Advertisement

Thousands protest in Slovakia against government's policy toward Russia

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Thousands of people took to the streets of Slovakia's capital Bratislava on Tuesday to show support for Ukraine and protest against the Slovak government, which critics say has veered too close to Russia.

Prime Minister Robert Fico's government has raised alarm among critics since taking power last October with its strong criticism of Europe's military aid to Ukraine and its push to renew Russian ties both culturally and politically.

The latest instance came this month when Slovakia's Foreign Minister Juraj Blanar held talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov - a rare high-level encounter between a European Union member state and a country the EU has sought to isolate.

"People in Ukraine hear this every day," protest organiser Michal Hvorecky told the crowd as the demonstration began with the sound of air raid sirens.

"I am here because the actions of this government coalition cross all borders," Hvorecky said from a podium where a sign calling Russia a "terrorist state" hung alongside Slovak, Ukrainian, European Union and NATO flags.

Organisers estimated 5,000 people turned out, according to news website Dennik N.

Fico has faced regular opposition-led protests against his policies, mainly an overhaul of criminal codes that critics say weaken the fight against corruption, but this was the first directed at his foreign policy.

"I don't like the direction our prime minister is taking after the elections," said Roman, a 45-year-old IT professional who joined the protest on Tuesday. "I am disappointed. We are part of the West."

Fico has defended his government's "balanced and sovereign" foreign policy, and has said there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine, which continues more than two years after Russia's invasion.

He has rejected aiding Ukraine with weapons - except for commercial supplies - arguing it would only prolong the fighting. Ukraine's Western allies have dismissed that argument, saying halting aid would simply lead to Ukraine's defeat rather than negotiations.

Foreign minister Blanar has also defended his March 2 meeting with Lavrov - which he said came at the request of the Russian side - by saying a diplomatic solution was needed.

Fico has spoken against sanctions on Russia, but has so far stopped short of blocking EU measures or financial aid for Ukraine.

In January, Slovakia's Culture Minister Martina Simkovicova moved to re-open cultural ties with Russia.

The shift in foreign policy has upset some allies. Last week, the Czech government made a strong symbolic gesture by suspending in the near future joint meetings with Slovakia's cabinet, which have been a regular occurrence under past administrations.

(Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa in Bratislava and Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Susan Fenton)