(Bloomberg) -- A former Slovak premier who rejects sanctions against Russia and weapons deliveries to Ukraine is back in the lead six months ahead of an election in the eastern European Union member state. 

Robert Fico, who served three terms as prime minister, edged ahead in a recent survey by pollster AKO. His Smer party has the backing of 17.6% of Slovaks, with the party of erstwhile political ally Peter Pellegrini, who succeeded him as premier, close behind, the poll showed. No party now in power had half that backing. 

Fico’s return threatens to throw EU unity further into turmoil with a public figure who has shown tendencies akin to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Since leaving office, Fico has abandoned a track record of keeping Slovakia within the EU mainstream, instead expressing openness to Russian President Vladimir Putin and castigating rivals who hew to Slovakia’s transatlantic orientation. 

Fico, 58, who climbed to power on post-communist Slovakia’s political left and governed in different stints between 2006 to 2018, defended his newfound urge to steer the nation of 5.5 million away from the EU establishment and post-communist alliance with the US. 

“People appreciate our sovereign foreign policy, that we dare to say different things from the mainstream,” he said in a televised debate last Friday.

The re-emergence of Fico, who was forced out of office in a moment of national outrage over the murder of a journalist investigating corruption, has much to do with the dysfunction of the current government under Prime Minister Eduard Heger. 

Fico’s Transformation 

Struggling with the pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis and a war in neighboring Ukraine, Heger’s cabinet fell in a vote of no confidence in December after months of bickering between parties that once promised reform. An early election is scheduled for Sept. 30. 

Fico, who had been cast into the political wilderness amid corruption allegations in 2018, has embraced the current revolt — especially among voters critical of the government’s pro-Ukrainian cast. A majority of Slovaks opposes weapons deliveries, while about a fifth side openly with the Kremlin. 

The transformation has taken Fico well down the path of combative nationalism. He’s compared German NATO troops in Slovakia with the Nazi-era Wehrmacht, pilloried a defense agreement with the US — and floated a potential alliance with the far-right. 

At a rally last year, he could be seen grinning as the crowd chanted an obscenity against Slovakia’s anti-corruption president, Zuzana Caputova. He’s called her an “American agent.”

In February, senior European diplomats raised concerns about Fico and his party. After a meeting with the Smer leader, the UK’s ambassador to Slovakia, Nigel Baker, took issue with officials who “repeatedly spread misinformation” about Russia’s invasion. The French embassy said envoys expressed “concerns over the foreign policy orientation” of Smer. 

“Such statements do not help trust in sincere bilateral relationships and break long-built partnerships,” Baker said in a statement on Facebook at the time. 

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