Slovakia PM Robert Fico in critical condition after being shot

Slovak prime minister taken to hospital as President Zuzana Caputova condemns ‘brutal and ruthless’ attack.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has been critically injured after being shot multiple times in a “politically motivated” assassination attempt, according to his interior minister.

Fico, 59, underwent several hours of surgery after an attacker shot him five times on Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Tomas Taraba told the BBC he believed the operation had gone well.

“I guess, in the end, he will survive,” Taraba told the British broadcaster’s Newshour programme. “He’s not in a life-threatening situation at this moment.”

Taraba said one bullet went through Fico’s stomach and a second hit a joint.

Earlier on Wednesday, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok told a briefing outside the hospital in the central city of Banska Bystrica that Fico was in a life-threatening condition.

The shooting was “politically motivated and the perpetrator’s decision was born closely after the presidential election”, he said, referring to the election in April, which was won by a Fico ally.

Police have arrested a suspect and an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the assassination attempt, Sutaj Estok said. The suspect is a 71-year-old man, he said, confirming Slovak media reports that he is a writer.

The shooting in the central town of Handlova, 190km (118 miles) northeast of the capital, Bratislava, stunned the Central European nation and drew international condemnation.

The shooting took place after Fico left a government meeting. He was rushed to hospital in the town and later taken by helicopter to Banska Bystrica for urgent surgery.

President Zuzana Caputova condemned the “brutal and ruthless” attack on the prime minister.

“I’m shocked,” Caputova said. “I wish Robert Fico a lot of strength in this critical moment and a quick recovery from this attack.”

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called the assassination attempt “an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy”.

“If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardising everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty,” Pellegrini said.

The country’s defence minister called the shooting a “political assault”.

Condemnation from across Europe

The attack comes three weeks ahead of crucial European Parliament elections, in which populist and right-wing parties in the 27-nation bloc appear poised to make gains.

European leaders, from Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, expressed shock at the shooting.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also condemned the assault.

“Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good. My thoughts are with PM Fico and his family,” she said on X.

I strongly condemn the vile attack on Prime Minister Robert Fico. Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good. My thoughts are with PM Fico and his family. — Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 15, 2024

The Slovak government was meeting in Handlova as part of a tour of the country’s regions after coming to power late last year.

Fico, a third-time premier, and his left-wing party Smer, or Direction, won Slovakia’s September 30 parliamentary elections, staging a political comeback after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-US message.

In his political career, Fico has skilfully weaved between pro-European mainstream and nationalistic anti-EU and anti-US positions, while showing a willingness to change course depending on public opinion or changed political realities.

He embraced more extreme positions over the past four years that include strident criticisms of Western allies, pledges to stop military support for Kyiv, opposition to sanctions on Russia and threats to veto any future NATO membership invite for Ukraine.

Critics have raised concerns that Slovakia under Fico would follow the direction of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest against Fico’s policies.

Alena Kudzko, vice president of Globsec, a security policy think tank, said the shooting was “definitely not something that anybody in Slovakia expected”.

Kudzko noted how the country has been polarised over the past year amid heightened political tension, especially in the run-up to the elections.

“But nobody … called for violence in the country,” she told Al Jazeera. “Quite the opposite. Everybody right now is trying to unite and send a coherent message – that political violence is not something that we support.”

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