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Slovakia’s prime minister expected to survive assassination attempt, deputy says

Robert Fico is pictured from the chest up.
Robert Fico in October 2023.
(Darko Bandic / Associated Press)
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Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday, but his deputy prime minister said he believed Fico would survive.

The prime minister had been greeting supporters at an event when the attempted assassination took place, shocking the small country and reverberating across Europe weeks before an election.

“I guess in the end he will survive,” Tomas Taraba, the deputy prime minister, told the BBC, adding: “He’s not in a life-threatening situation at this moment.”

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The 59-year-old premier was shot in the abdomen, Defense Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 85 miles northeast of the capital, Bratislava, government officials said. Fico had been attending a meeting of his government in the town of 16,000 that was once a center of coal mining.

A suspect was in custody, and an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the shooting, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said as he briefed reporters alongside the defense minister.

The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia say they are deeply divided over Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Feb. 27, 2024

“There’s no doubt about it,” Kalinak added.

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, but his return to power last year on a pro-Russian, anti-American message led to even greater worries among fellow European Union members that he would lead his country further from the Western mainstream.

Since Fico returned for a fourth term as prime minister, after leaving the position in 2018, his government halted arms deliveries to Ukraine. Critics worry that he will lead Slovakia — a NATO member with a population of 5.4 million — to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest Fico’s policies.

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A message posted to Fico’s Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Banská Bystrica, 17 miles from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to Bratislava.

The attack comes as political campaigning heats up three weeks ahead of Europe-wide elections to choose lawmakers for the European Parliament. Concern is mounting that populist and nationalists similar to Fico could make gains in the 27-member bloc.

“A physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy,” outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement. “Any violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we’ve been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let’s stop it.”

A populist former prime minister whose party is favored to win Slovakia’s parliamentary election wants to reverse the country’s support for Ukraine.

Sept. 18, 2023

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called the shooting “an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy. If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardizing everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty.”

The recent elections that brought Fico and allies to power have underlined deep social divisions, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, Slovakia’s neighbor to the east.

Gabor Czimer, a political journalist at Slovakian news outlet Ujszo.com, said the results showed that “Slovak society was strongly split into two camps” — one that was friendly toward Russia and another that pushed for stronger connections with the European Union and the West.

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“At the same time, I couldn’t imagine that it would lead to physical violence,” Czimer said.

Estok, the Slovak interior minister, told reporters outside the hospital that the country was “on the edge of a civil war” from the political tension.

“Such hateful comments are being made on social networks today, so please, let’s stop this immediately,” he said.

President Biden said he was alarmed. “We condemn this horrific act of violence,” he said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was “shocked and appalled” by the attempt on Fico’s life, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the violence against a neighboring country’s head of government.

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The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia say they are deeply divided over Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Feb. 27, 2024

“Every effort should be made to ensure that violence does not become the norm in any country, form or sphere,” he said.

Slovakia’s Parliament was adjourned until further notice. The major opposition parties, Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, canceled a planned protest against a government plan to overhaul public broadcasting that they say would give the government full control of public radio and television.

Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka called on all politicians “to refrain from any expressions and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension.”

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala wished the premier a swift recovery. “We cannot tolerate violence; there’s no place for it in society.”

The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia until 1992.

Szandelszky and Janicek write for the Associated Press. Janicek reported from Prague.

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