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Robert Fico shooting highlights Slovakia's deep polarization

May 17, 2024

The attempted assassination of Prime Minister Robert Fico didn't occur in a vacuum. Slovakia has a long history of political strife and violence.

Prime Minister Robert Fico is seen wearing a suit, holding a red binder
Observers say Prime Minister Robert Fico's right-wing nationalist rhetoric has contributed to Slovakia's polarizationImage: Radovan Stoklasa/TASR/AP Photo/picture alliance

Although Europe hasn't seen a major assassination attempt against a head of government in decades, the attack comes as the continent is experiencing growing violence against politicians.

Slovakia, which boasts a population of 5.4 million, is politically deeply divided and parties often use harsh rhetoric to berate each other.

Despite these divides, almost all of Fico's opponents expressed their horror and shock at the assassination attempt.

Slovakia's outgoing president, Zuzana Caputova, who received death threats during her time in office and decided not to run for a second term, said the the country's political elite and public should renounce hatred and violence.

Former Slovak PM Heger: Political violence on the rise

For now, it remains unclear what motivated the shooter Juraj C. (who DW is not naming in full in line with German laws) to carry out the attack.

According to Slovakian media, the 71-year-old had pursued an unsuccessful career as a writer and poet and reportedly belonged to a right-wing writers' association. He had also apparently shared anti-migrant and anti-Roma content on social media in the past.

At the same time, he reportedly opposed Slovakia's right-wing nationalist governing coalition headed by Fico

Slovakia's Meciar era

Slovakia has a long history of political and criminal violence. As such, the attack can be seen as a product of this deeply polarized culture.

The Eastern European nation gained independence in 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia.

At the time, under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia found itself at a crossroads, stuck between becoming an autocratic regime with close ties to organized crime or a state based on the rule of law. This era was marked by economic crimes, brutal mafia murders and attacks on opponents of the Meciar network.

The era reached a nadir when a 1995 power struggle between Meciar and then-President Michal Kovac led to the kidnapping of the president's son by Slovakia's secret service. Meciar is said to have masterminded the kidnapping, through no one was ever held responsible, as Meciar himself granted the perpetrators amnesty.

Security forces lean over a handcuffed man lying on the ground, facing away from the camera
Robert Fico's attacker was apprehended at the sceneImage: Radovan Stoklasa/AP Photo/picture alliance

Murder of Jan Kuciak

Slovakia's 2004 EU accession seemed to put an end to this era. It was also the time when Robert Fico's political career began. Back then, Fico was a lawyer who made a name for himself as a social democrat fighting corruption and unbridled neoliberalism.

Yet after becoming prime minister for the first time in 2006, he too was soon accused of graft and involvement in the Penta Gorilla affair, Slovakia's biggest post-communist corruption scandal involving shady businessmen influencing Slovakian politics.

In February 2018, when Fico was serving his second term as prime minister, journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were murdered. Kuciak had been researching links between Slovakian politicians and organized crime.

Although Fico's government had no direct involvement in the murders, Fico was forced to resign because Kuciak had uncovered links between his government and the Italian mafia, including through a Fico advisor and alleged lover. Businessman Marian Kocner, the man who reportedly ordered Kuciak's killing, maintained close ties to members of the Slovakian government and senior officials in the state apparatus.

A picture of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova is seen
Journalist Jan Kuciak (seen on the right) was murdered in 2018 along with his fiancee Martina KusnirovaImage: Svancara Petr/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

Slovakia's lack of reforms

After the Fico era ended, Zuzana Caputova — a lawyer and anti-corruption activist — was elected president in 2019. A liberal-conservative coalition came to power the following year.

Yet hopes among ordinary Slovakians that the coalition would deliver far-reaching and lasting reforms were dashed with the governing alliance collapsing in 2023 due to ongoing infighting.

Following snap elections in September that year, Fico returned to power. Since then, Fico and his government have mainly focused on influencing the judiciary according to their political agenda, stopping corruption trials and silencing independent media.

Fico transformed from a social democrat into a right-wing nationalist many years ago. Today, he likes to rail against the EU, liberalism, "LGBTQ ideology" and what he says are those who oppose "traditional" values. He is pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian, and calls his opponents traitors.

Fico also heaps scorn on critical journalists whom he lambasts as hyenas, idiots and "anti-Slovak prostitutes."

Speaking on Wednesday after the shooting, President Caputova warned that "this hateful rhetoric we are experiencing is leading to hateful acts — please, let's stop that!"

State kidnapping

It is, however, doubtful whether anyone is heeding her warning. Immediately following Wednesday's assassination attempt, government officials and members of Fico's SMER party accused the opposition and critical journalists of having masterminded the attack.

Robert Kalinak is seen smiling
Robert Kalinak reportedly helped get a kidnapped businessman to VietnamImage: picture alliance/dpa/CTK

Slovakian Defense Minister Robert Kalinak is among those who has been lashing out at independent journalists, and not without reason. Several years ago, independent Slovakian media uncovered his alleged involvement in a state kidnapping.

Serving as interior minister at the time, Kalinak is said to have helped get abducted Vietnamese businessman Trinh Xuan Thanh from Berlin to Vietnam via Bratislava. Kalinak reportedly made sure the man could be flown to Vietnam in July 2017 with a Slovakian government airplane thanks to forged documents.

Kalinak has long been a friend of Vietnam. On a visit to the Southeast Asian country in 2017, for example, Kalinak initiated cooperation between Slovakian and Vietnamese companies in the security and arms industry.

This article was originally written in German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter