Robert Fico’s reckoning

  • Themes: Politics

The assassination attempt on Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, represents the nadir of long-brewing tensions in Slovak politics and society.

An election poster for Robert Fico.
An election poster for Robert Fico. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Fico never had the ambiance of a man worried about his personal safety. In the mid-2010s when he was at the height of his power and had just formed the only single-party government in Slovakia’s modern history – the well-built politician in his late 40s could often be seen breaking sweat with a personal trainer under one of Bratislava’s functionalist bridges or rollerblading on the outskirts of the Slovak capital. While never the smiley approachable type, during these moments of freedom Fico would occasionally exchange a nod with his political rivals or journalists biking or blading away a stressful day. His security detail was barely visible. Friends and foes coexisted peacefully on this narrow strip of concrete, a cycle path joining three Central European nations – Austria, Slovakia and Hungary – that once formed an empire.

A decade later, tensions were running high in Slovakia. In October 2023, following a polarising election campaign, Fico became prime minister for the fourth time. His party, SMER (Direction – Social Democracy), ascended back to power after several years in opposition following a snap election, which he narrowly won by capturing pro-Moscow and anti-system sentiment. Albeit with much diminished political capital, he took over the reins of a fragile coalition. In April 2024, Fico’s reign was emboldened by the election of Peter Pellegrini, his former assistant-turned-nemesis-turned-coalition partner, effectively removing the final check on the coalition’s power.

Following his comeback, Fico was adamant to show he was a man of the people. One way the middle-class former lawyer, largely despised by the liberal elite, chose to demonstrate this was to hold occasional government sessions in the heartlands of his support base. Slovakia’s cabinet assembled in the small central town of Handlová on 15 May 2024. Following a session with his ministers, Fico headed with familiar resolve to greet a boutique crowd of supporters. Soon after he shook the hand of one of his fans, the PM was shot at point-blank by an elderly man. Seconds after Fico’s suited body was jolted by the blast, he was carried into a near-by limousine and airlifted to a local hospital where he arrived in a life-threatening condition.

According to some, this was the prototype of a ‘black swan’ – an unpredictable and unforeseen event typically causing dramatic impact. A closer look at recent developments in the Central European EU member state, however, suggests that the recent assassination attempt was more of a ‘grey swan’ – a high-impact event which, albeit deemed unlikely, was not entirely inconceivable.

Verbal as well as physical violence against public and political figures has been part of Slovak reality for some time now. While the brutal assault on Fico was the first attack on a sitting PM of an EU member state since the 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, it was not the first assassination attempt on a public figure in Slovakia – a landlocked country of just over 5.5 million people. Over the past six years, Slovakia has witnessed unprecedented levels of aggression against politicians and media representatives. In 2018 a gun-for-hire assassinated the young journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. Kuciak’s investigative work had exposed corruption at the highest levels of Slovak politics and business. In 2022, a teenage lone-wolf attacker set out to assassinate Fico’s predecessor, Eduard Heger. When the politician failed to show at his place of residence, the attacker redirected his rage against the LGBTQI+ community – murdering two men outside a gay bar in Bratislava.

Last year, the country’s outgoing president Zuzana Čaputová – a polls-topping pro-Western voice in Slovak politics and a staunch supporter of Ukraine – decided not to seek a second term in office. While citing lack of strength to take up another mandate, multiple death threats against her and her family were likely a key contributing factor. Recently a prominent journalist, Zuzana Kovačič Hanzelová, partially withdrew from public life after being attacked in broad daylight and enduring years of online abuse – often characterised by graphic descriptions of sexual violence. The ex-minister of defence and main driver of Slovakia’s early pro-Ukraine support, Jaroslav Naď, also admitted to receiving regular threats and said he had been sent a bullet in an envelope on the fifth anniversary of the Kuciak murders.

While non-lethal attacks and intimidation have increased in Slovak politics, the past half a decade has had a profound impact on the world of Robert Fico. The fervent critic of the media who once referred to journalists as ‘dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes’ was forced to resign in 2018 following the Kuciak murders. While not directly involved, Fico was widely considered responsible for creating an atmosphere of hatred that provided kudos to the businessman who allegedly ordered the killings. Things went downhill from there. The new government of Igor Matovič, a maverick campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, gave the police a free rein to persecute politicians for corruption. This led to arrests, indictments and, in some cases, convictions of some of Fico’s closest associates. As the noose was slowly tightening, Fico suffered yet another blow: the defection of 11 party colleagues headed by his former assistant and now coalition partner, Peter Pellegrini. Shortly thereafter, in 2022, the former PM and one of his closest party allies were indicted for ‘organising a criminal group’.

While Fico never saw the inside of a cell thanks to the intervention of the attorney general, it was clear he was now fighting for his political survival. Losing the election could lead to further persecution or perhaps even gaol time. Aware that anti-system voters were becoming an increasingly sizable demographic – Fico used every trick in the book to win their support: he became a covid sceptic; an anti-immigration warrior; and, most recently, a proponent of a ‘peaceful solution’ to the War in Ukraine, considered a cover for his pro-Moscow sentiments. His approach worked and he was re-elected as PM in September 2023. Since then, his government has abolished the special prosecutor’s office in charge of investigating many of his former and current allies, and passed a controversial law aimed at tightening state control over the country’s public broadcaster. Both steps triggered criticism from Brussels.

Hateful rhetoric has also become an integral part of his modus operandi. His attacks on political opponents have been particularly vicious. In 2022 at an SMER rally, Fico said of President Čaputová: ‘The bigger a prostitute, the bigger a whore, the bigger a villain, the bigger a celebrity [you become]’, later adding, ‘We have to take down the president.’ Soon after, the veteran politician also called the President an ‘American agent’ – suggesting she was a puppet of the US government. This label, designed to exploit the growing anti-Western sentiments brewing in Slovak society, triggered a series of death threats against Čaputová.

A week following Fico’s assassination attempt, many eyes are on Bratislava. How will the country famous for its ‘peaceful divorce’ from the Czechs handle the biggest crisis since its independence? Immediate reactions by some Fico allies were not encouraging – with SNS party leader Andrej Danko saying ‘For SNS, this is the beginning of a political war.’ Fico’s minister of interior, Matúš Šutaj-Eštok, while opting for much calmer demeanour, also used his recent press conferences to take a stab at the media and his political opponents by highlighting that the attacker’s hate of Fico was fuelled by hostile media coverage.

Calmer voices have, however, also emerged. The outgoing president, Zuzana Čaputová, expressed shock and condemned the attack. Her swift denouncement was echoed by leaders of all parliamentary opposition parties, the country’s key media outlets, and prominent NGOs. In an unprecedented show of bipartisanship, Čaputová and soon-to-be-inaugurated president-elect Pellegrini appeared side-by-side at a press conference less than 24-hours after the attack urging politicians and the public to refrain from contributing to further escalation.

This, however, seems to have done little to calm the fragile political situation. Fico, who is now able to communicate, allegedly told his deputies that ‘we will not be stopped’. At the first cabinet meeting since the attack, the leaders of the governing coalition agreed to continue ‘at the pace set by Fico’. Some fear this might lead to further assaults on the rule of law.

A week following the assassination attempt, Fico and the country’s democracy remain in a stable, yet critical condition. The following weeks and months will show whether they will be able to fully recover: Fico from the bullets that hit some of his vital organs; Slovak democracy from the now widely spread culture of extreme hostility; and its citizens from the feeling that violence has now become a commonplace way of settling political scores. Whether further grey swans will rock the country’s political landscape will largely depend on what long-term lessons the country’s political elite will draw from this assassination attempt and whether parties pro or against Fico will manage to rein in their supporters.


Daniela Richterova