Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico survived an assassination attempt on May 15 and is struggling to recover. Since he took office in October 2023, political tensions in Slovakia have increased, as his government implemented a series of controversial reforms that, according to the European Commission, threaten the rule of law in the country. Photo: European Council. Source: Flickr.

Analysis, FUF-correspondents

The assassination attempt on Robert Fico shakes up an already polarized Slovakia ahead of the EU elections

The assassination attempt against the pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico has already left a deep mark and has become political dynamite in polarized Slovakia. With the upcoming EU elections, it is eagerly awaited what the recovering leader's next step will be - continued radicalization, or increased humility and tolerance towards dissenters?

The pro-Putin and EU-critical prime minister was shot by a 71-year-old man while addressing voters in the northern Slovak town of Handlová on May 15. Robert Fico's condition is described as serious, but stable. 

Although the shooter's motive is still unclear, the attack has become a political explosive in the deeply divided Slovakia - something that rthe actions of Robert Fico's ministers and allies clearly show. Shortly after the shooting had occurred accused Slovakia's deputy prime minister the political opposition and journalists from the "liberal media" for having caused the deed. This is said to have been done by spreading "hate" and "false narratives" about the Prime Minister. The leader of it ultranationalist and pro-Russian Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS), who is Fico's coalition partner, even asked journalists and oppositionists: "Are you satisfied now?". 

The outgoing president Zuzana Čaputová have tried to calm down the violent mood. She has previously heavily criticized Robert Fico and elected because of death threats not to stand in this year's presidential elections, which were held in March and April. Together with the former prime minister and newly elected presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini, who is one of Fico's allies, she urged a joint press conference the day after the assassination attempt to a de-escalation of political tensions in the country, whereupon campaigning for the EU elections in June was effectively put on hold.  

The fact that outgoing President Zuzana Čaputová, who has previously criticized Robert Fico's controversial reforms and the government's rapprochement with Russia, called for calm alongside her rival Peter Pellegrini can be seen as a cautious step in the right direction in the deeply divided country. Here she is photographed together with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi in Kiev. Photo: President of Ukraine. Source: Flickr.
One of the EU's most polarized countries

Since da nationalist and pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico, who in previous terms has been in office for a total of 10 years, won the election in October 2023 has an anti-democratic development gained momentum in Slovakia. Among other things, the government has abolished the Special Prosecutor's Office, which was appointed 20 years ago to investigate financial crime and corruption. The authority had investigated several of Robert Fico's close associates and representative of his party Smer. 

The latest suggestion that abolish the country's public service company RTVS has also raised concerns and sparked major protests in Slovakia. EA large opposition-led demonstration against the proposal was even planned to take place on the same day as the assassination attempt on Robert Fico, but had to be cancelled. The government's plan is to replace RTVS with a new company whose management is to be appointed directly by the Ministry of Culture and the Parliament, which gives, among others, Smer and the Slovak nationalist party SNS great influence over the content. This proposal is contrary to the EU's rules regarding freedom of the press, says the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to Reuters.  

Journalists in Slovakia are now worried that independent media channels and profiles will be silenced, using the crime against Robert Fico as a pretext. Andrej Danko, party leader of the ultra-nationalist SNS and Fico's coalition partner, said threateningly after the attack that "there will be changes in the media". 

Since taking office, Robert Fico has also made his pro-Russian positions very clear. In addition to having finished the state military support to Ukraine the government has resumed its cultural collaborations with Russia and Belarus, which also raised great anger among protesters on home turf. No later than March 2024 Slovakia's foreign minister held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at a conference in Turkey, which departs sharply from the EU's common approach to Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

The election of Peter Pellegrini as Slovakia's next president cements the country's pro-Russia stance. Ahead of the presidential election, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin had been "unfairly demonized" and accused his pro-Ukrainian opponent Ivan Korčok of being a "warmonger" who would send Slovak soldiers to the Ukrainian front — something the president has no power to do. Photo: NATO. Source: Flickr.

Since Fico's ally Peter Pellegrini was elected to the ceremonial presidency in April 2024, political tensions in Slovakia have worsened. Both citizens and experts experienced the election as one of a kind fateful choice between east and west, which further contributed to the polarization.  

The result strengthened the controversial prime minister's already tight grip on the country in that Smer and its allies are now in the government, have power over parliament and will soon also hold the presidency. The election result also confirmed Slovakia's rapprochement with Russia and worried the EU Commission, which believes that the rule of law in the country is threatened of the government's controversial reforms. The EU elections in June, despite the subdued campaigns, represent the next challenge for the country's divided population. 

Robert Fico's next step decisive

In a country where perhaps the worst political violence in its 31-year history has just been seen, and where more and more people, especially young people, are emigrating in a significantly higher extent than before due to the harsh political climate, the future may seem uncertain and dark.  

That the dissenters Susan Čaputová and Peter Pellegrini, who represent each political camp, together could address the people the day after the killing of Robert Fico was seen by many Slovaks as a cautiously positive sign. 

Now Slovakia's immediate political future — especially regarding the EU elections — depends on Robert Fico's health, says Balázs Jarábik, member of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) and former Slovak diplomat, to The Guardian. If the prime minister does not recover, it will be difficult for the remaining government to continue on the radical path, as without Fico they can no longer count on the support of the ultra-nationalist SNS, says Jarábik. In the event of a full recovery, Balázs Jarábik believes that Robert Fico's choice between continued radicalization or a toning down of his aggressive rhetoric will be difficult to predict.  

— But based on historical experience, such a high-profile assassination attempt is unlikely to lead to the consolidation of society, concludes Balázs Jarábik.  

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