May 26th, 2024

Slovak politicians call for cooling political divisions after shooting of prime minister

By Bela Szandelszky, Petr David Josek And Philipp Jenne, The Associated Press on May 16, 2024.

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia (AP) – Slovak politicians have called for calm in the Central European country after Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times by a would-be assassin on Wednesday, a rare instance of political violence that prompted soul-searching among leaders in the deeply divided society.

Fico was in serious but stable condition Thursday, a hospital official said, after the populist leader was hit multiple times in an attempt on his life that shook the small country and reverberated across the continent weeks before European elections.

A suspect was in custody, and Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said Wednesday that an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the attack on Fico while he was attending a government meeting in a former coal mining town.

The minister did not specify what the motivation was. Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, and 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 abandon his country’s pro-Western course.

The attempt on Fico’s life came at a time of high division in Slovakia, as thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly rallied in the capital and around the country to protest his policies. It also comes just ahead of June elections for the European Parliament.

Slovakia’s outgoing and next presidents – political rivals – appeared together in an appeal for Slovaks to overcome their increasingly tense political differences for the good of the country.

Outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, an opponent of Fico, said Thursday that the heads of the country’s political parties would meet in an effort to bring calm, saying the attack was a reflection of an increasingly polarized society.

“Let us step out of the vicious circle of hatred and mutual accusations,” Caputova said at a news conference in the capital Bratislava. “What happened yesterday was an individual act. But the tense atmosphere of hatred was our collective work.”

President-Elect Peter Pellegrini called on political parties to suspend or scale back their campaigns for European elections, which will be held June 6-9, to prevent “stand-offs and mutual accusations between politicians.”

“If there is anything that the people of Slovakia urgently need today, it is at least basic agreement and unity among the Slovak political representation. And if not consensus, then please, at least civilized ways of discussing among each other,” Pelligrini said.

Fico’s government, elected last September, has caused controversy by halting arms deliveries to Ukraine, and has plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor and to take control of public media. His critics worry that he will lead Slovakia – a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO – down a more autocratic path.

Zuzana Eliasova, a resident of the capital Bratislava, said the attack on Fico was a “shock” to the nation and an attack on democracy at a time when political tensions were already running high.

“I believe that a lot of people or even the whole society will look into their conscience, because the polarization here has been huge among all different parts of society,” she said.

Doctors performed a five-hour operation on Fico, who was initially reported to be in life-threatening condition, according to director of the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banska Bystrica, Miriam Lapunikova. He is being treated in an intensive care unit.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of the capital, government officials said.

Slovakia’s Security Council was set to meet in the capital of Bratislava on Thursday to discuss the situation, a government office said, adding that a cabinet meeting would follow.

Fico returned to power in Slovakia last year, having previously served twice as prime minister. He and his Smer party have most often been described as left-populist, though he has also been compared to politicians on the right like the nationalist prime minister of neighboring Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

Fico’s comeback caused concern among his critics that he and his party – which had long been tainted by scandal – would lead Slovakia away from the Western mainstream. He promised a tough stance against migration and non-governmental organizations and campaigned against LGBTQ+ rights.

Despite the controversy surrounding Fico’s leadership, condemnation of the attack came from both his allies and adversaries. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message to President Caputova, expressing his support and wishing the prime minister a fast and full recovery.

“This atrocious crime cannot be justified,” Putin said in the message released by the Kremlin. “I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-willed person. I truly hope these personal qualities will help him overcome this harsh situation.”

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

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

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Josek and Jenne reported from Bratislava, Slovakia. Associated Press journalists Jan Gebert in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed.

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