Assassination attempt on Fico shows radicalisation of Slovak society

Assassination attempt on Fico shows radicalisation of Slovak society
Slovakia's political polarisation has worsened since the killing of journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018, and the opposition now calls regular demonstrations against Prime Minister Robert Fico's rule. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera May 17, 2024

The shooting of Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico on  May 15 is already the third shooting to shake the country’s politics in six years.

Just like when investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Martin Kusnirova were murdered by a contract killer in 2018, and two young men were gunned down in front of LGBTQ-friendly bar Teplaren in Bratislava by a radicalised teenage shooter in 2022, the assassination attempt on Fico is poised to have a big impact on the course of Slovak politics.  

The shootings partly reflect a level of aggressiveness and radicalisation in Slovak political discourse that is worse than neighbouring countries in the region, and there is no sign that this will diminish anytime soon, despite the wave of expressions of sympathy for Fico from across the political spectrum.

Some government politicians have already blamed the opposition for the shooting, while the opposition has blamed the government for causing the deepening polarisation in society, through its sharp attacks on them and its use of disinformation. The country's polarisation has clearly worsened since Fico was forced to resign in 2018 after the killing of Kuciak and Kusnirova, and then fought back to win last September's general election by adopting radical rhetoric against the then centre-right government's COVID-19 restrictions and  support for Ukraine.

“In a small corner of my soul, I am hoping that despite all the aggressive statements made by government politicians [following the assassination attempt] this becomes also for them a big reminder that when they push the situation too far that some people with extremist tendencies can have their nerves burst and commit such brutal and despicable acts,” Ivan Stulajter, former media advisor to ex-premier Eduard Heger, told bne Intellinews.

Immediately after the shooting, leftist Smer MP Lubos Blaha tried to blame the opposition for inspiring the assassination attempt. 

“This is your work” and “you have what you wanted”, Blaha said when very few details were known about the shooting, which was actually carried out by a 71-year-old who turned out to be a virtually unknown poet and onetime security guard.   

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj-Estok took a more measured tone, saying the shooter was a “lone wolf” who had been “radicalised recently, after the [spring] presidential election”.

Editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based investigative outlet VSquare, Szabolc Panyi,  pointed out on X that the apprehended assailant Juraj Cintula “was associated with pro-Russian paramilitary group Slovenski branci (SB)”, fuelling speculations about the assailant’s motives. 

It is a clear that Cintula has a record of government criticism on social media and in the widely shared videos from the scene he appears to be shouting accusations against Fico over his attempt to exert greater control on the public broadcaster RTVS.

Fico's cabinet has faced criticism for its legislative proposal aimed at restructuring RTVS  from across Slovakia’s liberal media and from international media organisations. Fico's left-right government and politicians such as Blaha have also been criticised for spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation. 

The opposition has mounted rolling protests against these media proposals, as well as its moves to take tighter control over the judiciary, and its planned legislation to expose NGOs with foreign funding.

Andrej Danko, leader of the far-right SNS, a junior coalition party on whose party list  neo-fascist politicians such as Tomas Taraba were elected, raised already strong worries among the journalist community about the government's plans for the media when he declared that “a political war is starting for the SNS at this stage” and that changes will follow concerning the media, adding that government politicians will not “sneeze” at them.

“The key question which now pre-occupies the minds of all sober-thinking people regardless of their stance on social issues is whether the radicalisation in [Slovak politics] will continue and its consequences will yet be more horrific, or whether it will stop in some way,” Stulajter said.

Stulajter said Taraba’s comments had also linked the shooting to the opposition “without any regard for facts”, adding that he is “a radical profiting on splitting and polarising society”.

“It will be very important what stance will Fico take towards this event” if he recovers and returns to politics, Stulajter continued. He explained that if Fico “will continue to back the radicalisation, which he is a specialist at”, then it will likely worsen, but if he undergoes “some self-criticism and will come to understand that this is a road to perdition then I think the radicalisation could flatten, at least on some levels of the society.”

For the past 2-3 years NGOs and journalists following Slovakia have been ringing alarm bells about the state of Slovak society, described variously as fragmented and highly polarised.

“I see not only polarisation but fragmentation within our society,” the country’s liberal President Zuzana Caputova warned last June ahead of the national elections campaign, which culminated in September amid the circulation of deep fake videos of Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka allegedly taxing beer, and hoaxes and conspiracies invoking dangers ranging from “illegal migration” to “Brussels gender ideology”.

Following the victory of Peter Pellegrini, the candidate of Fico’s coalition, in the presidential elections in March and April, Pellegrini and his team were criticised by liberal media for employing ever more aggressive rhetoric and divisive strategies in the second round, when they falsely claimed that rival pro-Western diplomat Ivan Korcok would send Slovak soldiers to fight in Ukraine.  

Caputova herself decided last year not to seek re-election after her daughters faced death threats and amid speculations that she was worn out by Fico’s relentless attacks, which were amplified by far-right politicians and online extremists.  

As Slovakia gears up for elections to the European Parliament next month, the question is whether this climate of hate will only worsen or whether politicians will step back from the brink.