(Prague) The Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided a new weapon in the arsenal of populists in Eastern Europe: fear of war.
More than a year later, no end to the conflict is in sight. And some politicians are not shy about taking advantage of the anxiety it provokes to suggest that support for Ukraine could drag their country into war.
From Prague to Sofia, bogus claims that governments will announce general mobilization or simply “send our sons to the meat grinder” have dominated political discourse.
“Fear is a primary emotion and the politics of fear is the oldest tactic there is,” said Jiri Priban, law professor at Cardiff University. “She’s part of every political campaign.”
An alarmism that is having success in Slovakia, a country bordering Ukraine, where more and more men are rejecting the idea of performing their military service.
This wave of panic among young Slovaks was encouraged by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who campaigned criticizing NATO, the United States and “Ukrainian fascists”.
For Mr. Fico, the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv does not concern the Slovaks, because it is a “war between the United States and Russia”.
Picking up on pro-Kremlin propaganda, he accused the incumbent Slovak government of being the lackey of the United States.
The scare tactic appears to be paying off: Mr. Fico’s party, Smer, is regularly coming in first or second in the polls ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
“Slovakia is extremely vulnerable to disinformation and the Russians have found extremely fertile ground here for their propaganda,” said Michal Vasecka, fellow at the Aspen Institute and sociologist at the International School of Liberal Arts in Bratislava.
“When you keep telling people that their government is an agent of the United States, they start thinking, ‘Why should our boys go out and defend American interests? “”.
War allegations also dominated the recent presidential election in neighboring Czech Republic.
Elected at the end of January, the new head of state, Petr Pavel, a former general, is still the target of a disinformation campaign that portrays him as a trigger-happy warmonger.
Pavel’s electoral rival, billionaire and former prime minister Andrej Babis, assured on his campaign posters that his opponent does not believe in peace, claiming: “I will not drag the Czech Republic into war”.
“There is a growing effort to scare people into believing that they will be forced to fight a war they cannot win,” according to Czech Elves, a voluntary organization that tracks and analyzes misinformation, in its latest monthly report.
“Russia is portrayed as an unbeatable nuclear superpower waging a successful military campaign in Ukraine,” it says in its latest report.
In Bulgaria, the pro-Russian ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane (Renaissance) party staged anti-government protests and warned voters against becoming “cannon fodder”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who criticizes European arms deliveries to Ukraine, has always been careful not to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Paradoxically, the political use of the fear of war has had very little success with voters in Poland and the Baltic republics, where the danger of Russian military aggression seems more real.
The common negative historical experience with Russia has immunized their populations against pro-Russian propaganda, Jiri Priban believes.
“There is a real existential fear in the Baltic countries, but this reinforces their support for Ukraine”, judges the professor.