PRAGUE -- In many ways, this weekend's parliamentary election results in Slovakia were the first true political embodiment of Ukraine fatigue.
At one point, it looked like an electoral surprise was on cards as the liberal, pro-EU Progressive Slovakia party was topping the exit polls with 24 percent, slightly ahead of former Prime Minister Robert Fico's left-wing populist Smer party. But as the real results trickled in, it became apparent that Fico would most likely return as the country's leader -- five years after stepping down amid the outrage that followed the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak.
BANNER - News Analysis Rotating 1
Smer got 23 percent of the vote, five percentage points more than Progressive Slovakia, and will now most likely form a coalition government with the small right-wing Slovak National Party and Voice (Hlas), which finished third at 15 percent -- a coalition that would form a slender majority in the parliament.
Voice, which emerged from Smer during the political upheaval of 2018, is the party to watch out for. Very much the kingmaker right now, its leader, Peter Pellegrini, famously dislikes his former protege Fico but the two parties are otherwise close politically. Pellegrini himself kept all options open on election night.
Could he potentially secure a top portfolio for himself in the next government? Or be offered to become speaker of the house or even secure the backing of Smer to run for president in those elections next year? Or will he defy all odds and try to form an anti-Fico government with a complete rag-tag of parties?
If, as expected, he jumps in bed with Smer, he would probably ask for it to mellow some of Fico's anti-Ukrainian rhetoric that was seen on the campaign trail: The Smer leader said no more weapons will go to Ukraine, questioned the logic of the EU's Russia sanctions, praised Moscow, and even parroted Kremlin narratives that NATO caused the war and that it began after 'Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started to murder Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk.'
Fico (center) addresses a press conference in Bratislava on October 1.
While some EU officials have been spooked by such rhetoric, they note that Fico in his previous stints as premier in 2006-2010 and again in 2012-2018 always managed to square the circle of being relatively pro-Western in Brussels -- for example, agreeing on the first EU sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea back in 2014 -- only to spread a different message back in Bratislava. There are also rumors that trusted Brussels figures such as the current EU envoy to the Western Balkans, Miroslav Lajcak, could become foreign minister.
There are also other levers that would make a possible Fico government pivot back to the West. It is worth looking at what the European political family Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will do with Smer. Smer is still a member of this group of center-left parties that is the second largest political group in the European Parliament and has considerable clout beyond Brussels.
There are voices inside the political family that suggest Smer should be expelled from S&D if it doesn't tone down its pro-Russian rhetoric, just like Viktor Orban's Fidesz was kicked out of the center-right European People's Party (EPP) a couple of years ago.
Then there are the economic incentives. The Slovak state budget deficit keeps growing, and inflation and energy prices are still high. To put it bluntly: Slovakia needs the EU more than the EU needs Slovakia. So don't expect the country to be rushing to leave the bloc, the eurozone or NATO anytime soon.
A woman draped in a Ukrainian flag lights a candle at a memorial for slain investigative journalists Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova in reaction to the the results of the election in Bratislava on October 1.
The economic issues bubbling underneath the surface also means that another Slovakia will emerge from these elections, one that is likely to align more with Hungary on social hot-button issues such as migration and LGBT rights.
One can also expect Fico to make a stab at weakening the judicial system in the country. Only a year ago, the country's special prosecutor looked into allegations that Fico used confidential tax and police records against political opponents, and he only narrowly escaped being stripped of his parliamentary immunity. This election victory will mean he will very much stay out of jail for a foreseeable future.
Economic anxieties, coupled with growing societal Ukraine fatigue, mean events in Slovakia will have an impact on the West's relations with Kyiv going forward. Fico utilized this on the campaign trail to great effect. Smer's high electoral numbers can be reflected by the fact that they managed to steal votes from two far-right outfits, Republic and We Are family, which were both more pro-Russian and, in the end, failed to clear the 5 percent electoral threshold despite predictions.
For NATO, this may mean little. Most weapons are transported to Ukraine bilaterally and via Poland, even if Slovakia could drag its feet on eventual membership for Kyiv. But for the EU there could be implications. Could Bratislava team up with Hungary in blocking more EU money both for Ukraine in general and for arms? The answers to those questions will likely come in December when the bloc hope to have agreements on both. And what about more EU sanctions on Russia? The bloc is already struggling to garner enough enthusiasm for a 12th round this autumn. Was this the death knell?
Election results in Slovakia came amid a deal over the weekend in the United States that averted a government shutdown for now but cut funding for Kyiv and a Polish election campaign in which the ruling Law and Justice party, until recently one of Ukraine' staunchest supporters, has toyed with various measures such as questioning more arms deliveries and blocking agriproducts from its neighbor in order to court right-wing voters. The West's promise of being by Ukraine's side 'for as long as it takes' suddenly feels more questionable.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036