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The shooting of Robert Fico

Which way will Slovakia turn?

Photo: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty

Slovakia is in shock after the attempted assassination of prime minister Robert Fico, in the central Slovak town of Handlová. The assailant fired a total of five shots, four of which hit Fico. He is currently in a stable but still critical condition at a hospital in Banská Bystrica. His life is still in danger. 

It seems that the assailant’s motives were political – that much became clear in a leaked police video. The man arrested in connection with the shooting is a 71-year-old pensioner named Juraj Cintula, who comes from the south-western Slovak town of Levice. After the shots were fired, he was immediately arrested at the scene. In the leaked video, he appeared calm while expressing his discontent with governmental policies relating to the media and the public broadcaster RTVS, as well as criminal justice reforms. 

The interior minister Matúš Šutaj Eštok confirmed these details  on Thursday during a joint press conference following an emergency security council and government meeting. Eštok also stated that another of the motives behind the attack was to halt military aid to Ukraine.

There does not seem to be any radical extremist group involved in the incident. But it seems that Cintula, the alleged perpetrator, has previously participated in anti-government rallies against Fico. 

He has since been charged with attempted murder. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of 25 years to life. The authorities have stated that they will enhance security for institutions, including both coalition and opposition officials, as well as for journalists and other groups considered potential targets.

Following the assassination attempt, the debate over responsibility for Slovakia’s political division intensified. Fico himself had previously issued a warning in a video released a few weeks ago, expressing concern about the growing animosity towards the government. He stated that this frustration could potentially lead to the murder of a prominent government official, emphasising that this was not an exaggeration. Those words now seem unsettlingly prescient.

The political discourse in Slovakia has been profoundly affected by a series of traumas in recent years, leaving the nation deeply polarised and fractured. From the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing cost of living crisis, the anti-LGBT terror attack in downtown Bratislava to the war in Ukraine (Slovakia’s eastern neighbour), the country has faced significant challenges. 

Fico, a prominent politician for more than three decades, and many of his allies, have been accused of exploiting these difficulties in order to stoke a growing sense of political division. It’s not a new approach – Fico’s predecessor, the conservative-leaning prime minister Igor Matovič, also benefited from polarisation. 

When the shocking news was announced in the Slovak parliament on Wednesday afternoon, furious arguments immediately erupted between MPs.

The political fracturing of the country was made starkly evident on live television when Ľuboš Blaha, a controversial vice-chair of Fico’s Smer party, delivered an emotionally charged speech, immediately attributing blame for the shooting to the media, journalists, and political opposition. 

The nationalist leader Andrej Danko then called for increased restrictions on media, journalists, and political opponents. As the news broke, Danko declared that the shooting was “the start of a political war”. 

Then something changed. Perhaps realising the extreme danger of the moment, and the huge significance of what had occurred, on Thursday both politicians toned down their rhetoric and joined others in calling for calm. The visibly shaken leader of the opposition PS party, Michal Šimečka, issued a calming statement, urging all politicians to avoid escalating tensions, stating “this is a time for reconciliation, not for new attacks.”

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, representing the government Hlas party, and the current president Zuzana Čaputová, who is originally from the opposition Progressive Slovakia (PS) party, jointly addressed the nation in a televised statement. 

They not only condemned the attack and expressed hope for Fico’s speedy and full recovery, but also called for national unity and an end to the hateful rhetorical discourse that has arisen in Slovak politics.

In her statement, the outgoing president Zuzana Čaputová said: “We stand together to signal understanding during this tense moment. This attack is not only a human tragedy but also an assault on democracy.” 

She urged all politicians to temper their rhetoric and strive to do better in future, recognising that political hatred was a collective work. Pellegrini, for his part, emphasised that Slovak citizens hold the power to shape the country’s destiny, not armed assassins. “Each citizen has the option to bring calm, peace, and unity to our society,” he asserted. According to Pellegrini, a collective effort was needed to prevent such events from recurring and he called for all political parties to suspend or at least mute their campaigns ahead of the forthcoming European elections. 

Vice prime minister and minister of defence, Robert Kaliňák could potentially lead the government in Fico’s absence. “Perhaps, just as Mr. Fico’s serious injury may necessitate learning anew, our democracy will also need to learn how to walk again,” said Kaliňák. He declined to provide further details or confirm the specifics of the prime minister’s injuries.

Juraj Marušiak, a political scientist and historian, has suggested that while opposition leaders have responded adequately, certain coalition politicians must follow suit. Marušiak proposes that a joint statement from all party leaders would be a prudent step, but he also expresses concern that the situation could be exploited to introduce legislation restricting media freedom and civil society.

But not everyone wants calm to prevail. Some people have praised the attack on social media and the police have pledged a thorough investigation into any hateful speech. Officials have also requested that the media mute all public discussions related to the shooting.

And there lies the problem – as Marušiak points out, this atmosphere of political conflict did not arise suddenly; the division and the hatred have been brewing in Slovakia for years and bringing it to an end may prove challenging. The country’s situation, he says, represents “a failure of political elites on both sides”.

Might things improve? All parties have pledged to tone down their rhetoric and move towards some form of reconciliation. Slovakia now stands at a critical juncture, and the next few weeks will reveal the direction in which the political elites and society are heading. Most will hope for a path toward healing and stability. That is far from guaranteed.

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