The Guardian

Slovakian leader ‘fighting for his life’ after assassinat­ion attempt

Fears for democracy after veteran populist Fico gunned down

- Ashifa Kassam

Slovakia’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was being treated for lifethreat­ening injuries last night after an assassinat­ion attempt that sparked warnings across Europe of a rise in political violence. Video footage appeared to show the moment five shots were fired at Fico, 59, as he shook hands with supporters in the town of Handlová, about 90 miles north-east of the capital, Bratislava.

Slovakia’s defence minister, Robert Kaliňák, said Fico was in an “extraordin­arily serious” condition despite three and half hours of surgery. Medical workers in the city of Banská Bystrica were “fighting for the life” of Fico, who had suffered “serious polytrauma after several shots”.

Late last night the deputy prime minister, Tomáš Taraba, told the BBC he believed the operation had gone well. “I guess in the end he will survive,” Taraba said, adding: “He’s not in a life-threatenin­g situation at this moment.”

The country’s interior minister, Matúš Šutaj-Eštok, earlier told reporters: “We suspect the attacker had political motivation.”

A suspect was in custody, the country’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, said in a televised statement.

Local media identified the alleged gunman as Juraj C, a 71-year-old writer and poet from Levice, southcentr­al Slovakia, who had spoken of his desire to form a political movement on YouTube.

The son of the alleged shooter told news outlet Aktuality.sk that his father was the legal holder of a gun licence. “I have absolutely no idea what my father intended, what he planned, what happened,” he was quoted as saying.

A video posted online appeared to show the alleged shooter in detention saying that he did not agree with the government’s policies, particular­ly what he described as the “liquidatio­n” of the media.

Fico, a veteran politician, returned to power in Slovakia after elections last year, fuelled in part by promises to halt military aid to Ukraine, criticisms of sanctions targeting Russia and campaigns against LGBTQ+ rights.

The first months of his return have proved tense and polarising, with thousands repeatedly taking to streets across the country to protest against government plans, including a media overhaul

that critics have warned will imperil press freedom.

The shooting comes three weeks before EU elections, with polls suggesting populist and hard-right parties are poised to make gains.

European Commission sources said the attack risked stoking further political violence. In a statement, the liberal political group Renew Europe said it was “increasing­ly alarmed by the rising polarisati­on within our political sphere fuelled by extremist ideologies, both left and right wing”.

This “climate of heightened division is laying the groundwork for an environmen­t where acts of violence are more likely to occur, and also wrongly justified by those who seek to disrupt and dominate rather than engage and debate”, it added.

The warning was echoed in Germany, where three elected officials were recently assaulted in a week.

“News of the cowardly assassinat­ion attempt on Slovakian prime minister Fico shocks me deeply,” Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wrote on X. “Violence must have no place in European politics.”

Reaction from some within Fico’s party in Slovakia, however, hinted that the incident could exacerbate the country’s febrile political climate.

Luboš Blaha, a lawmaker with Fico’s party, took aim at critics, linking them to the attack. “You, the liberal media, and progressiv­e politician­s are to blame. Robert Fico is fighting for his life because of your hatred,” Blaha said.

Speaking to reporters, Slovakia’s interior minister, Šutaj-Eštok, called on politician­s and others to stop “spreading hate” on social media. “What has started now was sown by many of you, by your hate,” he said, while the minister of defence, Kaliňák, described the shooting as a clear “political assault”.

Others sought to strike a more moderate tone. Čaputová, the outgoing president and political rival of Fico’s, described the violence as “unacceptab­le”, adding: “The hateful rhetoric we’ve been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let’s stop it.”

Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia’s president-elect and an ally of Fico’s, described the incident as an “unpreceden­ted threat” to Slovak democracy.

“If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardisi­ng everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignt­y,” he said.

A veteran of Slovakian politics, Fico had embraced more extreme positions in recent years, from strident criticism of western allies to threats to veto any future Nato membership invitation for Ukraine.

As news of the shooting broke, Slovakia’s major opposition parties, Progressiv­e Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, said they had cancelled a protest over the government’s controvers­ial media reform plans.

The Progressiv­e Slovakia leader, Michal Šimečka, said on social media that he was “shocked and appalled” by the shooting.

“We unequivoca­lly and strongly condemn any violence,” he added on social media. “At the same time, we call on all politician­s to refrain from any expression­s and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension.”

Condemnati­ons of the attack poured in swiftly from across Europe and beyond.

Among the first to comment was Petr Fiala, the Czech prime minister, who described it as “shocking”

on social media. “We must not tolerate violence, it must have no place in society,” Fiala added.

The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said on social media that he was “shocked to hear this awful news”, while Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the attack on Fico as “appalling”.

The US president, Joe Biden, said he was alarmed. “We condemn this horrific act of violence,” he said.

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister and a close ally of Fico’s, said he was “deeply shocked by the heinous attack” and posted on X: “We pray for his health and quick recovery! God bless him and his country!”

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, described it as a “vile attack” on social media.

In recent years several incidents involving serious violence in Slovakia have made global headlines.

In 2022, two people were killed and another wounded in a shooting outside an LGBTQ+ venue in Bratislava.

In 2018, tens of thousands of Slovaks rallied to demand Fico’s resignatio­n after an investigat­ive journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, were shot dead in their home. At the time police said Kuciak’s death was “most likely” related to an investigat­ion of his into alleged ties between Slovakia’s top politician­s and the Italian mafia.

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S: RTVS/AFP/GETTY; REUTERS ?? ▼ Robert Fico is carried from the scene. Left, security officers react immediatel­y after the shooting
PHOTOGRAPH­S: RTVS/AFP/GETTY; REUTERS ▼ Robert Fico is carried from the scene. Left, security officers react immediatel­y after the shooting
 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: RADOVAN STOKLASA/REUTERS ?? A person is held after the shooting. The attacker was suspected of having ‘political motivation’, a minister said
PHOTOGRAPH: RADOVAN STOKLASA/REUTERS A person is held after the shooting. The attacker was suspected of having ‘political motivation’, a minister said
 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: RADOVAN STOKLASA/REUTERS ?? A man was taken into custody at the scene. The alleged gunman was later named as Juraj C, a poet, 71
PHOTOGRAPH: RADOVAN STOKLASA/REUTERS A man was taken into custody at the scene. The alleged gunman was later named as Juraj C, a poet, 71
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom