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PM Fico doubts effect of sanctions

ON THE EVE of a NATO summit where Russia is likely to be the central topic, Prime Minister Robert Fico has got the attention of both, his European partners and Russia after he announced in Brussels that Slovakia retains the right to disagree with any EU-proposed sanctions towards Russia that would harm the country’s national interests.

ON THE EVE of a NATO summit where Russia is likely to be the central topic, Prime Minister Robert Fico has got the attention of both, his European partners and Russia after he announced in Brussels that Slovakia retains the right to disagree with any EU-proposed sanctions towards Russia that would harm the country’s national interests.

Fico argued on August 31 that it makes no sense to apply additional sanctions against Russia until one is certain of whether the previous ones have met their target, while it seems to him that “the sanctions applied so far have not changed the attitude of Russia at all; quite the contrary”.

“We disagree with such a sanctions war,” Fico said on August 31, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that “sanctions do not lead anywhere and cannot become our policy”.

Just days later, Fico announced that his government supports political solutions to Ukraine and a continuation of what he called an intense dialogue with Russia.

“Honestly, these sanctions also make me laugh a little bit, because we have information that through Belarus and Turkey, as a NATO member state, all the goods are flowing to the Russian Federation,” Fico said after a special session of his cabinet, which met to discuss the sanctions on September 4, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Nevertheless, the Sme daily reported Fico as saying that this “is a conflict between the United States and Russia for influence over Ukraine”.

At the EU-level talks, Slovakia’s ambassador to Brussels will not support the new text of the sanctions on capital markets, “which puts Slovakia’s banking and financial system at great risk in association with the existence of the subsidiary of Sberbank on Slovakia’s territory”, SITA reported.

According to Fico, Russia’s counter-sanctions have cost Slovak firms in the dairy and meat processing sectors more than €6 million so far, while extending the sanctions might endanger 6,000 to 8,000 jobs in the automotive industry, the Sme.sk website wrote.

Fico also said it is good that the European Commission decided not to extend existing restrictive measures in additional areas such as energy.

Just days after the EU and the United States imposed targeted sanctions against Russia, Moscow imposed a one-year embargo on food imports from the EU, the United States, Australia, Canada and Norway on August 7. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law on August 14 to impose sanctions against Russian firms and individuals who support or finance separatists in eastern Ukraine. The EU is now discussing another round of sanctions.

“The escalation in the east of Ukraine calls for [applying] joint pressure on ... Russia for the sake of ending the violence,” said Slovak President Andrej Kiska, as quoted by Sme.

Fico, who earlier had called the tit-for-that sanctions imposed by the EU and Russia on one another senseless, made his statement on the possibility of rejecting sanctions just days ahead of a key NATO summit held in Newport, Wales, drawing criticism from the opposition parties as well as regional security analysts.

As part of the discourse over the crisis in Ukraine, Fico also said he cannot imagine “that there will be anti-missile stations operated by foreign soldiers” in Slovakia, adding that the country has its historical experience with the presence of foreign soldiers saying: “Let’s recall the invasion in 1968”. The June statement came in response to US President Barack Obama’s request for the US Congress to financially support boosting the presence of the US Army in Europe.

Statements of Slovakia’s leaders on the crisis in Ukraine as well as the country’s unwillingness to increase its defense budget has pushed Slovakia to the second-league of NATO countries, said Marian Majer, an analyst with the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI).

Analysts with CEPI expect that Kiska, who leads Slovakia’s delegation to the NATO summit, would unambiguously identify with trans-Atlantic values.

“This will be especially important after the not very fortunate statements that political leaders of Slovakia have made over the past months and weeks,” Majer said, as quoted by TASR.

The NATO summit

Meanwhile, Kiska said on September 3 before departing for Newport that Slovakia would commit to allocate 1.6 percent of its GDP for the defence budget by 2020, and promised to make a clear stand on fundamental issues.

“In the area of defence spending we will commit to halting the drop in spending, and by 2016 we want to achieve that we devote 20 percent of defence budget spending to the modernisation of the Slovak Army,” Kiska said, as quoted by TASR.

Nevertheless, Defence Minister Martin Glváč responded that increasing the budget to 1.6 percent of the GDP should be gradual, because if the defence department gets a much fatter budget next year, it might not be able to spend the money meaningfully.

“No country is doing it [hiking the budget] by such jumps, because the requirements must be compatible with the needs of the armed forces, which is a certain process,” said Glváč, a Smer-backed minister, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “I would not in reality know how to spend efficiently in a year an increase by 0.3 percent of GDP.”

The minister, however, said that more funds could be used first of all for modernising the army. According to Glváč, another solution would be if the Defence Ministry takes over some of the roles performed by other departments, for example, the protection of the eastern border.

As head of Slovakia’s delegation to the summit, which is to focus on assistance for Ukraine as well as strengthening the alliance’s eastern borders, Kiska also would declare Slovakia’s willingness to help Ukraine financially as well as through training in areas where Slovakia is strong.

Analysts with CEPI assume that representatives of NATO member countries will conclude that it is necessary to increase defence spending. Majer of CEPI, however, said that Slovakia’s statements on the issue are not that unambiguous, remaining “the only country from the whole region which so far has not declared a priority of increasing its defence budget”, adding that even Hungary, which is often considered a more problematic member of the alliance, has itself already addressed the issue.

Jaroslav Naď of CEPI has said that Slovakia is one of the very few countries at the eastern border of NATO that “has been downplaying and not taking into consideration the threat that Russia’s foreign policy represents as it is presented by [Vladimir] Putin”, SITA reported.

Sanctions talks

The opposition parties have been critical of Fico’s sanctions-related statements, with head of the parliamentary economic committee Ján Hudacký of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) calling them unfortunate, Sme reported. He invited Economy Minister Pavol Pavlis to explain how the sanctions influenced Slovakia. Pavlis said that the government must protect the interests of Slovak entrepreneurs and employers first and foremost.

Reaction to aggression is more important than economic interests, which are hard to define, said František Šebej, head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and a member of the Most-Híd party, as quoted by Sme, adding that “it is not certain at all that these will be harmed. Not the sanctions, but the prime minister’s attitude harms Slovakia”.

Though representatives of the government, employers and trade unions, as well as the cabinet itself, discussed the draft of the EU’s newest sanctions against Russia, no binding stance has been released as of September 3. The cabinet of Fico’s minister met again on September 4 at a special session.

Finance Minister Peter Kažimír called for the Slovak government and its social partners to make sanctions united and pragmatic while restating Fico’s claim that the sanctions have a negative impact on Europe’s economy.

“Direct impacts in the case of Slovakia are very serious, and are so far in the millions of euros; I am talking about the first round of sanctions,” Kažimír said on September 3, as quoted by SITA. He added that the indirect impacts are more significant.

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