Where Polarization Leads: The Fico Assassination Attempt in Slovakia

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“They obscenely curse government politicians in the streets, and I am just waiting for this frustration,” deepened by the opposition and media, “to be translated into the murder of one of the leading government politicians,” the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said on 11 April, few days after the second round of the Presidential elections in the country.

Robert Fico’s assassination attempt on 15 May came in the middle of a heated political atmosphere in Slovakia, where two political camps remain deeply polarized. The rhetoric of politicians in both camps was inflammatory, not excluding Prime Minister Robert Fico, who rhetorically often attacked the media, opposition, and non-governmental organisations. The most remarkable moment was the protest in 2021 when he and his deputy roused the crowd to vulgarly call Slovak President Zuzana Caputova the “American agent” and “American whore.”

Slovakia has been particularly polarized since the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in 2018, which was generally attributed to the oligarch Marian Kocner (Kocner was acquitted and an associated found guilty of ordering the crime). In the wake of massive street protests, Fico stepped down as the PM and assigned Peter Pellegrini to lead the government until the new parliamentary elections in 2020.

Fico’s SMER went on to lose the election in 2020, and the government was formed by the long-term corruption fighter Igor Matovic. During the next three years, the new government claimed to free the hands of investigators and police, which resulted in the arrest of dozens of people connected to the Fico government for corruption. However, Fico claimed that the arrests were politically motivated.

Chaotic and fractured, the Matovic government, affected by the multiple crises, underwent several government reshuffles, including PM changes in 2021 and 2023. The situation led to the snap election in 2023, which brought Fico’s SMER back into government, which was formed with the new social democratic party – HLAS (founded by Peter Pellegrini) – and the Slovak National Party (SNS). Relatedly, the European socialists in the European Parliament suspended the membership of SMER and HLAS in the Party of European Socialists due to the coalition with SNS. Fico criticized the move, as the previous government, from 2016 to 2020, was also formed with the SNS.

Political polarization increased significantly particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and in the lead-up to the Ukraine war, which was also reflected in an adaptation of Fico’s rhetoric. Before the election, he called for a halt of military assistance to Ukraine and for immediate peace.

After forming the new government in October 2023, the government rushed through new legislation to abolish the Special Prosecutor Office, responsible for the arrests of SMER’s former nominees. In addition, the government approved an amendment to the criminal code, which, according to Slovak Transparency International, weakens the rule of law and the fight against corruption. The government also planned to change the governance of the public broadcaster RTVS and introduce labelling for non-governmental organizations. The speed of the legislation sparked the opposition protests against the government in December 2023 and continued to March 2024.

This wave of polarization peaked in the presidential elections in April, when two main favorites, Peter Pellegrini (HLAS) and an independent candidate with the support of opposition parties (the former diplomat and the Slovak former Minister of Foreign Affairs) Ivan Korčok, represented the two divided camps.

Although the President in Slovakia has rather a symbolic role (with a few important competencies), it was the subject of heated political debate and campaign. The debate was primarily concerned with the foreign policy orientation and Ukraine war when Korčok was accused of being pro-American and being the “president of war.” Relatedly, Peter Pellegrini, as the coalition candidate, won the second round of the election on April 7 with the highest voter turnout since 1999. The presidential elections established a uniform rule over all executive and legislative branches in Slovakia by the current governing coalition.

It was the result of these presidential elections that allegedly triggered the decision of the 71-year-old assassin to shoot Robert Fico, as leaked video of the man in custody shows.

Foreign policy orientation is thus the highly protracted object of political capital in Slovak politics. The new government declared a so-called “Slovak sovereign foreign policy,” which aims to focus on all four world sides. This is particularly important for a significant portion of the domestic electorate, which believes Slovakia should be a bridge between East and West and have good and pragmatic ties with all world powers. After a decade, Fico’s government reflected this policy and nominated Juraj Blanar, a politician without diplomatic experience, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This is a rare move in Slovakia since, almost throughout the entire existence of Slovakia, a professional diplomat served in the role.

Fico made it clear that foreign policy should follow the “sovereign’s” decisions, and that the minister of foreign affairs should be the “pike, which, perhaps in an unconventional way, chases the old carp in the pond of Slovak diplomacy.”

This foreign policy was also reflected by the foreign minister meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sideline of Antalya Forum in 2024, which was roundly criticized by the opposition. The fact remains that in the transatlantic region (except Slovakia), only Hungary, Switzerland, Serbia, North Macedonia, and the Vatican have met with Sergei Lavrov since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

This meeting was criticized from abroad, notably from the politically close, Czechia, which subsequently cancelled a mutual government session between both countries planned for March 2024. Moreover, due to fears of classified intelligence leaks, allies in NATO began to filter intelligence shared with Slovakia. Fico publicly revealed the discussion point concerning the possible presence of Western military troops in Ukraine before a Ukraine support conference held in Paris in February 2023.

Slovakia leaned more towards Orban’s Hungary, which lost support from Poland (after the elections) in the struggle with Brussels concerning the rule of law. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union can suspend certain rights from a member state but has to be accepted by every state but one. Since the duo Poland-Hungary effectively opposed this article for a few years, after the elections in Slovakia and Poland, Orban found a new ally.

Although the Slovak foreign policy aimed to stop top-level military assisstance to Ukraine, the real foreign policy remains pragmatic, as the government did not stop the export of weapons based on the commercial base. Moreover, Fico travelled to Uzhhorod for a meeting with the Ukrainian PM in January, and both governments met in Slovakia in April 2024. The meeting focused on transborder, energy, and transport issues, confirming Fico’s government’s pragmatic relations.

In addition, Fico agreed to the European Council’s conclusions and did not make a transactional policy like Orban did during the European Council meetings in December 2023 and February 2024 concerning financial help to Ukraine.

This was the first assassination attempt on a prime minister on EU soil. Polarization in Slovakia is one of the most significant destabilizing factors domestically and in foreign policy. Immediately after the attack, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova and the President-elected Peter Pellegrini called for a meeting of the all-parliamentary parties to show a desire to calm the situation.

For now, it is clear that the assassination was politically motivated, and the police are currently working with the two scenarios (lone wolf and organized group).

At the moment, the key question is how Prime Minister Robert Fico, after the long recovery, will react to the attack. He can show his statecraft skills to calm the political atmosphere or use the situation to tighten control over the country.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.

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