By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) -Slovakia’s pro-Russian and anti-liberal election winner Robert Fico was poised on Sunday to begin coalition talks to form a government likely to join Hungary in opposing the European Union’s military aid for Ukraine.
The 59-year-old former prime minister’s SMER-SSD party scored nearly 23% of Saturday’s parliamentary poll, earning the president’s nod to start talks to replace a technocrat government that has been backing Kyiv against Russia’s invasion.
“We are not changing that we are prepared to help Ukraine in a humanitarian way,” said Fico, whom analysts consider to be inspired by Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban who has frequently clashed with the EU.
“We are prepared to help with the reconstruction of the state but you know our opinion on arming Ukraine,” he added at a news conference.
Fico’s campaign call of “Not a single round” for neighbouring Ukraine resonated in the nation of 5.5 million.
Slovakia is a member of the NATO military alliance, which is backing Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin, but many of its people are sympathetic to Moscow’s line that the West wants to annihilate it.
Fico said Slovakia has bigger problems than the Ukraine issue, including energy prices and living costs, but his party would do everything possible to start peace talks.
Sloviakia’s liberal Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, PS) party came second in Saturday’s vote with almost 18% of votes and wants to stay the course on backing Ukraine.
So Fico may well look to the moderate leftist HLAS (Voice) party, which came third with nearly 15% of votes, as a partner along with the nationalist, pro-Russian Slovak National Party.
He said coalition talks could take two weeks.
HLAS leader Peter Pellegrini has said ammunition supplies to Ukraine are good for Slovakia’s defence industry and the party has backed the EU stance against the invasion.
Fico’s record of pragmatism may mean he tones down his rhetoric going forward, analysts and diplomats say, especially in a coalition with HLAS.
Slovakia has already donated to Ukraine most of what it could from state reserves – including fighter jets – and Fico has not clarified whether his party would seek to end commercial supplies from the defence industry.
A Fico-led government would signal a further shift in central Europe against political liberalism, which would be reinforced if the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) wins an election in Poland later this month.
Hungary’s Orban congratulated Fico on Sunday with a post on X social media platform saying: “Guess who’s back!”
“Always good to work together with a patriot,” he added.
Fico, who campaigned strongly against illegal migration in the run-up to Saturday’s election and criticised a caretaker government for not doing more, said re-starting border controls with Hungary would represent a top priority.
“One of the first decisions of the government must be an order renewing border controls with Hungary,” Fico told a news conference. “It will not be a pretty picture,” he said, adding force would be needed on the 655 km (400 miles) border.
The migrants, predominantly young men from the Middle East and Afghanistan, mostly come via the so-called Balkan route, entering Hungary from Serbia despite a steel fence that Orban had built after the 2015 refugee crisis that rocked Europe.
Slovakia’s PS party, which is liberal on green policies, LGBT rights, deeper European integration and human rights, also plans to court HLAS.
“We believe that this is very bad news for Slovakia,” PS leader Michal Simecka told a news conference of SMER-SSD’s victory. “And it would be even worse news if Robert Fico succeeds in forming a government.”
Born to a working-class family, Fico graduated with a law degree in 1986 and joined the then ruling Communist party.
After the 1989 fall of Communist rule, he worked as a government lawyer, won a seat in parliament under the renamed Communist party, and represented Slovakia at the European Court for Human Rights.
Fico has run SMER-SDD since 1999.
** Click here for an interactive graphic on election results:
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet; Writing by Jason Hovet and Michael Kahn; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Andrew Cawthorne)