Slovak prime minister's condition no longer considered life-threatening

Slovak prime minister's condition no longer considered life-threatening
Robert Fico was rushed away from the scene of the shooting by bodyguards, who have come under criticism for not reacting fast enough and allowing the shooter to make five shots. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera May 20, 2024

The condition of the Slovak populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was described as no longer life-threatening by the hospital in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia.

Fico was hospitalised in Banska Bystrica after being hit by multiple gun shots during an assassination attempt at the town of Handlova where a cabinet session was held on May 15.

“The positive prognosis which we have been discussing in the last three days is ahead of us. We won’t transfer him from the hospital, we are not on the winning stand at this moment,” stated Robert Kalinak, Minister of Defence and Fico’s close ally from the ruling leftist Smer party.

Fico was shot by a 71-year-old assailant, referred to by the Slovak media as Juraj Cintula, who faces 25 years in prison or even a life sentence.

At a separate press conference on May 19, Minister of Interior Matus Stuaj Estok (Hlas party) said that investigators are now working on a version that the assailant was not alone. Sutaj Estok previously described the assassination attempt as an act of “a lone wolf”.

“There is also a version that the assailant has been moving around in a group of people, who have been supporting each other,” Sutaj Estok told media, pointing out that two hours after the shooting the would-be assassin’s Facebook history was erased and that it could not have been done by him.    

A de facto head of the Slovak counterintelligence SIS, Pavol Gaspar, stated another suspect had been apprehended, who had been plotting a shooting spree similar to the one in Prague in December, in which  14 people and the shooter were killed at the Philosophical Faculty in the city centre.

Gaspar was nominated to head Fico’s cabinet after the nomination of his father Tibor, a Smer legislator who faces criminal charges, caused an uproar. President Zuzana Caputova refused to confirm Pavol Gaspar as the head of SIS, where he was consequently installed as a deputy director by the government. Foreign intelligence services have reportedly curtailed the sharing of information with the SIS, regional outlet VSquare reported in January.   

Slovakia’s politics have been extremely polarised following an aggressive campaign which brought Smer back to power last autumn. Fico’s left-right cabinet has since then pursued a power grab, introducing sweeping staff changes at the ministries and dismantling the Special Prosecutor Office overseeing high-profile corruption scandals in which many Smer officials have been implicated.

In an effort to calm the situation down,  Caputova called for a round table meeting between political parties following the assassination attempt on Fico, but president-elect and Fico’s ally Peter Pellegrini said the time is not ripe for such a meeting and leaders of the far-right SNS, the third coalition party, have repeatedly tried to blame the opposition and smear it for bearing responsibility for the shooting, which has been condemned by the whole political spectrum.

Observers warn that government politicians will try to take advantage of opposition politicians issuing statements of solidarity wishing Fico a speedy recovery. "The more they will say how sorry they are [about the shooting] the more they will look guilty in the eyes of the public," a US-based Czech analyst of disinformation and propaganda online Alexandra Alvarova said in her regular podcast Skrivanci v siti [Lurks in the net]. 

Slovakia is in the middle of the election campaign to the European Parliament and opposition-leading, centrist Progressive Slovakia (PS), is in the lead, according to the April polls, ahead of Smer and its ruling coalition allies, centre-left Hlas. PS and pro-EU parties traditionally benefit from low voter turnout in the EP elections, but the atmosphere in the aftermath of the shooting could galvanise the ruling coalition electorate ahead of the vote in June.   

A wave of criticism of Fico's bodyguards also resonated throughout the country's media following the assassination attempt. 

Ivan Stulajter, a journalist who worked as a media advisor to one of Fico's predecessors, liberal right-wing PM Eduard Heger, told bne Intellinews in an interview shortly after the shooting that bodyguards are "very limited" in their ability to respond given the close contact nature in which Slovak PMs are accustomed to greet people in the public. 

Drawing on his own experience while working with Heger Stulajter said that "it was unthinkable that in Slovakia that such an aggressive act could take place," adding that Heger also regularly "met with people who did not go through a skenner" or similar measures. Stulajter expects "this aspect of protecting public servants to change," rendering personal contact not possible "in such intensity" anymore.