In 2013 outcome of the Transatlantic Trends changed only slightly. Despite the NATO mission in Afghanistan and continued debate about European contributions to allied burden-sharing, NATO was seen as “still essential” for their country’s security by 58% of Europeans – values that hardly fluctuated since 2002. Also, support for United States leadership remained stable, with 55% of Europeans describing a strong U.S. role as very or somewhat desirable. Nevertheless, Slovak respondents were the most likely in Europe to describe U.S. leadership as somewhat or very undesirable (52%) (GMF US, 2013, 9). At the same time, on average in the EU, only 27% of respondents found Russian leadership desirable. Yet, Slovak respondents were the most likely (in 39% of cases) to describe Russian leadership as desirable (GMF US, 2013, 12). Across Europe, support for the United States administration significantly improved with the election of Barack Obama. In 2013, 69% of respondents approved of Obama´s international policies. Yet again, disapproval with his policies was highest in Slovakia and Spain (31%) (GMF US, 2013, 14).
Despite the fact that the survey results were not as positive as pro-European and pro-Atlantic leaders would wish – finding NATO “still essential” for security never exceeded 62% on average – NATO membership was perhaps taken for granted across the Alliance. Extreme opinions were marginalized and not part of mainstream communication.
This, however, changed during the crisis in Ukraine and with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. NATO found itself in the “opposition” to the far-right, with extremist and populist politicians questioning its relevance and spreading misinformation. No matter that the European Deterrence Initiative was growing, no matter that hundreds of troops stationed in the Baltics demonstrated the strength of the transatlantic bond (and to make clear that an attack on one Ally would be considered an attack on all members of the Alliance), NATO was facing a 131 “crisis of credibility”.
Which factors most impact the situation in Slovakia?
Firstly, despite that Slovakia is not a Russian-speaking country, it has been highly vulnerable to the sophisticated and extensive propaganda campaign of Russia. Numerous websites and Facebook pages emerged against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, which fed the Slovak online space with “hidden” or “alternative” truth, hatred, and illicit ideologies. Even though the situation is similar in many countries, disinformation in Slovakia found a receptive audience. According to surveys, Slovaks tend to be especially vulnerable to disinformation. A large portion of Slovaks agree with the two most widespread conspiracy theories: 1) that world events are not decided by publicly elected representatives, but secret groups that seek to establish a totalitarian world order (52% of Slovaks) and, 2) that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were planned and conducted by the American government rather than Al-Qaeda (39% of Slovaks) (Globsec, 2018, 30-32). As much as 34% of Slovaks read media outlets well known for spreading fake news and conspiracies (e.g. Hlavné správy, Zem a vek, Slobodný vysielač) on a regular basis, at least once or twice a week (IRI – International Republican Institute, 2017, 44).
Social media is potentially becoming the most important source of information, having an impact comparable to television. Currently 40% of Slovaks use social media as a source of daily news (IRI, 2017, 41). The number of Facebook users is growing in Slovakia (2 million in 2012; 2.5 million in 2017); while years ago it was used mainly by young urban people, it is gradually expanding to all regions and to all demographic groups, which are more vulnerable to disinformation (Goda, 2018).
Secondly, Slovak government parties failed to challenge disinformation campaigns; instead they often nurtured them. For example, that the Prime Minister questioned the sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, and made regular visits to Russia for meetings with people from the sanction list by the Speaker of the Parliament. 132 Opposition parties sensed an opportunity in growing public dissent and confusion, and took advantage of these narratives by adopting them into their communication strategies and daily agenda. Recent Slovak parliamentary elections in March 2016, and European elections in May 2019, confirmed that Eurosceptic or outright anti-EU, anti-NATO and extremist parties are on the rise, which corresponds with a trend observed in many other countries. The party of Marian Kotleba used the British example to announce a petition on a similar referendum regarding whether Slovakia should exit the EU too.
Finally, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in November 2016 marked the beginning of a new crisis in transatlantic relations; his communication impacts public perception of NATO worldwide. On various occasions, Trump questioned America’s Article 5 commitment, persistently criticized European democratic leaders for not spending enough of money on defense, and failed to confront NATO’s primary adversary Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, Donald Trump branded NATO “obsolete”. A survey found a decrease in certainty when asking whether NATO still had an important role to play in national defence. While Europeans still tend to see NATO as important, the proportion of people who agree fell by seven to ten percentage points. In France the figure is down from 52% to 42%, in Germany from 62% to 53%, and in Britain from 68% to 59% (YouGov, 2019). To compare with the statistics for Slovakia, in 2017 only 56% Slovaks considered NATO as important for their safety (Globsec, 2017, 15).
Moreover, strong “anti-American” views, a significant factor in distrust towards NATO, prevail and have even multiplied. In 2016, 59% of Slovaks agreed that the role of the U.S. in Europe and the world is negative, and 60% agreed that the U.S. uses NATO to control small countries (Globsec, 2016, 10). Also, 47% Slovaks believed that neutrality would provide more security to Slovakia than NATO (Globsec, 2016, 8).
At the same time, surveys show that an important share of people believe that Slovakia should not align with the West or with the East. In 133 2018, 56% respondents agreed with this sentiment, an increase by 12 points since 2017. Compared with the other three Visegrad countries, Slovakia remains the least supportive of the pro-Western orientation (21%) (Globsec, 2018, 13). The absence of strategic communication on foreign policy priorities and engagement after accession to NATO resulted in a generation of people who feel no or only a very loose attachment for the Slovak Republic to the Euro-Atlantic community.
Implications for the Alliance
The situation in Slovakia is not exceptional; yet the combination of the above-mentioned factors together with strong anti-American sentiment enables adversaries to target the public with anti-NATO narratives effectively. They are successful because these coercive and subversive activities span a broad spectrum of media and are implemented with various tools –fake news, trolling factories, IT technologies managing web content, cyberattacks impacting the election results – that are exceptionally difficult to counter in one or two years. The resilience of a society is a result of the long-term systematic work at different levels of society, which need to be built up continuously, long before someone challenges it.
Under the circumstances, Slovakia could easily slip away from the Alliance in the worst-case scenario. The far-right party Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia, whose electorate is increasing, could sustain their initiative of withdrawing from NATO, and receive sufficient votes required to hold a referendum. According to a recent survey, currently only 50% of people (an increase by 7 points) would vote to stay in NATO, with 17% of people undecided and 31% people against (an increase by 10 points) (Globsec, 2018, 23). A campaign before a referendum could easily spread negative narratives and propaganda, further confuse people, heighten their distrust of the system, worsen the polarization of society, and increase the number of people against membership in NATO.
In order to influence the local discussion, foreign actors could attempt to increase the impact of the content on disinformation media, which 134 already has tremendous reach. Recently, Hlavné správy declared to have 1 million unique visitors per month. Considering that one may use multiple devices to access the same website, it could have as many as 500k actual users, which is half of the traffic in Daily Denník N or Pravda, the two most influential, mainstream, standard news outlets (Struhárik and Augustín, 2018).
Surely, at this point, this scenario seems unlikely. Nevertheless, even more optimistic scenarios pose serious problems for the Alliance. With extreme opinions and ideas, which previously were ostracized, now entering the mainstream of political messaging, it will be increasingly difficult for political elites to push forward a challenging NATO agenda at the national level. It would immediately provoke a response from populist parties trying to strengthen their position and earn votes. This could result in a less ambitious NATO, exactly the opposite kind of NATO needed in these challenging times.
Reversing these trends is possible. Some minor campaigns proved to be successful and have already yielded some results in Slovakia in the past. Nevertheless, it requires immediate action. At the national level, it must involve all manner of governmental, non-governmental and even private actors, pulling in one direction. None of these actors alone possesses the material, technical and human resources to respond comprehensively to this hybrid threat. For example, using the full range of tools and legislation that already exist could enable an approach like the one employed in Finland, where the editor of an extreme rightwing online magazine faces a variety of criminal charges, including aggravated incitement against an ethnic group, aggravated slander, money laundering, gambling offences, issuing illegal threats, breach of confidentiality, and copyright infringement. Moreover, addressing the problem needs to start with a coherent communication strategy that includes a long-term commitment to provide transparent information. A particularly important element of this requires that political leaders take a more responsible approach in their public messaging, one that is united in their opposition to disinformation, and articulates a clear platform to prevent its most harmful effects on the society they serve.
The whole text of the analysis is to be found here.