Home News Slovak politics was toxic long before the prime minister was shot

Slovak politics was toxic long before the prime minister was shot

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To the government that accused him, he was a “lone wolf,” an aberrant man who spoke only for himself when he fired at least four bullets at Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico.

However, Wednesday’s assassination attempt cast a spotlight on Slovakia’s broader collective failings. In a central European country with a deeply divided social and political culture, authorities say a lone act of violence by a man has become another club with which both sides can use to attack each other.

“The level of polarization in this country is unprecedented,” said Daniel Milo, a former government official who tracks disinformation and now works for a technology company. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he added.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic had hardened previously fluid defense lines into hostile encampments with little room for nuance. About half the population welcomes the vaccine and half reject it. “It becomes: Are you for it or against it? Do you believe it or don’t you believe it?” Mr Milo said. The outbreak of war in Ukraine in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is another source of division.

The suspect was quickly arrested Wednesday and charged with attempted premeditated murder, but authorities have not yet released his name. Slovak news media cited police sources as describing him as a 71-year-old pensioner with a passion for poetry and protest.

Both sides of the political divide were quick to use him as a foil and make claims accordingly. To Mr. Fico’s supporters, who posted on social media sites this week, the suspects are carriers of a liberal virus that must be stamped out. The prime minister’s critics paint him as a right-wing extremist.

One particularly abusive government supporter demanded in a message on Telegram that the government hand out guns, “We will deal with the liberals ourselves.”

Interior Minister Matous Sutaj Estok warned: “We are on the doorstep of civil war. The assassination attempt on the prime minister confirms this.”

“Many of you sowed the seeds of hatred and this turned into a firestorm,” the minister added.

Mr Sutaj Estok oversees the security of the security forces, including Mr Fico. He acknowledged suggestions that lax security allowed the gunman to fire at such close range, but appeared to deny that. He said he saw no evidence of unprofessionalism, noting that the department head responsible for protecting senior officers was so close to the action that “his entire suit was covered in blood.”

Andrea Dobiasova, a spokesman for the Inspectorate, which is part of the police force, said the office had launched an investigation into the response of security personnel at the scene.

Senior officials from Fico’s ruling Smer party actually blamed liberal journalists and opposition politicians for inciting the gunman to open fire.

Lubos Braha, the party’s vice president, said the opposition and the “liberal media” had “built a gallows” for the prime minister by “spreading so much hatred”. Rudolf Huliak, a government ally of the far-right Slovak National Party, said progressives and journalists had “Robert Fico’s blood on their hands.”

Pavol Hardos, a political scientist at Comenius University in the capital Bratislava, described such accusations as part of a long-running campaign by Fico’s government that goes beyond verbal attacks on political opponents. , and also attacked their legitimacy. Before he was shot dead on Wednesday, Fico denounced opposition leaders as “worse than rats.”

Fico is pushing for a controversial judicial reform to limit the scope of corruption investigations, reshaping the state broadcasting system to remove the government’s alleged liberal bias and cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs. He opposes military aid to Ukraine, LGBTQ rights and European Union powers, and favors warmer relations with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

In all these details, he is identical to his right-wing nationalist leader next door, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Opponents accuse Fico’s government of exacerbating tensions and setting the stage for violence, with some comparing him to Putin.

Jana Solivarska, a mother of three from the central Slovak town of Banská Štiavnica, said her first reaction when she learned Fico had been attacked was: “I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier.” She added that Slovakia was “a very polarized country.” She said that on the night of the attack, her husband predicted “this could lead to civil war.”

On Thursday, the country’s outgoing president Zuzana Caputova stressed that the shooting was an “individual act” and said she would invite leaders of Slovakia’s main political parties to meet to “calm the situation.”

“We have differences, but let’s not spread hatred,” she said in a statement alongside President-elect Peter Pellegrini.

Pellegrini echoed calls for her to tone down her rhetoric, while also calling on the country’s political parties to temporarily pause or “calm down” their campaigning for next month’s European Parliament elections. He told a news conference that campaigning naturally involves confrontation and “strong opinions.”

“We don’t need more confrontation,” he said.

Dominika Hajdu, a researcher at the Bratislava-based research group Globsec, said a big reason for the tense atmosphere was that the country of about 5.5 million people has been in the midst of an “ongoing political campaign” since the autumn among. Legislative elections in September brought Mr. Fico to power. This was followed by two rounds of presidential elections in March and April, and now European parliamentary elections.

“Campaigns by definition mean more heat and more political attacks,” she said.

But she added that Slovakia’s deep divisions also stem in part from its history – being part of Czechoslovakia for centuries under the rule of Austria and Hungary, and then under the Czechs for much of the next seven decades. under Soviet control. A puppet of Nazi Germany, it was nominally an independent country for six years. It was not until 1993, after the collapse of communism and the split of Czechoslovakia, that Slovakia became a fully independent country.

“The key national narrative is that we have always been oppressed by someone — the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Soviets or whoever,” Ms. Haju said. “We always feel like there’s one group that’s threatening us, and that leads to a very divisive style of politics.”

Mr. Fico, combative elder statesman Widely hated by Bratislava’s liberals but popular outside the capital, he was shot multiple times on Wednesday, with at least one bullet in his abdomen, in what the government said was politically motivated assassination attempt.

The shooting occurred after a meeting with local officials and supporters in the central Slovak town of Handlova, which strongly supported his party in September.

Officials said Thursday that Fico’s condition had stabilized after overnight emergency surgery. However, the deputy prime minister told a news conference that he was “not out of danger yet.” He said Mr Fico had “limited” communication skills and faced a “difficult” recovery.

Peter Pellegrini, the winner of last month’s presidential election, is an ally of Fico, who views his opponent, former foreign minister Ivan Korcok, as a warmonger. Intention to send Slovak troops to Ukraine. Colcock insisted that he had no such plans and that as president, a largely ceremonial position, he had no authority to send troops anywhere. But he has struggled to counter the deluge of disinformation being churned out against him by pro-Russian websites and social media accounts.

Slovakia’s fragmentation has been fueled by its particularly toxic online ecosystem, where politicians like Che Guevara and Putin admirer Braha have gained large followings by attacking domestic critics and Western leaders.

Mr. Fico began his political career more than three decades ago in the Communist Party and became a champion of free markets, attracting billions of euros of investment from German carmakers before turning to right-wing nationalism.

In 2018, his second term as prime minister was cut short and he resigned in the face of massive street protests. murder Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist in Bratislava, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova are digging into government corruption.

Many analysts at the time believed the resignation spelled the end of his long career.

But contrary to predictions, Fico returned to the premiership last year after his party narrowly won a hotly contested legislative election. He solidified his position this year when a long-time ally won the presidency, freeing him from the constraints imposed by Ms. Caputova, an outspoken liberal.

Sarasinkulova Katarina Urban Richterova in Bratislava and Katarina Urban Richterova in Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia contributed reporting.

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