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Vietnam-Slovakia ties to improve, thanks to new Slovak PM

David Hutt
April 5, 2024

Robert Fico is looking to reestablish ties with Vietnam seven years after relations became strained over the high-profile abduction of fugitive oil executive Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin.

Robert Fico in Vietnam
Fico is keen to reestablish ties with VietnamImage: Tran Van Minh/AP Photo/picture alliance

Robert Fico, who returned as Slovakia's prime minister last October, has vowed to reorient his country's foreign policy and improve ties with communist nations like Vietnam.

Relations between Vietnam and Slovakia have historically been close, dating back to the latter's communist era.

Ethnic Vietnamese are one of the largest minority groups in Slovakia today, and in June 2023, under a different government, Bratislava officially recognized the Vietnamese community as an ethnic minority group in the country. 

During his first stint as prime minister, Fico opened the Slovak embassy in Hanoi in 2008. But relations have been strained since 2017 when a former head of a state-run Vietnamese firm was kidnapped by Vietnamese secret service agents from the streets of Berlin.

Trịnh Xuan Thanh, who was wanted by the Vietnamese authorities for alleged misuse of state funds, was then driven to Bratislava and forcibly returned to Hanoi using a plane lent to a visiting Vietnamese delegation by the Slovak government. Fico was prime minister at the time.

Thanh was a fugitive seeking political asylum in Germany prior to his disappearance. After his return to Vietnam, he was sentenced to two life sentences due to corruption charges. The Vietnamese government claimed Thanh went back to Vietnam voluntarily.  

This incident led Germany to expel some Vietnamese diplomats while Bratislava — after Fico's government fell in 2018 — recalled its ambassador from Hanoi.

An article published in EurActiv in 2022 alleged that Robert Kalinak, who was interior minister at the time of the scandal and is now defense minister in Fico's third government, might have known about the abduction.

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Kalinak protests his innocence

In 2018, Kalinak even agreed to undergo a lie detection test to prove his innocence in relation to the allegations. Bratislava denied any knowledge that Thanh was aboard the flight.

Denisa Sakova, Kalinak's successor as interior minister, said in 2019 that the ministry had issued an invoice to the Vietnamese government for the flight costs, but Hanoi had never paid and Kalinak had canceled the payment, according to Slovakian media reports.

It has also been alleged that Kalinak's Interior Ministry lied to Poland when the ministry claimed, as the plane carrying the kidnapped Thanh entered Polish airspace, that Kalinak was also on board.

Fico resigned as prime minister in March 2018 after months of protests following the murder of the journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating alleged links between mafia groups and Slovak politicians, including some of Fico's own team.

Fico keen to visit Vietnam and China

Just days before being re-elected prime minister last year, his third term in office, Fico said his government would pursue a "sovereign Slovak foreign policy" and noted that Vietnam and China are the first countries he wished to visit.

Fico met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in January. Lubos Blaha, the deputy speaker of the Slovak National Council, the country's parliament, also met with Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Tuan in January.

Blaha, a self-styled "anti-globalist neo-Marxist," is widely regarded as Fico's ideological partner. In 2020, the Bratislava-based Central European Institute of Asian Studies dubbed Blaha as the "most notorious China proxy in Slovakia."

Since returning to the premiership last year, Fico has steered Slovakia's foreign policy away from the West, vowed not to help arm Ukraine, and called for a negotiated peace over Russia's invasion of its neighbor. His government also wants to align more closely with China. Fico maintains that he is pursuing a "balanced and sovereign" foreign policy.

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Vietnam is the "perfect place for Fico's conduct of a double-faced foreign policy," Martin Sebena, a lecturer at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong, told DW.

On the one hand, it is a communist country with an awful human rights record, yet, on the other, the West is fawning over Vietnam and is willing to turn a blind eye to the authoritarian repression, Sebena added.

"This allows Fico to (rightly) point out the West's hypocrisy, and present himself as someone looking for alternative ways of conducting foreign policy," he said. 

The manifesto of Smer-SD, Fico's party, specifically references Vietnam when it calls for improved relations with countries "with a form of government other than parliamentary democracy," Sebena argued.

Vietnam relations questioned

Some analysts doubt whether improving ties with Vietnam will bring any economic benefits to Slovakia, not least because bilateral trade and investment has traditionally been small. As such, Fico will likely only utilize Vietnam relations as a way of "messaging" his apparently independent and sovereign foreign policy, Sebena said.

A Slovak diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, told DW that Fico's ambitions to restore good relations with Vietnam are genuine but have been hampered by the prime minister's focus on domestic affairs.

Since returning as premier last year, Fico has sought to reshape domestic politics and quell the anti-corruption probes that targeted several of his associates. This has led to charges that he is emulating the governance style of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The European Union has been highly critical of Fico's agenda.

He has shut down a special prosecutor's office that was investigating serious corruption cases, including some involving Fico's colleagues and close business allies, and has threatened independent media.

The Slovak government has also been sidetracked by presidential elections. The first round took place last month, with Peter Pellegrini, Fico's former deputy, finishing a close second behind the centrist Ivan Korcok, who served as foreign minister between 2020 and 2022. A run-off ballot will now take place.

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The outcome of this election could influence relations with Vietnam, analysts said.

Because of the political fallout of the Thanh kidnapping, the Slovak embassy in Hanoi has not had an ambassador in place for several years, with the office headed by chargé d'affaires.

According to Robert Vancel, assistant professor at Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica, Bratislava is planning to resend an ambassador to Hanoi and rumors suggest it could be Quang Le Hong, a Slovak citizen of Vietnamese origin who previously served as Fico's adviser for foreign trade relations.

Hong is a controversial figure. According to Slovak media, he was present when former Interior Minister Kalinak met with the visiting Vietnamese delegation in 2017, just before the kidnapped Thanh was flown out of the country. Weeks later, Hong was apparently sent to become the new charge d'affaires at Slovakia's embassy in Hanoi.

However, Korcok, the presidential candidate, would probably not support Hong's nomination if he wins the ballot this weekend, Vancel said.

But Fico's government is likely to refocus on foreign policy, particularly with Vietnam and China, once the presidential election period is over, said the diplomatic source.

"Once there's a lull in domestic politics, Fico will want to become more active in foreign policy. Vietnam will be an important part of that," they said.

Edited by: John Silk