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What’s next after assassination attempt in Slovakia

What’s next after assassination attempt in Slovakia

While polarization further engulfs the country, Washington and Brussels work on taming renegade EU leaders

Analysis | Europe

Robert Fico has long been a dominant figure in Slovakia, having served as prime minister from 2006-10, 2012-18, and then 2023-present. He has upset many believers in transatlantic unity for various reasons — chiefly his opposition to the West’s arming of Ukraine, which shares a 60-mile border with Slovakia. Depicting the war there as an “American-Russian conflict,” Fico campaigned last year on giving Kyiv “not another bullet.” Often characterized as a “pro-Kremlin” politician, he has criticized Western sanctions on Moscow.

On May 15, Fico was the target of an assassination attempt. A gunman shot him five times at close range in Handlová, a small town in central Slovakia. Fico survived albeit in critical condition. The attack marked the first assassination attempt on a European prime minister in 21 years. According to Interior Minister Matúš Šutaj Eštok, the alleged assailant, Juraj Cintula, was politically motivated and possibly not acting alone. The attempt occurred shortly after presidential elections, which one of Fico’s allies, Peter Pellegrini, won in the second round.

Political and social divisions

Slovakia’s politics are extremely polarized. Among Slovaks, many staunchly support Fico while many others loathe him. There are those in the country who embrace Western-style liberalism and believe Bratislava’s foreign policy should be closely aligned with its Western allies in NATO and the EU, both of which Slovakia joined in 2004. On the conservative end of the spectrum, a majority of Slovak voters support Fico’s government as a defender of Slovak traditions by, for example, rejecting “gender ideology.”

“Each group not only holds different visions for Slovakia’s future but also perceives the other’s agenda as a direct threat to their way of life and values, and this is exaggerated and weaponized as a means of political capital,” Zuzana Palovic, co-author of “Czechoslovakia: Behind the Iron Curtain,” told RS.

The murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, the government’s COVID response, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 all deepened polarization in Slovakia. Fico’s government routinely criticizes the opposition for serving the Western liberal order while his opponents attack him for being too Moscow-friendly and rolling back media freedoms. Many point to Russian propaganda as a significant driver of polarization in this former Soviet satellite, which is the case in other EU member-states too.

In the 2020-23 period, a number of Fico’s political allies were indicted for corruption and subsequently convicted. “While some of the cases were half-baked, Fico’s defense always has been that everything is just a political witch hunt—yes, he sounds like Trump here,” according to Andrej Matišák, a journalist who works for the Slovak daily Pravda. “By undermining the work of policemen, prosecutors, and judges, he created another piece of the polarization puzzle,” he told RS.

“The Slovak politicians themselves contributed to the status quo in Slovakia. Political accusations are never ending in Slovakia,” said Lívia Benko, a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. “The recent political landscape reveals that the number of hateful statements from politicians is on the rise,” she added.

The assassination attempt has exacerbated tensions within Slovak society. Outgoing President Zuzana Čaputová has emphasized the need to prevent further escalation. But her appeal thus far appears to be ignored by both sides of the political spectrum.

“The appeal for calmness and unity is not being respected to the extent it should be by either the polarized society, in which family members do not speak to each other over politics, nor by the coalition and opposition,” Benko noted.

“The current political landscape in which politicians and their family members are getting threatening letters is very complex,” she added. “Slovak politics are full of conspiracy theories and disinformation. This is all reflected on social media platforms.”

Talk of ‘civil war’

Following the assassination attempt, Eštok warned that the country is “on the edge of a civil war” due to the rhetoric on social media. According to Palovic, such language coming from the minister “reflects concerns about the stability and unity of Slovakia — mentally, emotionally, and socially.”

Matišák said Eštok’s talk of civil war was understandable given the powerful emotions at that moment. But he also described it as a “very unfortunate statement.”

“Only the government has the means to start the civil war, and, in that case, it wouldn't even be a civil war; it would be some kind of putsch against the democratic regime in Slovakia. I don’t believe that will happen, so I read the minister's words as an attempt to communicate with his own electorate to suggest that first of all the ‘other side’ is responsible for what happened. As I said, it is unfortunate, and he should know better,” Matišák said.

“It’s the rhetorical equivalent of firefighters starting their job by throwing a canister of gas into the fire,” Matej Kandrík, a co-founder of Adapt Institute, a Bratislava-based think tank, told RS.

“It’s both irresponsible and dangerous. Slovakia is nowhere close to a civil war. Unfortunately, [Eštok] is speaking like he is a candidate running in the election and not as a minister of the interior.”

The road ahead

Unsurprisingly, this month’s assassination attempt has clearly raised serious concerns about the trajectory of Slovakia’s deep-seated societal and political divisions. What comes next will depend heavily on the government’s actions, according to Benko, particularly regarding how the state may use the attack as a pretext for cracking down on the opposition and independent civil society groups and media.

Doing so, on the other hand, could negatively affect its standing with the EU, an important source of financial and development assistance.

“The terrible shape of public finances increased the relative importance of EU funds for Slovakia. Suppose the European Commission will stay adamant about protecting the rule of law and the quality of democracy. In that case, it should prevent the most aggressive moves to solidify the power of the government,” Kandrík told RS. “Still, I expect the situation to worsen for all pro-democratic actors.”

“In a normal country, the normal reaction would be for all political elites to lock themselves around the principles of democracy and the rule of law. However, it seems that some people in Slovakia, especially from the pro-government spectrum, are intensifying the polarization,” said the Slovak journalist.

“I am afraid that the main aim of the majority of the players from the governing coalition is to use the current events to strengthen their grip on power [rather than] to calm down the situation. On the other hand, I very much hope I will be proved wrong.”

Implications for US foreign policy

Back in the 1990s, when the autocratic leader Vladimir Mečiar was independent Slovakia’s first prime minister, the Slovak government basically ran the country like a mafia state. In the mid-1990s, NATO delayed Slovakia’s membership application due to the country’s domestic issues. By 1998, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright called Slovakia a “black hole in the center of Europe.” That was only six years before it joined the transatlantic alliance and the EU.

Today, Washington has much at stake in the future of Slovakia, which sits on the fault line of a divided Europe. Having militarily cooperated closely with the U.S. since 1993, Slovakia remains an important U.S. ally on NATO’s eastern flank at a time of intensified hostilities between Russia and the West.

Amid a period in which Fico and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán increasingly align their countries with Moscow in ways that many Western policymakers believe is a thorn in the EU’s side, debates over how Washington and Brussels should try to influence these “renegade EU leaders” in Bratislava and Budapest are sensitive. There is reason to consider how Western pressure on these Russia-friendly NATO and EU members has potential to backfire in ways that further erode the West’s unity against Moscow.

This month’s attempted assassination risks manifesting in an exacerbation of Slovakia’s internal tensions, as well as those between Bratislava and Brussels. This would be especially so if Fico’s government pushes through initiatives that weaken the rule-of-law. Although the immediate implications of the attempt on Fico’s life for Washington’s interests are currently difficult to assess, instability in Slovakia could have major ramifications for U.S. foreign policy interests in this part of Europe, particularly within the context of the continent’s evolving security architecture.

Slovakia's Minister of Defense Robert Kalinak speaks during a press conference at the Office of the Government of the Slovak Republic, following an assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, in Bratislava, Slovakia, May 19, 2024. REUTERS/Claudia Greco

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