Marches calling for peace in Ukraine were held in Slovakia during February and early March 2023. Paradoxically, the peace marches served the Kremlin's intentions. For Slovak anti-system politicians, they represented another opportunity to foster sympathy for
Russia and score political points ahead of the upcoming early parliamentary elections in September.
Disinformation actors operating in Slovakia were involved in planning and carrying out a series of so-called "Slovak Marches for Peace.” These took place in 26 cities nationwide, starting on 6 February 2023. The aim of the marches was to 'fight for peace' and to express opposition to the supply of arms to Ukraine, which, according to the protagonists of the movement, is only prolonging the war. On the other side, the proponents of these ideas, influenced by pro-Russian propaganda, were pushing for peace negotiations under conditions that would be set by the Kremlin.
The statements about the alleged prolongation of the war are primarily a reaction to the official positions of the Slovak government. It has long supported Ukraine in defending itself against the Russian aggressor on its own territory. In June 2022, in response to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, the Russian Federation placed Slovakia on a list of states that carry out hostile actions against Russian diplomatic and consular missions abroad.
In addition to diplomatic support, a form of assistance to Ukraine is the reception of refugees or military support. These included, for example, the S-300 anti-missile system (it was handed over to Ukraine in April 2022), Mig-29 fighter jets, or part of the KUB air defense system (SA-6) along with spare parts and ammunition.
The recently completed handover of 13 Mig-29 fighter jets has been the target of disinformation narratives operating with fears of Slovakia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. Interim Prime Minister Eduard Heger has rejected such accusations, saying it was closely coordinated with Poland, Ukraine, and other allies.
At the same time, Heger dismissed fears of a possible threat to Slovakia's security by handing over the fighter jets that were obsolete for the Slovak army. In addition, Slovakia is to receive around 200 million euros in compensation from the European Peace Facility and military equipment worth around 700 million euros from the US.
Despite these facts, many disinformation actors reinforce the idea that the Slovak government supports the continuation of the war and rejects peaceful solutions. Therefore, both the organizers of the protests (firstly non-state organizations, later disinformation actors and politicians) and the assembled citizens emphasized peace messages. However, the real intention of the events was to spread pro-Kremlin narratives and sentiments and indirectly to support Russian aggression since a "peaceful solution" to the conflict in Ukraine would probably mean handing over the occupied territories to Russia.
Apart from the "innocent" peaceful character of the protests, slogans or banners supporting the Russian Federation or Putin also appeared. At the protest in Piešťany on 16 February, participants brought banners with the letter Z, a symbol of Putin's war in Ukraine. Moreover, the protests were misused by several politicians and parties. Alongside symbols of white peace doves and banners proclaiming the need to stop supplying arms to Ukraine, flags and other items bearing the logo of the far-right party Kotleba's People's Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) were displayed at the rally in Piešťany.
The main leader of the protest was Marcel Urban, a member of the ĽSNS and former leader of the Slovenská pospolitosť, an ultra-nationalist political party that was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2005 for violating the constitution. This is quite paradoxical, as the rallies were presented as civil and not supported by political entities during the preparation phase.
Many participants openly supported Russia
The Archa Association (Spolok Archa) is behind the organization of these marches. It is a remnant of the movement founded in 2021 by the editor-in-chief of the conspiracy website Zem a Vek, Tibor Rostas, and several other personalities of the disinformation scene. Rostas distanced himself from the movement after a while, but his presence at the founding of the Ark is an indication of its main focus. The well-known Slovak disinformation disseminator was convicted of defamation of race and nation in 2021 for a problematic article containing anti-Semitic claims.
As the political and pro-Kremlin undertones of the "peace marches" were exposed rather quickly, in several cities, these rallies were accompanied by unorganized counter-protests by Ukraine supporters. Some of these gatherings were peaceful, but in Lučenec, for example, a young student carrying a Ukrainian flag was confronted with the aggressive behavior of a gathered crowd of Russian supporters.
Protest actions culminated on March 3 in Bratislava, where about five thousand Slovaks came to express their support for the Russian war. Those taking part in front of the Presidential Palace in the capital carried portraits of Putin, Russian and Soviet flags, pictures with the letter Z, or even flags of the People's Party Our Slovakia. Among the slogans chanted were statements such as "Rossija, Rossija!", "Long live Putin, long live Putin!" and "America, home!" Demonstrators also sang Russian songs. This was just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
A man waves a Russian flag with the image of Vladimir Putin at a protest for peace in Bratislava. Source: DenníkN
The organisers and participants of the peace marches sought to create the impression that all those who want to continue military aid to Ukraine do not actually want peace. At the same time, they are trying to convince the public that the politicians holding such a view are not defending the interests of Slovaks, but those of foreign countries.
Paradoxically, it was at their peaceful protests that symbols of the Russian Federation (a foreign state) or even the Soviet Union appeared. On the other hand, support for an invaded Ukraine, a sovereign state defending itself against an aggressor operating under false pretences, is in line with international law and the interests of the Slovaks as well. Moreover, the Kremlin apologists who spread the narrative in Slovakia about Russia's alleged efforts for peace are directly copying the narratives of Kremlin war propaganda.
The marches were misused by the political "anti-system"
According to an analysis by the Slovak organisation MEMO98, between 4 and 25 February the peace marches were promoted mainly by pro-national actors in the information space, which are traditionally spreading pro-Russian sentiment.
These were, for example, the Facebook profiles of Pavol Slota • DOMOV - Národná strana (son of the former chairman of the nationalist Slovak National Party Ján Slota; his profile is followed by 22 thousand users), Katarína Boková (member of the far-right party Slovak Revival Movement; her profile is followed by 26 thousand users), Eduard Chmelár (chairman of the party Socialists.sk, profiled as a left-wing politician and peace activist, but traditionally shows pro-Kremlin orientation; his profile is followed by 74 thousand users), or InfoVojna (a disinformation website; its Facebook profile is followed by 50 thousand users).
A network map capturing the amount of interactions received on the posts of individual actors also showed a significant interconnectedness of some profiles - primarily the page of Eduard Chmelár with profiles of disinformation websites Slobodný vysielač and Infovojna.
After the final protest in the capital, the Slovak information space was flooded with posts by disinformation actors who spoke of the unity and togetherness of the participating Slovaks legitimately fighting for peace and against the "warmongers" in the government.
Eduard Chmelár compared the state to a fascist regime, as it supposedly scandalised or censored the efforts for peaceful solutions. According to Chmelár, the mainstream media wrongly portrayed the Bratislava protest as a pro-Russian action and allegedly downplayed its significance. According to Chmelár, there was nothing pro-Russian about chanting the slogan "We want peace!". He did not comment on the waving of Russian flags or the singing of Russian songs.
The narrative about the alleged downplaying of the extent of the protest was also spread by Marian Kotleba, the chairman of the ĽSNS party, who said: "The biggest mainstream media did not write a single letter about this big action. However, when 5 liberals or some creep in a skirt comes to protest somewhere, it is immediately all over the news."
The attack on the media also came from Pavel Slota, who criticised the presenter of the public broadcaster RTVS for describing the marches as a tool to destabilise the political situation and Slovakia's pro-Western orientation. According to Slota, such statements are "lies, hoaxes and disinformation". Last but not least, the same narrative appeared in the post of former prime minister and SMER-SD chairman Robert Fico, who even thanked "alternative media and social media contributors for opening people's eyes".
Members and sympathizers of the Slovak Revival Movement also participated in the Bratislava rally with slogans such as "We want a neutral Slovakia", "We demand withdrawal from NATO", and "No weapons to the Kiev regime". The same message was spread at the march in Nitra by Marian Kotleba's brother and member of the ĽSNS, Marek Kotleba, who claimed that "as long as we are part of these criminal organisations [he was referring to the EU and NATO], there will be no peace in Slovakia".
In addition to them, representatives of the far-right Republika party (defectors from the ĽSNS and Life – National Party) benefited from the toxic rhetoric. Party member Marek Géci spoke in connection with the Bratislava march about the awakening of the nation, which is fighting against "warmongers". His post was also shared by MEP and leader of the party Republic Milan Uhrík. He named the Interim Minister of Defence Naď and Interim PM Heger, who, according to him, are implementing a "warmongering war policy". The post received more than 10 thousand interactions.
Although the holding of the protests did not change the government's attitude towards aid to Ukraine, the slogans raised at the rallies may have partly influenced public opinion on the conflict. Emphasising their large scale (some claimed that at least 10,000, if not 15,000, people attended the rally in Bratislava) may have led to a distorted perception of resistance to helping Ukraine. Also, the rallies may serve the pro-Kremlin channels as evidence of the Slovak public's support for the Russian invasion.
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