Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico is in a ‘stable but serious’ condition following an attempt on his life. The 59-year-old premier was shot multiple times on Wednesday afternoon as he greeted supporters in the former coal mining town of Handlova, before being airlifted to Banska Bystrica for emergency surgery. Fico’s politics have made him many an enemy among Europe’s liberal Atlanticists. Though he has taken some boomercon swipes at ‘gender ideology’, his foreign policy is the most contentious part of his programme. During his 2023 election campaign he pledged ‘not another bullet’ for the war in Ukraine – which he characterized as a ‘Russian-American conflict’ – and urged the EU to help negotiate a peace settlement rather than sending further military aid. Unlike uber-Zionist Viktor Orbán, with whom he is often compared, Fico has also criticized the hypocrisy of European leaders in refusing to acknowledge Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

While these positions are typically presented as evidence of Fico’s authoritarian populism, they reflect mainstream public sentiment in Slovakia. In 2022, just 47% of Slovaks supported sending EU aid to Ukraine; last March, 60% said they opposed the transfer of fighter jets. More than half the population believes that Ukraine or the West are to blame for the war. For the past two decades, Fico has dominated the country’s political landscape. His party, Smer-SSD (Direction–Slovak Social Democracy), governed from 2006 to 2020 – save for a short break between 2010 and 2012 – and returned to power after winning last year’s parliamentary elections, running on a pledge to protect welfare entitlements, end austerity and deescalate tensions with Russia. Blending popular social policies with cultural conservatism, it won 58 out of 72 electoral districts and continues to poll well ahead of its liberal rivals.

No wonder the media reaction to Fico’s attempted assassination has bordered on victim-blaming. A Sky News commentator suggested that Fico was a Russian stooge and that the attempted murder was the natural consequence. ‘He’s become very pro-Russian over the years; one wonders why and how . . . It’s not surprising that this sort of event might take place, because it’s a very unhappy country at the moment’. The question, he said, was whether Slovakia ‘will go towards a more authoritarian future, or a more conventional West European future’ – the shooting presumably having opened up this brighter possibility.   

The BBC meanwhile recalled Fico’s leading role in the ‘unruly and ugly’ demonstrations against the previous centre-right government, ‘rousing the angry crowds with megaphone in hand’. It claimed that he had ‘taken a sledgehammer to Slovakia’s institutions’, citing his closure of the Special Prosecutor’s Office and restructuring of the national broadcaster. Following a similar script, the Guardian likened Fico to Trump, and provided a rundown of his most ‘extreme positions’: ‘attacks on western allies, pledges to stop military support for Kyiv, criticism of sanctions on Russia and threats to veto any future NATO invitation for Ukraine.’ It noted that he had ‘worked hard to exploit the division between older, more conservative provincial voters and those in the capital, Bratislava, with its more progressive culture, and wealthier and often more educated population.’ This approach, we were told by outlets from the Telegraph to the Financial Times to Politico, had given rise to ‘polarization’ and ‘toxic politics’ which had culminated in the shooting.

This, of course, was idle speculation. The would-be assassin was identified as Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old poet from the town of Levice who reportedly worked in Handlova’s now shuttered coal mine. Why he pulled the trigger is unclear. It was revealed that he had once expressed admiration for a far-right Slovakian quasi-paramilitary unit with loose ties to similar outfits in Russia – prompting Yahoo News to report that Cintula ‘may belong to pro-Russian paramilitary group’. Yet his more recent Facebook posts were supportive of Ukraine and the liberal Progressive Slovakia party. In a video clip recorded after he was detained, Cintula can be heard denouncing Fico’s domestic record.

If the shooter’s precise motives are unknown, the attempts to define them have nonetheless been telling. Moscow alleged Ukrainian involvement; right-wing conspiracists pointed the finger at the vaccine lobby; establishment commentators swung between implying that Fico had it coming given his support for Russia, and that Russia itself must be responsible. While they lamented Slovakia’s polarized condition, they did not stop to consider their own role in creating it. For just as the populist right have exploited ethnic divisions across Europe, the liberal centre has resurrected Cold War narratives that separate East from West, bringing this rhetoric to fever pitch. Acceptable opinion is tightly circumscribed. Dissenters are tarred as foreign agents. Violence against them may be outwardly deplored. But is it tacitly accepted?

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘An Avoidable War?’, NLR 133/34.