Slovakia at a Crossroads After Fico’s Attempted Assassination
Fabio Turco 20 June 2024

Things will not be the same for Slovakia following the attempted assassination of Premier Robert Fico. It will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of the country. Fico remains under strict medical supervision, but his conditions are improving day after day. Now is the time to speculate on the possible repercussions for the future of Slovakia. Both positive and negative.

Something similar happened six years ago: the murder of reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnirová. That tragedy resulted in increased social and political instability, which eventually led, in turn, to those five gunshots aimed at Fico. More blood has been spilled, but perhaps this second episode of violence will compel Slovakia to turn over a new leaf.


A Crossroads

Slovakian politics now faces a crossroads. One road leads to more violence, with increasingly extreme results. The other may lead in the opposite direction entirely.

For now, the latter path seems to be prevailing. Shortly after the assassination attempt, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok stated: “We are standing on the edge of civil war.” Some feared the government might respond to the attempt with severe punitive measures. However, the security council summoned a few days after does not seem to lean that way. For now, the only practical consequence consisted of a reinforcement of security measures for the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Peter Pellegrini, on June 15.

Despite the overall climate of paranoia, parliament approved a resolution that aims to finally put an end to the violence that has characterized Slovakian politics in the last few years. Fico’s would-be assassin, 71-year-old Juraj Cintula, has stated that he shot the premier because he disagreed with his politics. All now believe that a line has been crossed. Indeed, outgoing and incoming presidents, Zuzana Čaputová and Peter Pellegrini, issued a joint statement calling for a return to normality. Moreover, all parties have agreed to suspend campaigns for the upcoming European elections.


A Long Period of Instability

The question on everyone’s mind is, how did we get here?

The answer is not simple. It requires a brief history lesson, beginning with the velvet divorce, that is, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, all the way up to recent events, and how they have intertwined with the personal and political story of Robert Fico.

One of the earliest challenges Slovakia faced as a young country was the encroachment of organized crime, principally from Albania and the Italian region of Calabria. Criminal organizations, which largely used (and indeed still use) Slovakia for money laundering, have long benefited from the tacit support of law enforcement and political institutions, themselves plagued by internal corruption. In the Nineties, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described Slovakia as the black hole of Europe. Indeed, the years under Premier Vladimír Mečiar’s two mandates, between 1992 and 1998, were marked by unregulated privatization, strange murders, and expanding corruption.

Things changed with the election of 1998. The five-party coalition of new premier Mikuláš Dzurinda brought stability and reduced the budget deficit to less than 3 percent. This eventually led to the country joining both the EU and NATO in 2004.


Enter Fico

Things changed once more with the election of 2006. Much of the population was dissatisfied with Dzurinda’s austerity policies, not to mention the country’s high unemployment rate. Enter electoral candidate Robert Fico, 42 at the time, but already with a long career in politics behind him. In 1999, he had founded the party he still leads today, Smer-SD (Direction – Social Democracy), a center-left party with right-wing tendencies. During his first mandate as premier, Fico led a coalition that included Mečiar’s Movement for Democratic Slovakia and the nationalist party, SNS. Both parties remain important allies for Fico to this day.

Following the disappointing results of the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which Smer failed to form a majority coalition despite receiving the most votes, Fico went on to win the snap election of 2012, with an absolute majority for Smer. Years of relative stability followed: despite Fico’s intemperate disposition, which often led him to clash with the press, under his guidance the country managed to withstand a number of crises. A political opponent, Andrej Kiska, won the presidential election of 2014, but Fico was still able to lead a four-party coalition to yet another electoral victory in 2016.


The Watershed

On February 21, 2018 reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were shot to death in their home of Vel’ká Mača, just over 40 miles from Bratislava.

Kuciak, who worked for the news website, was investigating tax fraud involving people connected to Smer, as well as ties between the government and Calabrian organized crime. The double homicide caused a wave of outrage across the whole country, the largest public demonstrations since the fall of Communism, and a political crisis that led to Fico’s resignation. Hence, 2018 constitutes a watershed year: it was the year people started taking to the streets, as well as the year Fico transitioned from the government to the other side of the barricade. Indeed, since then, he has not been a stranger to climbing literal barricades.

He remained the head of the party for two years, while his friend and former vice premier, Peter Pellegrini, led the government. Following the elections of 2020, in which Smer lost to a diverse anti-corruption alliance, Pellegrini betrayed Fico by founding his own party, Hlas. However, the new government was unable to withstand the challenges posed by the pandemic. The new premier, Igor Matovič – also known for his impulsive disposition – was forced to resign after only a year. From that moment on, the government hung by a thread, plagued by internal animosity and resignations, until it finally collapsed in May 2023. In the meantime, Fico embraced the role of populist leader, aligning himself with those who opposed anti-contagion policies and signaling his support to anti-vaccination activists.

The war in Ukraine provided him with a further opportunity to oppose the government. Fico openly criticized the government’s pro-NATO stance, promising that, once elected, weapons for Ukraine would no longer be able to transit through Slovakia. As it happens, Fico did not go on to honor that promise, but it nevertheless exacerbated the internal divisions of a country that has long been seen as one of Russia’s closest allies in Europe.


The Risk of an Autocracy

After narrowly avoiding the loss of parliamentary immunity due to organized crime charges, Fico ran in the snap elections of 2023. Once again, he won, though not as resoundingly as on previous occasions: the social-democratic coalition he leads holds a majority of only four seats. However, this has not prevented Fico from immediately swerving away from the political direction the country had been following. His new policies leave no space for compromise, and from the beginning they have seemed to threaten the stability of both the country itself and its wider region. Indeed, Fico’s new government has born strong resemblances to that of Viktor Orbán.

Fico began by officially suspending communications with media institutions that did not toe the party line: TV Markíza, Denník N, SME and 

After that, Fico enacted a hotly contested penal code reform that abolished the role of the special prosecutor’s office, in charge of dealing with organized crime and government corruption. Initially, the reform would have also reduced sentencing for white-collar crimes, from twenty years to five, but this change was successfully opposed by the European Commission and national protests.

Another contested bill is the so-called “Anti-NGO Law,” according to which any NGOs that receive more than 5,000 euros a year in foreign funding are “organizations with foreign support.”  This bill, which is currently in second reading in parliament, has drawn criticism from the European Commission and the Council of Europe.

A third bill would lead to the dismantlement of the country’s public broadcasting organization, RTVS. Fico has promised he will replace it with a new broadcaster controlled by the government. Parliament is scheduled to vote on this bill soon, but it seems likely that it will pass with no problem: Peter Pellegrini, once again a friend of Fico’s, is now the president, and there is no sign he will veto it.

One might wonder if the attack on May 15 somehow altered the perfect alignment of planets that had come into being for the head of Smer.

The answer is provided by the results of the recent European elections, where the most voted party was Progressive Slovakia, the main opposition group, with 27.8 percent of the votes. Smer’s second place is only an apparent disappointment for Fico, who made his first video appearance a few days before the vote, following the attack. The 24.7 percent represents a leap forward compared to the last parliamentary elections (22.9 percent) but more importantly, marks a clear affirmation over the ally-rival Hlas, which garnered only 7.2 percent, half compared to the parliamentary elections. This is an evident shift in votes, indicating a polarization within the Slovak electorate. A further indication of this trend is the rise of Republika, an extraparliamentary far-right formation, which increased to 12 percent. A dangerous mix, but ultimately positive for Fico to make the electorate swallow even the bitterest pills.



Cover photo: Presidential Peter Pellegrini (L) and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico,  on April 6, 2024 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Vladimir Simicek / AFP)



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