Slovakia's politics were toxic well before its prime minister was killed

For the government that accused him, he was a “lone wolf,” an out-of-control individual who represented nothing but himself when he fired at least four bullets into Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Wednesday's attack, however, highlighted a much larger collective malfunction in Slovakia. In this central European country, society and political culture are so bitterly divided that the violence attributed to a man who 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 monitoring disinformation who now works for a technology company. “I've never seen anything like it,” he added.

The Covid-19 pandemic, he said, has hardened previously fluid lines in what have since become hostile fields, with little room for nuance. About half the population welcomed the vaccines and the other half rejected them. “It became: are you for or against? Do you believe or don't you believe? Mr. Milo said. And after Covid came the war in Ukraine, another reason for division.

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

Each side of the political divide quickly used him as an obstacle, with their demands tailored to match. For Fico supporters who took to social media this week, the suspect was carrying a liberal virus that must be eliminated. The prime minister's critics have portrayed him as a right-wing extremist.

One particularly vituperative government supporter demanded in a Telegram message that the government distribute weapons “and we will deal with the liberals ourselves.”

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok warned: “We are on the threshold of a civil war. The attack on the prime minister is confirmation of this.”

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

Mr. Sutaj Estok supervises the security forces, including Mr. Fico's security. He acknowledged claims that poor security had allowed the gunman to get so close and open fire, but he appeared to dismiss the idea. He said he had seen no evidence of a lack of professionalism, pointing out that the head of the department responsible for protecting senior officials was so close to the action that “his whole body was covered in blood”.

Andrea Dobiasova, 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 from Fico's ruling Smer party have, in fact, accused liberal journalists and opposition politicians of motivating the assassin to open fire.

Lubos Blaha, the party's vice-president, 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 far-right Slovak National Party government, said progressives and journalists “have Robert Fico's blood on their hands.”

Such accusations are part of what Pavol Hardos, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava, the capital, described as a long campaign by Fico's government to verbally attack not only political rivals but also their legitimacy. On Wednesday, before he was shot, Fico had denounced an opposition leader, calling him “worse than a rat”.

Fico is pushing for a hotly contested overhaul of the justice system to limit the scope of corruption investigations, to reshape the national broadcasting system to eliminate what the government calls liberal biases and to crack down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, LGBTQ rights and the power of the European Union, and favors friendly relations with Vladimir V. Putin's Russia.

In all these details, he mirrors the right-wing nationalist leader next door, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Opponents accuse Fico's government of paving the way for violence by increasing tension, and some have compared him to Putin.

Jana Solivarska, a mother of three from Banska Stiavnica, a small town in central Slovakia, said that when she heard about the attack on Mr. Fico, her first reaction was: “I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner.” Slovakia is “a very polarized country,” she added. On the night of the attack, she said, her husband had predicted that “this could lead to a civil war.”

On Thursday, Zuzana Caputova, the country's outgoing president, stressed that the shooting was an “individual act” and said she would invite the leaders of Slovakia's main political parties to meet to “calm the situation.”

“We have differing opinions, but we do not spread hate,” he said in a statement alongside the president-elect, Peter Pellegrini.

Pellegrini echoed his call to tone down the rhetoric, also calling on the country's political parties to temporarily suspend or “calm” their campaigns for next month's European Parliament elections. Campaigns, he said in a press conference, naturally involve comparisons and “strong opinions”.

“We don't need any more fighting,” he said.

Dominika Hajdu, a researcher at Globsec, a Bratislava research group, said one of the main reasons for the warming atmosphere is that the country, which has about 5.5 million people, has been involved in “a constant political campaign.” since autumn. The September legislative elections brought Fico to power; it was followed by two rounds of presidential elections in March and April, and now by a campaign for the European Parliament.

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

But, he added, Slovakia's deep divisions also stem partly from its history: centuries under Austrian and Hungarian rule, followed by seven decades as part of a Czech-dominated Czechoslovakia, much of that time under Soviet control. 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, Slovakia became a fully independent country.

“The key national narrative is that we have always been oppressed by someone: by the Austrians, by the Hungarians, by the Czechs, by the Soviets or by whoever,” Ms. Hadju said. “We always feel like there is a group that puts us in danger, and that leads to a very divisive style of politics.”

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

The shooting occurred after a meeting with local officials and supporters in Handlova, a city 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 press conference, “he has not emerged from a life-threatening situation.” He said Mr Fico had only a “limited” ability to communicate and faced a “difficult” recovery.

The winner of last month's presidential election, Peter Pellegrini, is a Fico ally who considered his opponent, Ivan Korcok, a former foreign minister, a warmonger intent on sending Slovak troops to Ukraine. Korcok insisted he had no such plan and that he had no power to send troops anywhere as president, a primarily ceremonial post. But he has struggled to counter a wave of misinformation against him, pumped out by pro-Russian websites and social media accounts.

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

Fico began his political career more than three decades ago in the Communist Party and later became a free-market advocate, attracting billions of euros in investment from German automakers before moving toward right-wing nationalism.

In 2018, he cut short his second term as prime minister, resigning in the face of huge street protests after the murder in Bratislava of an investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, who was investigating government corruption, and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova .

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

But, defying predictions, Fico returned to the presidency last year after his party narrowly won a hotly contested legislative election. He strengthened his position this year, when his longtime ally won the presidency, freeing him from 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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