Slovakia’s populist prime minister shot, stunning Europe ahead of elections

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PRAGUE — Slovakia was left reeling on Wednesday after its populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and critically wounded during a public event, just weeks before a crucial election. The attempted assassination sent shockwaves across Europe.
Slovakia's populist prime minister shot
Slovakia’s populist prime minister shot

Doctors continued to battle for Fico’s life hours after the attack, with Defense Minister Robert Kalina describing the situation as “extraordinarily serious” while briefing reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated for gunshot wounds.

The shooting occurred outside a cultural center in Handlova, a town 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of the capital, Bratislava, where Fico was attending a government meeting. Handlova, once a hub of coal mining, witnessed the alarming incident during the gathering of its 16,000 residents.

Authorities swiftly apprehended a suspect, with Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok indicating that initial investigations pointed towards a “clear political motivation” behind the assassination attempt. The incident has left Slovakia grappling with uncertainty and heightened political tension in the lead-up to the upcoming elections.

Fico’s pro-Russian, anti-American message

Robert Fico has been a polarizing figure in Slovakia and beyond, known for his controversial stances. His return to power last year, promoting a pro-Russian and anti-American agenda, heightened concerns among fellow European Union members about Slovakia’s trajectory away from the Western mainstream.

Under Fico’s government, arms deliveries to Ukraine were halted, raising fears that Slovakia, a NATO member with a population of 5.4 million, might shift away from its pro-Western orientation and align more closely with Hungary under Viktor Orban’s populist leadership.

Amidst these concerns, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Bratislava and other Slovakian cities, expressing dissent against Fico’s policies and the direction of his administration. The political landscape in Slovakia remains fraught with tension and division, reflecting broader debates about the country’s future within the European Union and the international community.

Attack comes ahead of European Parliament elections

A statement posted on Robert Fico’s Facebook account indicated that he was transported to a hospital in Banska Bystrica, located 29 kilometers (17 miles) from Handlova, due to the urgency of the situation, as it would have taken too long to reach the capital, Bratislava.

The timing of the attack is significant, occurring amidst heightened political campaigning leading up to the Europe-wide elections for the European Parliament, which are just three weeks away. There is growing concern that populist and nationalist movements, similar to Fico’s, could gain traction within the 27-member bloc.

Outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, condemned the attack as an assault on democracy in a televised statement. She emphasized that any form of violence is unacceptable and urged an end to the divisive rhetoric that has permeated society, warning that such rhetoric can escalate into harmful actions. Caputova’s remarks underscored the need for unity and civility in Slovakia during this tense period.

 

Responses of astonishment in Slovakia and globally

 

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, a close ally of Robert Fico, characterized the attempted assassination as an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy. He emphasized the importance of expressing political opinions through democratic means rather than resorting to violence, highlighting the risk posed to Slovakia’s achievements over 31 years of sovereignty.

The recent elections that brought Fico and his allies to power underscored deep societal divisions within Slovakia. Gabor Czimer, a political journalist but out that the election results revealed a clear division in Slovak society between those who support deeper relations with Russia and those who support tighter ties with the West and the European Union. Czimer expressed surprise that these divisions had escalated to physical violence.

U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the act of violence, describing it as horrific and expressing concern over the implications for Slovakian democracy.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both expressed shock and condemnation at the attempted assassination, denouncing it as a vile attack on democracy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also condemned the violence against a neighboring country’s leader, emphasizing the importance of preventing violence from becoming normalized in any form or context. The international community’s unified response underscores the gravity of the situation and the shared commitment to upholding democratic values and peaceful political discourse.

Political opponents set aside differences

Robert Fico, currently serving his fourth term, and his leftist Smer (Direction) party emerged victorious in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections on September 30. However, the political landscape was abruptly overshadowed by the shocking attempt on Fico’s life.

In response to the incident, Slovakia’s Parliament was adjourned indefinitely, signaling a pause in routine legislative activities as the nation grappled with the aftermath of the assassination attempt.

Amidst heightened tensions, major opposition parties such as Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity chose to cancel a scheduled protest against a contentious government proposal aimed at restructuring public broadcasting. This proposal has drawn criticism for potentially granting the government excessive control over public radio and television.

Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka urged all politicians to exercise restraint and refrain from actions or rhetoric that could exacerbate existing tensions, emphasizing the need for unity and calm during this critical period. The incident has prompted a collective call for responsible leadership and measured responses to prevent further escalation in Slovakia’s political environment.

 

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