Slovakia in critical moment after shooting of Robert Fico

image caption, Mr Fico was greeting people in Handelova shortly before the attack – warning that top politicians could be targeted.

There is a bullet hole and a small trail of blood where a man tried to kill the prime minister.

Fading traces of a giant moment that deeply traumatized Slovakia. But the gunman's target had seen it coming.

A month earlier, Slovakia's populist leader, Robert Fico, was filmed predicting that political tensions were so intense that “a leading government politician” would be assassinated.

Then the Prime Minister himself was shot. Shot four times in the stomach and arm at close range as he greeted supporters in a small former mining town.

  • the author, Sarah Rainsford
  • the role, Correspondent in Eastern Europe
  • Reporting from Handlova and Bratislava, Slovakia

The assassination attempt comes amid a toxic political climate, and threatens to deepen polarization in Slovakia.

Mr. Fico's warning of an imminent attack was no small comment.

He repeated the idea to the head of Slovakia's public broadcaster at the same time.

“I told him 'Prime Minister, things are not that bad,'” RTVS boss Lobos Machaj recalled of the conversation after the April interview.

“He said he didn't know, but he had warned his ministers to be careful.”

image caption, Mr Fico was stabbed four times in the abdomen and underwent another two-hour operation on Friday.

It was the time of Slovakia's presidential election, which was won in the second round by an ally of Mr. Fico.

For more than six months, all agree, the political climate has been particularly hostile, although the divide dates back at least to 2018, when a journalist investigating claims of high-level corruption was murdered.

Mr Fico was forced to resign at the time amid massive protests.

His re-election last year was a major comeback on a platform that included pledges to end military aid to Kiev and veto Ukraine's NATO ambitions, as well as recalling Moscow more than Brussels. Other persuasive things.

“I can only hope that this tragedy will help Slovakia improve, if tensions have now reached a peak,” Mr Machaj told the BBC.

“But the first reaction of politicians is not to suggest that.”

video caption, How was the attack in Slovakia?

Urgent appeals for peace and unity have been made.

They were led by outgoing president Zuzana Kaputova “standing together,” as she put it, with the man who would soon replace her.

That same day, with the entire cabinet standing behind him on stage, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok repeated those calls, warning that Slovakia was on the brink of civil war.

This is extreme. But, more than one interviewee here describes a society in which family members no longer talk.

The two political “camps” drifted away from each other, without any dialogue.

With his colleague on stage, Defense Minister Robert Klink said Slovaks needed to “learn to tolerate different opinions”.

But, the two ministers immediately blamed opposing politicians and the media for fomenting the animosity. Several times, he instructed journalists to “take a look in the mirror” and examine whether they were responsible for the attack.

image caption, RTVS boss Lobos Machaj says some Slovakians are blaming the broadcaster for Mr Fico's shooting.

There is still very little verifiable information about the killer.

The few videos and signs left online amount to a vague profile: posting against the war in Ukraine but apparently in support of a far-right, pro-Russian group, and a writer of anti-immigrant poetry and prose.

Government ministers call him a “lone wolf”, while insisting his views are similar to those of the main opposition party, becoming radicalized somewhere along the way.

“Hate breeds hate,” the home minister warned.

Such things seem hollow to some.

“When we talk about a toxic environment, it's not hard to say who is the party responsible for it: it's the summer party,” argues Pavel Babos, a sociologist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

“I would have bet that an opposition member was attacked, not the prime minister,” he says.

image caption, A man waves a Slovak flag outside the hospital where Mr Fico is in critical condition – the country is at a pivotal moment.

Mr Fico's allies have publicly called President Caputova an “American whore”.

The prime minister calls him an American agent. Death threats were then sent to the President that echoed such language.

Shortly after the shooting in Handlova, a short video was leaked showing the gunman in custody.

It is not clear whether the 71-year-old is speaking freely, but he pointed to the government's neutralization of RTVS, suggesting it may be a source of anger. Is. An object of his attack.

Mr Fico had launched a process to wind up the public broadcaster, claiming it was “not objective”.

“The media is not there to make politicians look good,” said RTVS boss Mr Machaj, dismissing the criticism and describing his team's role as “a reflection of reality”.

But now some blame the broadcaster for the shooting.

“We are receiving threats every day and they are serious,” Mr Machaj said. He says he has been advised to hire a bodyguard.

“I lived through the communist censorship of the 1970s and the attacks on the press in the 1990s, but I consider that the most dangerous period,” he says.

Police tape is gone at the scene of the attack. Local children are cycling on the square. Music booms from an open window and an aerobics class.

A few dozen miles away, Mr. Fico is in intensive care, said to be in stable though still critical condition.

And Slovakia is at a pivotal moment.

Mr Babos adds: “A lot now depends on Robert Fico and what kind of attitude and approach he will take if he comes back.

“Whether he is more aggressive and angry. Or if he decides to calm down society and become a more positive person.

“I'd say it's 60-40. I'm afraid he'll be full of revenge.”

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