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Wednesday 15 May 2024

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Slovak Prime Minister Has Life-Threatening Injuries After Shooting

Updated  ET

Photo: Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters

Slovakia’s populist prime minister and longtime leader, Robert Fico, was in critical condition after being shot multiple times at close range by an unidentified gunman, officials in the central European country said Wednesday.

The suspected gunman was apprehended after the shooting of the 59-year-old premier in the city of Handlova, east of the Slovak capital.

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A post on Fico’s Facebook page said he had been flown by helicopter to a hospital in a nearby city for urgent treatment. “The next few hours will be decisive,” the post said. A spokeswoman for European Council President Charles Michel said Brussels was informed that Fico was alive.

At least five shots were fired, according to footage from the scene carried by local media, when Fico approached a group of people behind a police barricade. Video showed Fico doubled over and struggling to walk while being led to a black car in his motorcade.

Police could be seen in another video detaining a man spread across the sidewalk while agitated onlookers shouted in confusion. Slovak authorities gave no information on the identity or motivation of the attacker, according to Foreign Minister Juraj Blanar.

Robert Fico has been the most prominent political figure in Slovakia for two decades. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The attack shook Slovakia, where Fico—recently elected to his fourth term in office since 2006—has been the most prominent political figure for two decades. He won the election last year in part on a promise to drastically curtail Slovak support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

The shooting comes less than a month before elections for the European Parliament in which right-wing parties from across the continent are expected to increase their share in the legislative body.

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“We may not fully comprehend yet the seriousness of what has happened today,” Slovak President Zuzana Caputova said in a televised speech. “The shooting of the prime minister is first and foremost an attack on a human being—but it’s also an attack on democracy.”

The Slovak parliament suspended work with plans to reconvene at the earliest on May 21, a spokeswoman said following the shooting.

President Biden denounced the attack as a “horrific act of violence.”

“Our embassy is in close touch with the government of Slovakia and ready to assist,” the White House said in a statement.

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The shooting drew condemnation from across the political spectrum on the continent with offers of support from European Union leaders as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the bloc’s European Commission, joined in condemnation of the shooting. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the attack “a cowardly assassination attempt.”

European officials said Fico suffers from health problems that could complicate treatment.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was transported by helicopter for treatment. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A social democrat who emerged in the 1990s, Fico veered sharply to the right after Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, joining Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in staking out an increasingly pro-Russian foreign policy within the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

Fico resigned in 2018 after the killing of an anticorruption reporter sparked protests in Slovakia, only to ride a more nationalistic campaign to his fourth term in office last year. All the while—unlike Orban—he has managed to avoid outright conflict with Europe or the U.S., quietly supporting Ukraine and other consensus positions within the EU or NATO on some issues, and vocally opposing the Western establishment on others.

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In April, Fico’s close ally and like-minded nationalist-populist leader Peter Pellegrini won elections to succeed Caputova when her term ends next month.

Orban, who has been ideologically aligned with Fico on aid to Ukraine and has expressed affection for their friendship in public, condemned Wednesday’s attack.

He said on X: “I was deeply shocked by the heinous attack against my friend, Prime Minister Robert Fico. We pray for his health and quick recovery! God bless him and his country!”

A man is detained in Handlova, Slovakia, after the shooting of Prime Minister Robert Fico on Wednesday. Photo: Radovan Stoklasa/Associated Press

In recent decades, Europe has been relatively immune from political violence. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was killed in 1986, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Dindic was killed in 2003 and two British members of Parliament were killed since 2016, one of them shortly before the British vote on leaving the EU.

While the EU has encountered terrorist attacks over the past two decades and saw mass slaughter during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, the bloc’s expansion across the continent since the 2000s has created a zone of relative political peace to which many Europeans are now accustomed.

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In recent years there has been a growing polarization in politics in central and eastern European nations that joined the EU since 2004, said Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to Bulgaria’s prime minister.

On top of that is the recent rise across the continent of fake news and disinformation, she said.

“When you couple this with weak institutions or institutions that are still in the making, the result can be really, very vulnerable governance systems, and I think this is true for many of the countries in the region,” she said.

In Slovakia, political violence is rare, though tensions have risen in recent years with an increase in political populism that has seen parties smear each other in increasingly denigrating terms.

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Still, the shooting laid bare the tension in Slovakia’s already polarized landscape. A short exchange between members of parliament saw a lawmaker from Fico’s Smer party blame the opposition for the shooting, local media reported.

Political extremism has been bubbling up in Slovakia for years. During Fico’s previous stint as prime minister, police cracked down on far-right political figures seen as violating Slovakia’s hate-speech laws, including lawmakers charged with posting ethnic and religious slurs online.

The 2018 killing of Slovak reporter Ján Kuciak, 27, and his fiancée in their home prompted the largest demonstrations since the fall of Communism and pressured Fico to resign. After stepping down, Fico started staking out increasingly right-wing positions and gaining support from voters disenchanted with the country’s more pro-European technocratic and liberal leadership.

Ann M. Simmons contributed to this article.

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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