25; if new elections are not called, they promise another rally on September 28 and threaten acts of civil disobedience as well as some form of general strike. If an early election was held, polls suggest that, as in Slovakia, it would be won by forces sceptical about current western policy on Ukraine. Fiala enjoys the trust of a measly 22% of the Czech population and the more Eurosceptic opposition is forecast to sweep to victory in local elections this month.
As Czech and Slovak governments flounder, early elections elsewhere in Europe may deal further democratic blows to the Ukrainian cause. Bulgaria will hold snap elections in October following the ousting of a pro-Nato leader who took an unusually tough stance against Moscow, while the Right-wing coalition tipped for success in Italian elections includes parties openly critical of the EU’s sanctions policy.
As Ukraine wages a counteroffensive with western weapons, governments which helped provide that military aid now face a winter of discontent. By standing so resolutely with Kyiv they have won international praise; but they have also brought down a domestic political storm on their own heads.