Slovakia in a key moment after the shooting of Robert Fico

Slovakia in a key moment after the shooting of Robert Fico

Where a man tried to kill a prime minister there were bullet holes and small traces of blood.

A faint impression of a giant moment that has deeply shocked Slovakia. But the gunman’s target had seen this coming.

A month earlier, Robert Fico, Slovakia’s populist leader, was recorded predicting that political tensions would so escalate that “a prominent government politician” would eventually be assassinated.

Then, the prime minister himself was shot. Shot four times in the stomach and arm at close range as he shook hands with supporters in the small former mining town.

The assassination attempt stems from a toxic political climate, and threatens to deepen polarization in Slovakia even further.

Mr. Fico’s warning of an impending attack was not an idle comment.

He repeated that thought to the head of Slovakia’s public broadcaster at the same time.

“I told him ‘Prime Minister, things are not that bad’,” RTVS boss Lubos Machaj recalled of the conversation after an interview he conducted in April.

“He said he didn’t know, but he had warned his ministers to be careful.”

It was around the time of Slovakia’s presidential election, which an ally of Mr Fico won in the second round.

The prime minister’s own party, Smer, won the parliamentary vote the previous September.

For more than six months, all agree, the political climate has been extremely hostile despite divisions dating back to at least 2018, when a journalist investigating allegations of high-level corruption was killed.

Mr Fico was forced to step down then, amid massive protests.

His re-election last year was a major comeback achieved on a platform that included promises to end military aid to Kyiv and veto Ukraine’s Nato ambitions, as well as other talk more reminiscent of Moscow than Brussels.

“I can only hope that this tragedy will help change Slovakia for the better, if tensions are now escalating,” Mr Machaj told the BBC.

“But the first reaction of politicians does not suggest that.”

There is an urgent appeal for calm and unity.

They are led by President Zuzana Caputova who is going out “standing together” as she says, with the man who will soon replace her.

That same day, with the entire cabinet lined up behind him on stage, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok repeated the call, warning Slovakia was on the brink of civil war.

That’s extreme. But, many of the people interviewed here have described a society where family members no longer speak.

The two political “camps” are far apart, without dialogue.

Alongside his colleagues on stage, Defense Minister Robert Kalinak said Slovaks need to “learn to tolerate different opinions”.

However, the two ministers then immediately accused opposition politicians and the media of stirring up hostility. Several times, they ordered journalists to “look in the mirror” and check whether they were responsible for the attack.

There is still little verifiable information about the would-be killer.

Several videos and traces left online became a confusing profile: opposed to the war in Ukraine but apparently posted in support of right-wing, pro-Russian groups, and a writer of anti-migrant poetry and prose.

Government ministers called him a “lone wolf”, insisting his views aligned with the main opposition party, which was radicalized somewhere along the way.

“Hatred breeds hatred,” the interior minister warned.

Such talk sounds empty to some people.

“When we talk about a toxic environment, it is hard not to say who is the main party responsible for that: it is the Smer party,” said Pavol Babos, a sociologist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

“I would bet on attacks on members of the opposition, not the prime minister,” he said.

Mr Fico’s allies have publicly called President Caputova an “American whore”.

The prime minister referred to him as a US agent. The president was then sent a death threat echoing such language.

Shortly after the shooting in Handlova, a short video was leaked showing the gunman in custody.

It was not clear whether the 71-year-old was speaking freely, but he referred to the government’s sterilization of RTVS, suggesting that it may be a source of anger. One motive for the attack.

Mr Fico has begun the process of abolishing the public broadcaster, claiming it is “not objective”.

“The media is not there to make politicians look good,” said RTVS boss Mr Machaj, dismissing the criticism and describing his team’s role as “reflecting the reality” around.

But now some are blaming the broadcaster for the filming.

“We get threats every day and they are serious,” Mr Machaj said. He had been advised to get a bodyguard, he said.

“I lived through the communist censorship of the 1970s and the attacks on the press in the 1990s, but I consider this the most dangerous era,” he said.

At the scene, the police tape was gone. Local children cycle across the square. Music blasts from open windows and aerobics classes.

Several dozen miles away Mr. Fico is still in intensive care, his condition is reported to be stable although still serious.

And Slovakia is at an important moment.

Mr Babos added: “Now a lot depends on Robert Fico and what kind of attitude and approach he will choose, if he comes back.

“Whether he is more aggressive and angry. Or if he decides to calm down society and become a more positive person.

“I’d say it’s 60-40. I’m afraid he’ll be full of revenge.”

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