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Slovak authorities charge 'lone wolf' with assassination attempt on the prime minister

Rescue workers take Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, in central Slovakia, on Wednesday.
Jan Kroslák
Rescue workers take Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, in central Slovakia, on Wednesday.

Updated May 16, 2024 at 12:28 PM ET

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia — Slovak authorities charged a man Thursday with attempting to assassinate populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, saying the suspect acted alone in a politically motivated attack that laid bare the extreme polarization that has gripped the small central European country.

Fico, 59, was in serious but stable condition a day after being shot multiple times in the stomach, a hospital official said. President-elect Peter Pellegrini said he spoke to Fico at the hospital but confirmed his condition "remains very serious."

The attempted assassination has shocked the nation and reverberated across the continent weeks ahead of European elections. While President Zuzana Caputova called on everyone to take the opportunity to dial back the vitriol that has characterized the political debate, some government ministers took aim at Slovakia's media for contributing to the fractious atmosphere.

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok asked journalists to "reflect" on how they had covered Fico's policies. He referred to the suspect — who was charged with premeditated murder — as a "lone wolf" who did not belong to any political groups, though he said the attack itself was politically motivated.

Fico known for pro-Russian, anti-American stance

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, and his return to power last year on a pro-Russian, anti-American message led to even greater worries among fellow European Union and NATO members that he would abandon his country's pro-Western course — particularly on Ukraine. At the start of Russia's invasion, Slovakia was one of Ukraine's staunchest supporters, but Fico halted arms deliveries to the neighbor when he came to power.

Fico's government has also made efforts to overhaul public broadcasting — a move critics said would result in the government's full control of public television and radio. That coupled with his plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor have led opponents to worry that Fico will lead Slovakia down a more autocratic path.

Thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly rallied in the capital and around the country of 5.4 million to protest his policies.

Suspect's motive: Dissatisfaction with some Fico policies

Slovak police have provided little information on the identity of the suspect. But unconfirmed media reports suggested he was a 71-year-old retiree who was known as an amateur poet, and may have previously worked as a security guard at a mall in the country's southwest.

Slovakia's prime minister was attacked by an armed assailant and hospitalized Wednesday.
Kevin S. Vineys / AP
Slovakia's prime minister was attacked by an armed assailant and hospitalized Wednesday.

At a news conference on Thursday following a meeting of Slovakia's Security Council, government ministers gave more details about the man, while still not naming him.

Estok said that the man himself cited his dissatisfaction with several of Fico's policies as motivation for the attack. The minister said presidential elections in the spring prompted the assault, and that the suspect had attended a recent anti-government protest.

"I can confirm to you that the reason it was a politically motivated, attempted premeditated murder is as the suspect himself said: the media information that he had at his disposal," he said. "I think each of you can reflect on the way you presented it."

At the same news conference, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kaliňák also blamed the media for tensions in the country.

Appeals for Slovaks to overcome political differences

The tenor of those remarks stood in contrast to a news conference earlier in the day when the country's outgoing and next presidents — political rivals — appeared together in an appeal for Slovaks to overcome their increasingly tense political differences.

"Let us step out of the vicious circle of hatred and mutual accusations," said Caputova, the outgoing president and a rival of Fico's. "What happened yesterday was an individual act. But the tense atmosphere of hatred was our collective work."

Pellegrini, the president-elect, called on political parties to suspend or scale back their campaigns for European elections, which will be held June 6-9.

"If there is anything that the people of Slovakia urgently need today, it is at least basic agreement and unity among the Slovak political representation. And if not consensus, then please, at least civilized ways of discussing among each other," Pelligrini said.

Zuzana Eliasova, a resident of the capital, Bratislava, said the attack on Fico was a "shock" to the nation and an attack on democracy at a time when political tensions were already running high.

"I believe that a lot of people or even the whole society will look into their conscience, because the polarization here has been huge among all different parts of society," she said.

Doctors performed a five-hour operation on Fico, who was initially reported to be in life-threatening condition, according to director of the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banska Bystrica, Miriam Lapunikova. He is being treated in an intensive care unit.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 85 miles northeast of the capital, government officials said.

Fico returned to power in Slovakia last year, having previously served twice as prime minister. He and his Smer party have most often been described as left-populist, though he has also been compared to politicians on the right like the nationalist prime minister of neighboring Hungary, Viktor Orban.

Attack stirs condemnation from both critics and allies

Condemnation of the attack came from both Fico's allies and adversaries abroad. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message to President Caputova, expressing his support and wishing the prime minister a fast and full recovery.

"This atrocious crime cannot be justified," Putin said in the message released by the Kremlin. "I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-willed person. I truly hope these personal qualities will help him overcome this harsh situation."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also denounced the violence against a neighboring country's head of government.

Copyright 2024 NPR