Slovakia’s Politics Were Toxic Long Before Its Prime Minister Was Shot

To the government that charged him, he was a “lone wolf,” an off-kilter individual representing nobody but himself when he pumped at least four bullets into Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia.

The assassination attempt on Wednesday, however, has put a spotlight on a far wider collective malfunction in Slovakia. In this country in Central Europe, society and political culture are so bitterly divided that the violence attributed to a man who the authorities say acted alone has become yet another club with which each side can beat the other.

“There is a level of polarization that has never existed before in this country,” said Daniel Milo, a former government official responsible for tracking disinformation who now works for a technology company. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he added.

The Covid-19 pandemic, he said, hardened previously fluid lines into what have since become hostile camps, with little room for nuance. Roughly half the population welcomed vaccines and half rejected them. “It became: Are you for or against? Do you believe or not believe?” Mr. Milo said. And after Covid came the war in Ukraine, another source of division.

The suspect was promptly arrested on Wednesday and charged with attempted premeditated murder, but the authorities have not named him publicly. Slovak news outlets, citing police sources, identified him as a 71-year-old pensioner with a yen for poetry and protests.

Each side of the political divide quickly put him to use as a foil, with its claims tailored to match. For supporters of Mr. Fico who took to social media sites this week, the suspect was the carrier of a liberal virus that must be eliminated. The prime minister’s critics painted him as a right-wing extremist.

A particularly vituperative government supporter demanded in a message on Telegram that the government hand out guns “and we will deal with the liberals ourselves.”

The interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, warned, “We are on the doorstep of a civil war. The assassination attempt on the prime minister is a confirmation of that.”

“Many of you sowed hatred, and it turned into a storm,” the minister added.

Mr. Sutaj Estok oversees the security forces, including Mr. Fico’s security. He acknowledged claims that lax security had allowed the gunman to get so close and open fire, but appeared to reject the idea. He said he had seen no evidence of unprofessionalism, noting that the leader of the department responsible for protecting senior officials was so close to the action that “his whole suit was covered in blood.”

Andrea Dobiasova, a spokeswoman for the Inspection Service, which is part of the police force, said the office had opened an investigation into the response of security officers at the scene.

Senior officials in Mr. Fico’s governing Smer party have, in effect, accused liberal journalists and opposition politicians of motivating the shooter to open fire.

Lubos Blaha, the vice chairman of the party, said the opposition and “the liberal media” had “built a gallows” for the prime minister by “spreading so much hatred.” Rudolf Huliak, an ally of the government from the far-right Slovak National Party, said progressives and journalists “have Robert Fico’s blood on their hands.”

Such accusations fit into what Pavol Hardos, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava, the capital, described as a long campaign by Mr. Fico’s government to verbally attack not only political rivals but also their legitimacy. Before he was shot on Wednesday, Mr. Fico denounced an opposition leader as “worse than a rat.”

Mr. Fico is pushing a strongly contested overhaul of the judiciary to limit the scope of corruption investigations, to reshape the national broadcasting system to purge what the government calls liberal bias and to crack down on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the power of the European Union, and he favors friendly relations with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

In all these particulars, he mirrors the right-wing nationalist leader next door, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. Opponents accuse Mr. Fico’s government of preparing the ground for violence by raising tension, and some have compared him to Mr. Putin.

Jana Solivarska, a mother of three from Banska Stiavnica, a small town in central Slovakia, said that when she learned of the attack on Mr. Fico, her first reaction was, “I am surprised it did not happen sooner.” Slovakia is “a very polarized country,” she added. On the night of the attack, she said, her husband predicted that “this could result in civil war.”

On Thursday, Zuzana Caputova, the country’s departing president, stressed that the shooting was an “individual act” and said she would invite leaders from Slovakia’s main political parties to meet in order to “calm down the situation.”

“We have difference of opinions, but let’s not spread hatred,” she said in a statement alongside the president-elect, Peter Pellegrini.

Mr. Pellegrini echoed her appeal to tone down rhetoric while also calling on the country’s political parties to temporarily pause or “calm down” their campaigns for next month’s European Parliament elections. Campaigns, he told a news conference, naturally involve confrontations and “strong opinions.”

“We do not need more confrontation,” he said.

Dominika Hajdu, a researcher with Globsec, a research group in Bratislava, said a big reason for the heated atmosphere was that the country, which has about 5.5 million people, had been in “a constant political campaign” since the fall. A legislative election in September brought Mr. Fico to power; it was followed by two rounds of a presidential contest in March and April, and now a campaign for the European Parliament.

“Election campaigns by definition mean more heat and more political attacks,” she said.

But, she added, Slovakia’s deep divisions also flow in part from its history — centuries under Austrian and Hungarian rule, followed by seven decades as part of a Czech-dominated Czechoslovakia, most of that time under the Soviet thumb. It was a nominally separate state for six years as a puppet of Nazi Germany. Only in 1993, after the collapse of communism and the division of Czechoslovakia, did Slovakia become a fully independent country.

“The key national narrative is that we have always been oppressed by somebody — by the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Soviets or whomever,” Ms. Hadju said. “We always feel that there is a group endangering us, and this leads to a very divisive style of politics.”

Mr. Fico, a combative veteran politician widely loathed by Bratislava liberals but popular outside the capital, was shot multiple times on Wednesday, taking at least one bullet in his abdomen in what his government called a politically motivated assassination attempt.

The shooting occurred after meetings with local officials and supporters in Handlova, a town in central Slovakia that voted heavily for his party in September.

Officials said on Thursday that Mr. Fico’s condition had stabilized after emergency surgery overnight. But, the deputy prime minister said at a news conference, he was “not out of a life-threatening situation.” He said Mr. Fico had only a “limited” ability to communicate and faced a “difficult” recovery.

That winner of last month’s presidential election, Peter Pellegrini, is an ally of Mr. Fico who cast his opponent, Ivan Korcok, a former foreign minister, as a warmonger intent on sending Slovak troops into Ukraine. Mr. Korcok insisted he had no such plan — and would not have the power to send troops anywhere as president, a mainly ceremonial post. But he struggled to counter a flood of disinformation targeting him, pumped out by pro-Russia websites and social media accounts.

Slovakia’s divisions have been fed by its particularly noxious online ecosphere, where politicians like Mr. Blaha, an admirer of Che Guevara and Mr. Putin, have gained large followings with attacks on domestic critics and Western leaders.

Mr. Fico started his political career more than three decades ago in the Communist Party and later became a free-market champion, attracting billions of euros in investment from German carmakers before shifting toward right-wing nationalism.

In 2018, he cut short his second stint as prime minister, resigning in the face of enormous street protests after the murder in Bratislava of an investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, who was digging into government corruption, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova.

Many analysts at the time believed that the resignation spelled the end of his long career.

But, defying predictions, Mr. Fico returned to the premiership last year after his party narrowly won a hotly contested legislative election. He strengthened his position this year when a longtime ally won the presidency, freeing him of the constraints imposed by Ms. Caputova, an outspoken liberal.

Sara Cincurova contributed reporting from Bratislava, and Katarina Urban Richterova from Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia.

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