Somewhat unfairly, Slovakia is often overlooked and ignored as a quiet and peaceful backwater in the often turbulent turmoil of east European geopolitics. The assassination attempt that almost ended the life of its controversial prime minister Robert Fico yesterday has changed all that. Fico was shot five times in the abdomen and arm. After undergoing emergency surgery, he is now said by doctors to be stable, and likely to survive his life threatening injuries.

That unity is unlikely to last long if Fico bounces back from his brush with death

The suspected gunman, whose motives are still unknown, was arrested at the scene, and has been named as Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old former security guard and published poet, who ironically once led a group opposing political violence.

Fico, 59, recently won a fourth term as Slovakia’s prime minister, and has proved a deeply polarising figure: splitting the country into two almost equal halves. His Smer, or social democracy, party is a left-wing populist movement which, like Viktor Orban’s neighbouring Hungary, has increasingly cosied up to Russian president Vladimir Putin and been reluctant to support Ukraine in resisting Russia’s invasion.

Fico, like Orban, has also been critical of the EU, and similarly to Hungary and Poland’s former ruling PIS party, has clashed with Brussels over laws which the EU has criticised as authoritarian. Another charge levelled at Fico and Smer by the pro-EU Slovak opposition parties is corruption. Fico had to resign as prime minister once before in 2018 after a young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered: an unsolved crime linked to circles allegedly connected to the ruling party.

Now that Fico has himself fallen victim to violence how will the attempt on his life affect Slovakia and the wider politics of Europe? The country is in the midst of next month’s European parliament elections and Smer is likely to benefit from a sympathy vote from Slovaks shocked by the assassination attempt.

Supporters and opponents of the prime minister – including the outgoing president Zuzana Caputova – a political opponent of Fico – were united in expressing their grief and horror at the shooting, but that unity is unlikely to last long if Fico bounces back from his brush with death.

Slovakian history shows that the country has a long affection for political strongmen. During the Second World War, it broke away from Czechoslovakia and was ruled by Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest who ran it as a Nazi puppet state and was executed after the war.

After the war, with Czechoslovakia reunited, the Slovak part of the country produced both Alexander Dubcek – hero of the 1968 Prague Spring – and Gustav Husak, the Soviet stooge who ruled as a dictator after Russian tanks crushed hopes of Dubcek’s liberal  ‘socialism with a human face’.

Czechoslovakia led the way in overthrowing Soviet communism in 1989’s ‘velvet revolution’ but the Slovaks always resented their status as a rural also ran to their more numerous and sophisticated Czech compatriots. Another strongman, Vladimir Meciar, led the movement which split the two states and inaugurated Slovakia’s independence in 1992.

If Fico recovers, and resumes his premiership, he is likely to ride the tide of a wider movement that is spreading both inside and outside Slovakia, especially as Russia appears to have gained the upper hand in Ukraine. In the face of Putin’s aggression, that movement does not bode well for Ukraine’s freedom – or that of the rest of Europe.

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