Assassination attempt opens Slovakia’s wounds, some linked to PM Fico

Slovakia’s interior minister says the country is ‘on the edge of a civil war’ as political polarisation reaches dangerous heights.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico looks on the day the results of the country's presidential election are announced, in Bratislava, Slovakia, April 7, 2024. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa
Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico is pictured as the country's presidential election results are announced, in Bratislava, Slovakia on April 7, 2024 [Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters]

As Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico fought for his life in a serious condition on Thursday, a political battle broke out over what had motivated a 71-year-old former security guard to shoot him.

Tomas Taraba, Fico’s deputy and Slovakia’s environment minister, initially accused the centre-left political opposition, saying it had “blood on its hands”.

Meanwhile, parliamentarians from Fico’s right-wing coalition held a news conference.

“They were saying, ‘Now we’re going to go after the media, and we are going to pass legislation. We will not be shy about this,” one person with knowledge of the event told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “It sounded quite threatening.”

The assassination attempt has highlighted deep divisions in Slovak society, and Fico has played his part in bringing them about.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is transferred at the F.D. Roosevelt University Hospital after he was wounded in a shooting incident in Handlova, in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, May 15, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is transferred at the FD Roosevelt University Hospital after he was wounded in a shooting incident in Handlova, in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, May 15, 2024 [Reuters]

“He [Fico] is constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be said aloud,” said Michal Hvorecky, a journalist with the independent Dennik-N newspaper.

“Last week he called the whole cultural scene, which is very critical – independent culture and national broadcasting – he called us spiritually homeless people … and even harsher [terms], calling journalists prostitutes,” Hvorecky told Al Jazeera.

“And I found myself asking, ‘How far can he go with this radicalisation?’ Because this can turn back on you.”

Fico was shot in Handlova, a small mining town in central Slovakia, among the miners and farmers from whom he draws much of his support.

The suspect is reportedly an elderly amateur poet and government critic. He fired five shots at close range, hitting the premier in the arm and stomach.

As Fico’s condition remained critical, Interior Minister Matus Estok said Slovakia was “on the edge of a civil war” because of heightened political rhetoric on social media.

Initial investigations show a “clear political motivation” behind the shooting, according to Estok.

Meanwhile, Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova said in a statement: “Hateful rhetoric, which we see in society, leads to hateful actions. Please stop it.”

“His security people underestimated the situation, because he is not only popular. He is the second most unpopular politician as well,” said Hvorecky. “His voters love him, they trust him … but the other half really hates him.”

Fico’s politics

Fico, who is expected to survive, dominates Slovak politics.

He has been prime minister for 10 of the past 24 years.

But in 2018, he was forced to resign in disgrace after the assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova led to countrywide protests against his governing Smer party and its perceived ties to corrupt oligarchs.

But Timothy Less, who runs the Cambridge University Centre for Geopolitics risk analysis study group, believes Slovakia is no more divided between liberal globalists and nationalist conservatives than any other member of the European Union.

“The one important difference in Slovakia is that, with Mr Fico’s return to power last October and the presidential election last month which his ally Peter Pellegrini won, nationalists are governing and liberals have been relegated to the opposition, in contrast to most of Western Europe where liberal governments hang on and conservatives are in opposition,” he told Al Jazeera.

Elections in 2020 brought a weak centre-left coalition to power, which did not serve a full term.

Last autumn, Fico returned to power with what some Slovaks termed a “coalition of revenge”.

He dismantled the special prosecutor’s office set up to try about a thousand high-level corruption cases after 2018, and fired the judges who presided on it.

Then, he took aim at the media which are critical of him.

Fico threatened to cut state advertising to independent television networks and threatened their parent companies with ineligibility for state contracts – tactics that have gutted independent media in neighbouring Hungary.

He also boycotted critical media, forbidding coalition members from going to their talk shows. Some journalists say he has banned them from government buildings.

‘EU-sceptic parties are generally big and powerful’

On the day he was shot, parliament was scheduled to vote on a law restructuring state broadcaster RTS to give the government more direct control over it.

Fico’c comeback came as no surprise to Katalin Miklossy, University of Helsinki lecturer in Eastern European studies.

“The problem in Slovakia, like other Eastern European countries, is the EU-sceptic parties are generally big and powerful, and around them are small left-wing and liberal parties,” Miklossy told Al Jazeera.

“In Slovakia the [left] coalition was weak … And the conservative party got even bigger and came back with stronger positions.”

Fico shares a worldview with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and eurosceptic nationalists lurking in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Slovakia’s power to disrupt the EU was limited, Dimitar Bechev, lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA) and senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Slovakia is much smaller than Poland and even Hungary, and is part of the Eurozone – hence, much more tightly integrated into the EU core, [with] less room for manoeuvre in other words.”

But within Slovakia, Fico had found pathways to power.

“Fico has a constituency which keeps supporting him… populists on the left and the right have found common ground with the ultra-right SNS – against migration and the EU, scepticism on Ukraine etc That is key to Fico’s success,” Bechev said.

Haughty Brussels

One reason for this euroscepticism was that the region’s integration into the EU after 2004 has not gone smoothly, Miklossy said.

“If you look at all these countries that turned against the EU and started to advocate nationalism – it all happened during EU membership,” she said.

“Something went wrong within the EU, because they started to detach themselves from the values and what they called the bullying of the community, because they were looked down on and not trusted.”

Even longer-standing EU members such as Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus were derided as an undeserving European periphery after the 2009 global financial crisis bankrupted them, leading to similar resentment against Brussels and the European north.

But in Slovakia the resentment and insecurity run deeper, said Miklossy, because Slovakia only became independent of the Czech Republic in 1993 – 11 years before entering the EU.

“A mere 11 years to create a new identity,” Miklossy said. “Those countries that did not have a historical independence in the past [they] had to look back on, [were more] sensitive about their independence.”

Fico skilfully played on Slovak nationalism in his 2023 comeback, campaigning against more military aid to Ukraine. That checked two boxes. It purported to protect Slovak farmers and miners from cheap Ukrainian imports and thumbed Slovakia’s nose at Brussels.

Openly defying what Fico describes as Western liberal elites carries political weight with constituencies Hvorecky called “the losers of transformation”.

“Most Slovaks live in villages … and truly struggle with poverty,” Hvorecky said.

“They truly feel being outsiders of Europe … people commute abroad, work in the healthcare system in Austria, in Germany, in rather low-paid jobs, and many Slovak people work in manufacturing still, and it’s not easy for them to survive.”

Russian “propagandists” have seen an opportunity to undermine European cohesion, say some observers.

“The country has been extremely polarised … the presidential election [in March] showed a very deep divide between the two sides of society which are unable to talk to each other, including even family members,” Michaela Terenzani, a news editor at SME, the largest mainstream daily newspaper in Slovakia, told Al Jazeera. “The atmosphere is very, very tense.”

She said SME was consciously fighting the polarisation in its coverage.

“We’re trying to find stories that reach across the divide because we think that’s the only way right now. We don’t want to respond aggressively to the government’s criticism of us because that will fuel a vicious cycle,” she said.

But much damage has been done by Smer and other coalition members smearing critical media, she said.

“I don’t feel unsafe walking the streets, but I don’t feel comfortable telling people I’m a journalist any more.”

Source: Al Jazeera