Slovakia: A Slippery Path on Thin Ice

Part 1. On the Matter of Values

History often unfolds in such a way that countries, which were very close in the not-so-distant past, forming a single entity and thus being closely linked by a shared history, demonstrate directly opposing conceptual views on the fundamental challenges of the modern world. This is not solely about Russia, which attacked Ukraine. This “rift in approach” can be observed in Europe, exemplified by countries that are members of the EU and NATO, which once shared a common border. Now, the scenario looks quite different.

The Czech Republic

As it is known, on March 9, 2023, the Czech Republic was led by retired Army General President Petr Pavel. Due to his systematic education in intelligence, geopolitics, and military history, and understanding of the rapid transformation of the war masked by Russia as a “border conflict” into the first phase of another World War unleashed by it, the Czech national leader immediately took on the role of providing comprehensive assistance to the Ukrainian government in supplying the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) with ammunition, especially artillery shells.

Recently, the Czech government summarized the preliminary results of the ammunition coalition, which now includes 18 countries. According to President Pavel, funds have been fully collected to pay for 800,000 artillery shells. Ammunition is not purchased from a single warehouse but from different countries, in various regions of the world, in batches of varying sizes. As a result, the first batches have already been purchased, which are either on their way or have already arrived at the warehouses of the AFU.

Clearly, such information will not be disclosed in public statements until all the shells are delivered to the warehouse and artillery units. However, President Pavel of the Czech Republic admitted to the limited use of information, stating, “On the Czech side, all donor states will be provided with information about the schedule and how we will proceed further.”

Neither the President nor the Czech Defense Minister, Jana Černochová, commented on the sources or countries where the shells were purchased. However, according to President Pavel, Ukraine needs at least 200,000 shells to enable the AFU to conduct defensive operations, although experts who have served in missile troops and artillery unanimously say that a much larger quantity is required for offensive operations. Thus, the halted offensive has effectively saved ammunition, stretching it over several months of defense amid an acute shortage.

On the same Thursday, when the Czech Republic announced the progress of its donor program to supply the AFU with artillery shells, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico made a statement that was not just fundamentally opposite in essence. He went much further. Specifically, he stated that the Czech government had decided to jeopardize Slovak-Czech relations simply because it was interested in supporting the war in Ukraine. In contrast, the Slovak government openly talks about peace. However, as it has become usual, he again did not specify what he meant by “peace” in his vision. Robert Fico openly supports the Moscow view of “peace” at this stage of the war and thus almost always retransmits the Kremlin’s understanding of “peace.”

During a speech in the US Congress, President Joe Biden warned everyone that Putin and his Kremlin clique planned not only to capture the whole of Ukraine but also to advance deeper into the European territory, moving to open conflict with NATO countries after the possible fall of Ukraine. Such statements, especially from a politician like Biden, are not made lightly, and the U.S. President has every reason to express his vision of the situation in such a manner. Therefore, the latest speeches by Fico, like Viktor Orbán, Putin’s friend and the Prime Minister of Hungary, become a counterpoint to the policy of the rest of rational Europe, and de facto, the retransmission of the foreign policy of Moscow and Putin. In this specific case, Robert Fico’s strong reaction came in response to the decision of Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala to suspend consultations with the Government of the Slovak Republic. It is not entirely clear what these intergovernmental consultations entail, possibly considering the long-shared history of the two countries and their “amicable divorce,” formalized by mutual consent. Since then, the countries have closely interacted in all areas of activity, including economics and politics, and their actions have almost always been synchronous. The consultation mechanism exists precisely to promptly address emerging issues and develop a common stance on various foreign policy topics. However, since the war in Ukraine is existential, the attitude towards it has become decisive in changing the tone of relations.

It remains a mystery why Fico reacted so nervously to this issue. However, the big question arises: “Is the country led by Fico ready for this?” Significantly, on the eve of the next round of consultations, Czech Prime Minister Fiala publicly stated that if the Slovak side continues following the Russian stance, then the purpose of any consultations is lost, as this is not a simple disagreement, which has occurred permanently before, but a fundamentally different civilizational approach, which practically changes all relations. The Slovak government immediately reacted to this statement with the argument about its “sovereign” vision of the world order, asserting its sovereignty to their own, albeit Kremlin-aligned, viewpoint, and stated that it would adhere to its views on current events. In response, the Czech Republic notified the cancellation of the current round of consultations, and future ones were put on hold. Here, the stance of the Slovak citizens, who, as a result of the previous expression of will, gave a vote of confidence to Fico’s government to represent the position of ordinary citizens of the state, becomes fascinating. It was a disaster not only for Slovakia but also for Ukraine, for the consolidation of Europe, for the survival of the EU and NATO, but it was a victory for Putin and his aging Kremlin gang.

In essence, this is another loud “clip round the ear” for Fico. Previously he, like Orbán, had received backlash from distant partners in the EU and NATO, but this time it came from the closest partner and neighbor. Not surprisingly, this proved to be an excruciating blow for Fico, as it can be seen as an act of contempt, an assessment of his short prime ministership, and a signal for Slovak citizens to pay attention. In just a few months, Fico has brought down the country’s prestige and the titanic efforts of President Zuzana Čaputová and his predecessor, Ludovit Odor, and positioned himself as the lackey of Putin. That is why such a stormy reaction arose not only from Fico himself but also from his entire team.

Thus, the Slovak press, citing the prime minister’s words, writes that this step by the Czech government will not affect the “sovereign foreign policy” of Bratislava. The Slovak Minister of Environment, Tomáš Taraba, stated that the two countries were so interconnected that they did not need joint government meetings. Zuzana Čaputová, seeing the direction in which the prime minister’s course is taking the country, said that she would continue working on strengthening relations between the two countries.

The general tone of the Slovak government’s responses implies that it does not understand why the Czech government reacted this way. Viktor Orbán has been lining his pockets for years with money from Kremlin. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also loved these money streams, securing a cozy place for himself, albeit not in his homeland. Are they the only ones? This topic is worthy of consideration, especially for Slovak citizens, who have brought political forces into parliament that elected Robert Fico as the country’s prime minister.

Part 2. Strategic Corruption.

Corruption is the main instrument of influence of the Russian Federation on the West, and, besides hydrocarbons, the only successful “nomenclature” of exports. Thanks to the growth of this vile phenomenon in the West, even the term “strategic corruption” was invented.

Russia promoted strategic corruption in Ukraine, where, due to the weakness of internal institutions, Kremlin agents infiltrated the country. However, it works a little differently in the West. How does it work? Let’s look at “lame ducks” in politics. The scheme of pro-Kremlin lobbying, to which Fico and Orban are sticking, is applied, and then a period of “grateful, prosperous old age” comes. However, there are also “friendly” connections between politicians and officials, industrialists, and top managers.

The motivation of Western ex-officials to work in Russia is clear: they just want to obtain money and be present in the information space, but why do Russia need such people? Participating in the supervisory boards of state-owned companies in the Russian Federation and holding high positions of top managers of these state-owned companies are one of the many ways to corrupt the West.

The Russian Federation invites former politicians and top managers of giant Western companies. They are paid huge salaries, and it helps in whitening the reputation of a certain Russian company in the eyes of Europeans, which would otherwise be associated with a corrupt warehouse with mountains of banknotes and the plunder of natural resources, akin to the Latin American drug cartel “money”. Russians hire former European politicians because the rogue state wants to obtain access to connections with current politicians.

However, there is a second reason. Hiring former politicians is supposed to fulfill the duties of the Russian side for services already provided. After all, “a place in the “Putin’s club” must be earned while a certain politician is in power in his/her country. In fact, pro-Kremlin European politicians, under the guise of “Putin’s useful idiots,” invest in their prosperous life in old age, selling the interests of the people of their countries and their votes in elections to Kremlin politics.

One of the pioneers, who trampled this slippery path, was a Stasi officer, an old friend and colleague of Putin at the Dresden office of the KGB. Matthias Warnig is a member of the supervisory board of Bank Rossiya, former managing director at Nord Stream AG, executive director of Nord Stream 2. Moreover, he joined the supervisory board of VTB and was elected to the board of directors of Transneft and Rosneft in 2011. Warnig’s annual salary at Rosneft alone is 580 thousand US dollars, he also heads a similar body at the RUSAL aluminum company, being a holder of the Order of Honor “for special services in the development of bilateral relations with Russia”.

Moreover, another notorious person is Burkhard Bergman. He headed the largest energy company in Germany E.on-Ruhrgas and was an “independent” director at Gazprom in the mid-2000s, and he joined the board of directors of Novatek in 2008. In 2011, Bergman was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship.

Since 2011, the board of directors of Russian Railways has included Hartmut Mehdorn, the former head of the main German railway operator Deutsche Bahn and a close friend of Gerhard Schröder. Hartmut Mehdorn left the German company after a scandal due to systematic surveillance of trade union activists.

Ernst Welteke, the former chairman of the Bundesbank, also works in Russia. Since 2005, he has been a member of the directors of the Rostov Bank Center-Invest.

Another top manager, Ron Sommer, has headed the board of directors of the Russian mobile operator MTS since 2009. He led the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom from 1995 to 2002; he left the company during a serious drop in shares and growing debt of Deutsche Telekom. Moreover, Ron Sommer joined the board of directors of the Russian investment giant AFK Sistema.

Thomas Holtrop, the former president of the Internet provider T-Online and member of the board of directors of Deutsche Telekom, is also a part of the leadership of MTS. Since 2015, Sommer and Holtrop have been joined on the board of directors of MTS by another German citizen, former CEO of Axel Springer Russia Regina von Flemming, who was hired by MTS after the German publishing company Axel Springer had sold its Russian assets due to changes in Russian legislation regarding mass media. Kremlin propaganda can inflate their “economic geniuses” and justify the “urgent need” for subsequent employment in Russian state companies. But let’s return to politicians and their “golden parachute”.

The most precious trophy of Putin corruption is the former Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder. He tirelessly pushes the Kremlin’s line in every possible area, from business to politics. Young Gerhard began his political career at the age of 19. In 1998, Schröder headed the German government and served in office for seven years. The chancellor’s pro-Russian views “suddenly appeared” in 2004: the EU realized that the Russian Federation had no right to be called a democracy, due to its rule based on intimidation and the murder of journalists in Russia. Brussels called for a reconsideration of relations with the Kremlin, but German Chancellor Schröder came out strongly against it. Schröder gave up his post to Angela Merkel but Gazprom gave the former chancellor a position at Nord Stream AG with a very high salary. German politicians rushed to criticize Schröder, considering it strange that, as chancellor, he had lobbied for the project, in which he eventually took one of the leading positions. His annual salary was, according to various sources, up to 1.5 million euros per year. Despite the claims of environmentalists and protests in the Baltic countries, Poland, and even the Kremlin’s ally, Belarus, Nord Stream was launched due to the efforts of Schröder.

Schröder then continued defending Russia’s interests in the West. It is not surprising that, while remaining a friend of Putin and a top shareholder of the joint venture, Schröder was unhappy when sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 for the occupation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine. In a speech at Russia Day in Rostock, he criticized sanctions causing “huge damage to both sides”, spoke in favor of association with Russia, and expressed the opinion that the rapprochement between the EU and Ukraine could take place exclusively in parallel with the rapprochement of Brussels with the Russian Federation. He once suggested that Russia would not give Crimea to Ukraine under any president. Although he is now no longer able to hide that the occupation of Crimea is a clear violation of international law, he continues defending Putin and says that “we don’t know whether he is really responsible for everything associated with Russia.” Although after a full-scale invasion he tried to reduce reputational risks in his homeland in Germany to a minimum, he failed. Money has no smell for Gerhard.

Furthermore, among the top politicians recruited and corrupted by Putin while still serving for the benefit of the “Motherland” is François Fillon. At the age of 22, he became an assistant to a deputy and ended as prime minister under French President Nicolas Sarkozy. François Fillon was the head of the government when Putin ruled Russia under the guise of “premier.”, and they established a relationship. When the whole world condemned Russia for its aggression against Georgia, and the EU was reviewing relations with the Kremlin, Fillon flew to see Putin in Sochi. Fillon regarded the then period of relations between Brussels and Moscow as “disagreements” and stated the need for “a close dialogue between real partners.” Not only the French media call Fillon and Putin friends, but Fillon himself reciprocated, speaking at the propaganda Valdai Forum in 2013, calling Putin a “dear friend.” Expressing openly pro-Russian views, he criticized France’s role in Syria, reproached France for imitating the United States and wished to “gain independence and freedom again.” French politicians, among whom criticism of their government abroad is taboo, were outraged by the behavior of the former prime minister, who had called his actions a manifestation of the “Depardieu syndrome”, implying that he had sought refuge with Putin and tried to foment people to talk about himself.

Later, former head of government Fillon only strengthened his pro-Russian views. In 2016, he expressed a desire to run for president and even won the Republican primaries. Russian propagandists rejoiced, calling him “the most pro-Russian candidate.” That same year, he openly called for a renewed frank and strong relationship with Putin, compared the occupation of Crimea with the implementation of the “right of peoples to self-determination”. He has repeatedly called sanctions against the Russian Federation senseless, advocated their removal, and promised to assist in this in case of his victory. But he failed to become president.

Fillon found himself at the center of two corruption scandals. He took a ridiculous 50,000 US dollars for helping organize a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire and Putin, then he appointed his wife as his assistant while working in parliament, where she was receiving a salary, doing nothing. The French court fined Fillon and banned him from holding public office for 10 years. However, Putin came to the rescue, and former Prime Minister of France Francois Fillon joined the board of directors of the Russian company Zarubezhneft. He has no competencies in this area, except for one thing – close friendship with the President of the Russian Federation. The amount of his salary is unknown, but it goes without saying that he is used to a luxurious life.

Furthermore, another “Putin’s acquisition” was Christian Kern, an experienced Austrian manager and former chancellor, who managed to head the Austrian government for a year and then went to work in Russia. In 2010, he went to work for the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), and four years later he headed the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies. Kern gained high ratings in 2015: Europe was experiencing a migration crisis, and he took upon himself the organization of refugee transit.

As a result, he headed the government of Austria in the spring of 2016. He criticized the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States for aggression against Ukraine. Kurz and his party won the elections in 2017, and Kern went into the opposition. However, a year later he announced his retirement from politics. In the summer of 2019, he joined the board of directors of Russian Railways, where he continues working nowadays. The spy scandal did not become an obstacle to this.

One of the biggest European trophies is Wolfgang Schüssel. He spent his entire adult life in politics and became the Minister of Economy of Austria in 1989, and six years later he headed the party and took two positions at once, namely, vice-chancellor and head of the Foreign Ministry.

However, the real finest hour came a year later when Schüssel headed the government of Austria. There was also a scandal. 13 EU countries fundamentally reduced contacts with the Schüssel government to a minimum, which was even perceived as the introduction of informal sanctions against Austria. There were protests within the country, the situation was resolved, although there were no changes in the political situation in Austria. Schüssel remained chancellor until 2007.

Afterwards, Schüssel went into the private sector, and at the same time began to openly speak out with pro-Russian rhetoric. In 2014, he spoke out against anti-Russian sanctions in Valdai. According to him, restrictive measures “are always a sign of failure,” so the West needed to seek “better understanding.” As a result, Schüssel’s life path led him to work in Russia: from 2018 to 2019 he was a member of the board of directors of MTS, then he joined the board of directors of the oil company Lukoil, where he continues to work nowadays.

Karin Kneissl is a less influential politician compared to Fillon and Schröder, but no less famous. The whole world remembered the former head of the Austrian Foreign Ministry for dancing with Putin at his wedding in the summer of 2018, who came accompanied by a troupe of Cossack singers who performed for the guests. He brought the newlyweds a bouquet, a painting, an old oil press, and a samovar. Then Putin danced with Kneissl. Only one media outlet broadcast footage from the wedding, and it was Russia Today. This dance turned into a scandal for Kneissl. European politicians criticized her for undermining the EU’s overall position and extending a hand to the Russian regime. There were proposals to dismiss her.

Being the head of the Foreign Ministry, Kneissl called for dialogue with the Kremlin. In the spring of 2018, when the Russian Federation poisoned Skripal in Britain, Austria decided not to expel Russian diplomats, saying that it wanted to remain “a bridge between the East and the West” and not close “communication channels with Russia.” However, it was not possible to maintain complete neutrality. Kneissl left the government in 2019 and revealed herself to the fullest: she gave interviews and comments to Russia Today and became its columnist. Kneisl’s pro-Russian position “paid off” in March 2021, and the Russian authorities approved her to the board of directors of Rosneft. Now her salary is not disclosed, but members of the board of directors of Rosneft receive an amount of at least half a million euros annually.

There are also much less high-calibre politicians at work in Russian companies. Wolfang Klement was known especially in Germany, but he turned out to be useful to the Kremlin. He began his career in journalism and later became a politician. In 2002, Clement joined the Schröder government as Minister of Economics and Labor.

During his term in government service, Clement managed to get involved in scandals related to corruption and conflicts of interest. Nord Stream was also implemented with the support of Clement. When Schröder gave up the chair to Merkel, Clement left the public service. At first, he worked in some companies, and he headed the EU-Russia forum in Brussels in 2008. A year later, the former minister followed in Schröder’s footsteps and joined the Russian consulting company Energy Consulting as the deputy head of the board of directors. At Energy Consulting, Clement was engaged in “expanding cooperation with foreign partners,” namely, lobbying. He remained a board member until his death from lung cancer in 2020.

De Silguy Yves-Thibault is an experienced French politician and diplomat. He worked in the French Foreign Ministry, in the representative office of the European Commission and the embassy in Washington, and was an adviser to Prime Ministers Jacques Chirac and Édouard Balladur, as well as an adviser to the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Sometimes he even combined civil service and business. For example, being an adviser to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he received the position of member of the supervisory board of the Russian VTB. He remains so to this day.

In addition to working for Russian business, he also spoke out in the interests of the Russian government. In 2016, De Silguy Yves-Thibault spoke on behalf of “the business community of France with the aim of strengthening economic ties with Russia,” which was already under sanctions for violating international law and the annexation of Crimea. However, this circumstance did not bother him, and he hoped for a “process of gradual lifting of sanctions.”

Putin’s next big catch is Alain Juillet. He spent his entire life in intelligence and business and ended up in the service of Russian propaganda. Juillet worked for several years in a French secret military unit responsible for planning and conducting covert operations. Then he held various positions in international and French companies, being responsible for their development abroad. At the same time, he remained in the operational intelligence reserve. In 2002, Juillet was assigned to head the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE) to carry out a reorganization. He stayed as the head of the DGSE for a year, and then continued to serve as a senior employee.

Juillet has repeatedly expressed pro-Russian views. For example, Juillet expressed the opinion in 2018 that the Russian Federation did not pose a threat to the West, praised the Russian military-industrial complex, and also called the poisoning of Skripal a manipulation of the “Anglo-Saxons”, which “the French and Germans should not succumb to”, according to an interview with RT France.

He managed to sell his views. In February 2020, RT France announced the launch of a program on geopolitics, hosted by Juillet. His show, called The Source, airs twice a month: the former head of French intelligence discusses events from the world of diplomacy, conflict, terrorism, security, and intelligence. While promoting pro-Russian narratives about historical truth and the political crisis in the West, an alleged crisis in the Alliance due to the “inability to resolve internal conflicts,” as a result of which NATO “has become a political brake on European unity and the seed of impotence,” he argued about the “death of the political project” of the EU as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The services of these people from the “Putin’s Club” are very expensive for the Kremlin: for example, one foreign member of the board of directors of Rosneft receives from $500,000 to $600,000 a year. Moreover, the annual salary of former Chancellor Schröder as the manager of the Nord Stream 1, according to various sources, ranged from $300,000 to $1.8 million.

Many more important current and former European politicians, which we still do not know about, work very closely with the Kremlin, because Russian money helps some European parties and politicians gain electoral success. Money has no smell. These people will obviously later become “brilliant top managers” of Russian state-owned companies, having sold the votes of their citizens while working in their homeland. This is the path Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico took. Russian rhetoric, promotion of narratives, useless chatter from the podium, lies, and contemptuous looks from colleagues from the European Union towards the countries these politicians represent. All this due to the fact that Viktor Orbán and Robert Fico chose to obtain 30 pieces of silver from Putin.

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