Slovakia, a small neighbour with big concern

12 Sep 2016 - 13:19
Bron: Nicolas Giroux / Flickr

When it comes to Ukraine, mitigating risks will be the crucial task for Slovakia’s EU presidency.

Slovakia`s foreign policy framework towards Ukraine is based on its immediate proximity, relative intensity of economic cooperation (particularly the natural gas connection), its own recent history of a complicated Euro-Atlantic integration and the need for stability on the eastern borders of the EU in order to avoid the “peripherization” of the region of Central Europe.

Ukraine`s Association Agreement was a milestone for Slovakia to gradually tie Ukraine closer to the EU for its own national interest as well as a modernization trigger for its neighbor - both in terms of economy and especially state administration. Bratislava accelerated its relations accordingly, both via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President Kiska but also via numerous civic actors.

Honest broker

Slovakia has an honest broker position among Visegrad countries and Ukraine`s Western neighbors: while it has neither a checkered history like Poland, nor a sizable minority like Hungary.  Yet, this position has not been consolidated for various reasons: the lack of focus and capacity Slovakia devoted to its largest neighbor (as the Euro-Atlantic integration was an absolute priority) as well as its traditionally balanced position when it comes to Ukraine as well as Russia.

With the Slovak public overwhelmingly disapproving Russia`s aggression, there is a growing concern about Ukraine`s dysfunctionality. For Bratislava the upcoming EU presidency (2nd half of 2016) comes in a very difficult period. The Dutch referendum in April, and the halted implementation of the Minsk Agreements have replaced the focus of the EU relations with Ukraine from modernization of the economy - the original aim of the Association Agreement - to security related issues.

While the Dutch should have little to worry about Ukraine, Slovakia may have more concerns. After the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas, Ukraine will remain resisting Russia for generations to come. But there is also a growing realization that the EU alone is unlikely to complete the load of homework Ukraine has, namely to re-build a viable social contract and state capacity. However, what Bratislava worries about, a more inward-looking country without an external trigger, may mean a growing potential of internal frictions.

History of Relations: In the Shadow

Bilateral relations between Slovakia and Ukraine have been in shadow of Russia until 1998, where Slovakia took a pro-Western course after the delay caused by the semi-authoritarian Meciar government. Till then, Ukraine, the only former Soviet state with a 98 km-long border with Slovakia, was merely considered as an energy transit country and a gateway to the Russian market.

The Dzurinda governments (1998-2002 and 2002-2006) accelerated Slovakia`s accession to the European Union and NATO. During this period Slovakia`s key focus was its own (delayed) integration process. Consequently, much less resources were devoted to Slovakia’s relations with Eastern Europe.

Contrary to the dominant perception in the West, Robert Fico`s government (2006-2010) has been an active supporter of Ukraine. But relations cooled during the last years of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko ruling tandem, due to the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine in 2009. The then Prime Minister Fico, as the single representative of an EU member state, officially condemned Kyiv as responsible for the crisis. Slovakia’s (justified) grievance was that Kyiv (having a partner status) did not inform Bratislava about the reverse flow and its consequence of shutting down gas to the EU (via Slovakia). However, the gas crisis served as an impulse in Slovakia to reconsider its own energy dependency on Russia – leading to the diversification of the country’s energy supplies.

Selective justice

Relations slightly improved under Viktor Yanukovych` presidency: Slovakia, following Poland’s example, intensified its political dialogue with Ukraine despite Yulia Tymoshenko’s prison sentence – which was widely seen as a case of selective justice. While it may sound ironic today, the Yanukovych government was seen as pragmatic and politically stable back then; especially compared to the previous tandem’s cabinet.

Yet, Slovakia’s support for the EU’s eastern neighbors has not become an obstacle to working relations with Russia, which are based less and less on economic grounds (trade with Russia has been declining as from 2007), and more on the balancing geopolitical logic of (part of) the Slovak elites.  This is supported by public opinion as well: although 83% (data from June 2014) supported Ukraine`s choice of its own foreign policy orientation, 64% disagreed that Ukraine is part of the Russian sphere of influence, 45% supports an active Slovak foreign policy toward Ukraine and 54% is also against becoming too critical toward Russia. To recognize this ambivalence, the ECFR Foreign Policy Scorecard put Slovaks into the category of “friendly pragmatists”.

After Maidan: It is the Security, Stupid 

Euromaidan, initially a timid reaction to Ukraine’s U-turn on the EU’s Association Agreement before the Vilnius summit, burst into a national resistance movement after Kyiv used violence against protesters. The so-called Revolution of Dignity only re-enforced Ukraine’s previous strategic importance for Slovakia, while Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aiding the Donbas insurgency has altered Bratislava’s security calculus.

Bratislava feels the urge to accelerate relations and support to Ukraine, mainly because of the perceived soft and hard security risks and because it sees modernization of the Ukrainian state as the key remedy. At the same time, Ukraine is in a hybrid conflict with Russia and this new threat has brought consequences for Slovakia as a NATO member: Bratislava is concerned both about Russia’s potential further aggression as well as about the increase in violence. Both would have a direct effect on Slovakia as Ukraine’s direct neighbor. 

Slovakia’s biggest support to Ukraine came in energy security. After an interconnection with the Czech Republic was built following the 2009 gas crisis, reverse gas flow has become technically available also for Ukraine. However, it took another almost 1.5 years for the sides to clear all legal and technical hurdles and move to launch the reverse flow. Although Kyiv and its European advocates (notably from Poland) put the blame on Slovakia for the delay, in practice it was Ukraine that refused to accept the Slovak offer to utilize the existing pipeline and pushed for a much expensive (and longer-term) solution.

Moscow was not happy, as both its economic and political leverage was undercut. Hitherto, gas supplies from Russia have been cut by 40-50 percent instantly after Slovakia started to supply gas to Ukraine via the reverse flow at the end of 2014. This has greatly contributed to Ukraine’s energy security[1], and saved up to $3bln according to the Ukrainian government estimates.

Call of the Day: Mitigating Risks

Building the Schengen border with Ukraine required a modernization of the border protection on the Slovak side: smuggling and human trafficking have become serious challenges. While the Slovak-Ukraine border is considered one of the most modern and secure on land, it is still not perfect: underground tunnels for smugglers have been uncovered and two small planes (used presumably for smuggling) crashed in 2015 alone. Both cases show that cross-border security will continue to be tested.

The shooting incident in Mukachevo in the summer of 2015 highlights some of the cross-border risks for Slovakia. The investigation report by the Ukrainian parliament on the incident showed that the local branches of the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior as well as the National Security Service (SBU) were not only directly involved, but literally were fighting over the control of the smuggling business in Ukraine’s western regions neighbouring Slovakia and Hungary. These challenges could be in the future coupled with the greater risk of migration flows from eastern Ukraine, if the Donbas war heats up again. Mitigating risks when it comes to Ukraine – whether Kyiv’s poor reform performance, security challenges as well as the communication after the Dutch referendum, whatever its outcome is – will be the crucial task for Slovakia’s EU presidency.

A potential Dutch NO vote could be a new destabilization factor for Ukraine. The country may become more inward looking, and essential reforms may take a backseat over resistance to modernisation.

Balázs Jarábik is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. 

[1] In 2013 Ukraine imported 27.973bcma gas out of which 25,842 came from Russia and 2,132 from the EU (92%), in 2014 out of 19,6 imported 14,5 from Russia and 5,1 from the EU (74%), while in 2015 out of 20,8bcma 12,7 came from the EU and 8,1 from Russia (39%).  In 2015, imports of gas from the European market more than doubled from 5.0 to 10.3 bcm. In 2015, the import from the Russian Federation decreased 2.4 times compared to 2014, from 14.5 to 6.1 bcm. As a result, the share of Russian supplies in Ukraine’s gas consumption decreased from 34% in 2014 to 18% in 2015.