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A gunman shot Slovakia’s prime minister. Here’s what you need to know.

The attempted assassination of Prime Minister Robert Fico happened in a deeply divided political context.

- May 15, 2024

On May 15, 2024, shortly before 3 p.m. local time, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot during a brief meeting with citizens in Handlová in central Slovakia. The shooting was the first attempted assassination in Slovakia’s 31-year history as an independent country.

Fico was in town for “a field session” of the government – when the council of ministers meets in regions outside of the capital, and regional concerns dominate the agenda, at least in part. Fico has been a pioneer of these sessions, which he believed helped ministers meet local officials and business people. Many observers see this approach as his way of bolstering his populist image.

As is customary, Fico walked out to shake hands with about five dozen citizens following the press conference at the end of the session. Someone in the group shot him from a short distance at least four times, after which security officials carried him to a car. By late evening, Fico was in serious condition following emergency surgery in a university hospital in Banská Bystrica.

We do not know much about the motivation of the alleged shooter, who was apprehended quickly. While his immediate comments at the police station hinted at his political opposition to some of Fico’s recent domestic policy moves, journalists quickly dug up earlier racist anti-Roma texts, and his earlier affinity with Slovak Levies, a paramilitary group with ties to Russia.

While this was a first completed attack on a sitting head of government in Slovakia, similar threats had been averted in the past. The shooter from the 2022 attack at the Bratislava gay bar Tepláreň originally intended to shoot Eduard Heger, the prime minister at the time. The shooter had waited in front of his private residence, but Heger did not come home that night. In April 2023, an inebriated woman entered the garden at the private residence of Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová, only to be intercepted by her security detail.

Here is what you need to know about Fico and the Slovakian political context. 

Who is Robert Fico?

Many Slovakians see Robert Fico as a political maverick who has reinvented his political persona over his years in and out of office. 

Slovakia’s prime minister started his current term in office – his fourth – following the September 2024 parliamentary elections. Fico was elected to parliament for the first time in 1992, on the ticket of the post-Communist Party of the Democratic Left. In 1999, he left this party after a perceived political slight to start his own party: SMER (The Direction – Social Democracy). In 2006, his party won the elections and Fico became prime minister. 

Although he lost power in the subsequent election in 2010, he returned after the snap elections of 2012 and remained in power until 2018. In 2018, he had to leave office after mass protests following the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová. The murder was reportedly connected to a number of business people close to Fico.

In 2018, Fico appeared defeated. He was replaced as prime minister, his approval ratings in tatters. He may have been under a personal investigation for corruption charges (he was formally charged in April 2022, but the charges were dismissed in November 2022). His own party did not even run him as a leading candidate in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Soon after the elections, a powerful group of popular SMER leaders split away, and founded their own party, Hlas (Voice). 

Yet, Fico reinvented himself. A former social democrat, he started riding the wave of covid denialism, leading protests against numerous pandemic protection measures. In December 2021, he was detained for organizing anti-government protests during lockdown. He also started organizing protests against the defense cooperation agreement with the United States, which the Slovak government signed in January 2022. 

And when Russia invaded Ukraine, Fico started rallying the voices opposed to the Slovak government’s strong support for Ukraine. Many in Slovakia hold strong pro-Russian views. Large portions of the population blame the West or Ukraine for the war, for example. In a 2022 poll, over half of Slovaks expressed that they hoped that Russia would win the war in Ukraine. 

In 2023, Fico won the new snap elections, and became the prime minister in a coalition government with Hlas and the far-right Slovak National Party.

What are the main issues in Slovak politics right now?

Many international observers are familiar with Fico’s turn towards a more pro-Russian foreign policy. Fico had always maintained a domestic profile critical of NATO and the E.U. However, he had also always pursued a carefully pragmatic foreign policy, which meant he could be seen as a reliable ally of the West. 

However, as he came back to office in 2023 on a wave of pro-Russian views, Fico’s foreign policy has taken a turn. In his statements on the war in Ukraine, Fico called for “peace” and blamed the war on Ukraine. He also famously leaked confidential debates with his European partners about hypothetical troop deployments to Ukraine.

Domestically, Fico’s fourth government appears eager to settle scores with everyone who seemed to have slighted them in the past. The office of the special prosecutor, which brought charges against numerous officials from Fico’s past government and business leaders close to Fico’s party, has been disbanded. The National Criminal Agency, tasked with investigating these charges, is about to be reorganized. The coalition pushed through an update to the country’s penal code, which decreased sentences for a number of violent crimes, but also for economic crimes (the update is currently on ice due to an appeal process at the constitutional court). Slovakia’s opposition, in response, organized a series of anti-government protests in late 2023.

The Fico government has also pursued other, more symbolic policies. The government established an official inquiry into Slovakia’s pandemic policies – appointing a well-known covid denier and anti vaxxer to lead the investigation. The culture ministry is preparing to reorganize Slovakia’s public television and radio, in an open attempt to dilute critical voices. In a now-famous video, the chief of staff to the culture minister stated that in the name of diversity of opinions, even flat-earthers should be given air time because without going into space, we cannot confirm that the Earth is not flat. The list could go on.

What happens now – in Slovakia and in Europe?

It is too soon to tell what the effects of the shooting will be. Slovak politicians – including those who have built their careers on trying to defeat Fico, such as former prime minister Igor Matovič – have expressed their wishes for his speedy recovery. Virtually every single serious news outlet expressed shock and horror. Slovakian President Čaputová – who decided not to run for reelection chiefly due to personal attacks on her and her family by Fico’s party leaders and their supporters – denounced the assassination attempt as “an attack on democracy” and called it unacceptable. Similarly, global leaders – including President Biden – have denounced the attack and wished Fico a speedy recovery.

In Europe, Fico’s shooting will reopen the discussion about the growing number of attacks on politicians. Just last week, Matthias Ecke, a candidate for the German Social Democrats in the upcoming European Parliament elections, was attacked while hanging flyers in his district. In 2019, Gdansk Mayor Paweł Adamowicz was murdered. Those are just some recent examples of the violence against political leaders in Europe. Many in Europe are increasingly concerned about the threats that active politicians face in their public life.

While all of Slovakia’s parties have called for reevaluation of the current tense situation, such calls can go in multiple directions. Slovakia was, even before the shooting, a deeply divided country, and there is almost a total breakdown of trust and cooperation between the pro-government and opposition forces. Government actions before the shooting indicated the will to centralize power. Some of the immediate reactions by the coalition’s leaders indicate the desire to use this opportunity to strengthen their rule. As Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kaliňák said in a press briefing, the attack is a “result of the inability of a group to accept the will of another portion of the population,” strongly hinting at the opposition’s protests. Tomáš Taraba, another deputy prime minister, attributed the shooting to the opposition attacks on the government. 

While it is too soon to know how the shooting will reverberate, in Slovakia, there is a lot at stake.

Michal Onderco is a professor of international relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He has published on Slovakia’s foreign and security policy.