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Slovakia's Leader Survives Surgery After Shooting, Deputy Says

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Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, a fixture in the country's politics and known for defying his fellow leaders in the European Union, underwent hours of emergency surgery on Wednesday after being shot five times and critically wounded in a town in central Slovakia, in what officials said appeared to be a politically motivated assassination attempt.

His deputy, Tomas Taraba, told the BBC that the operation appeared to have gone well. "I guess in the end he will survive," he said.

The shooting was the most serious attack on a European leader in decades, drawing shock and condemnation from Slovak officials and other European leaders and stoking fears that Europe's increasingly polarized and venomous political debates had tipped into violence.

The events were captured on videos, which showed Mr. Fico, 59, approaching a small group of people behind a waist-high metal barrier on a public square in the town of Handlova, when a man stepped forward and fired a pistol from just a few feet away. Five bangs could be heard.

With the first bang, Mr. Fico doubled over at the waist and fell backward onto a bench as more reports ring out. Security officers then hustled him into a black Audi several feet away, half-carrying him to the car's rear door. He was taken to a local hospital and airlifted to another for surgery.

Security officers at the scene of the shooting wrestled a suspect to the ground, and officials said that initial evidence pointed to political motivations. The authorities did not identify the suspect, whom Slovak news outlets described as a 71-year-old poet. The country's interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, said more information would be made public "in the coming days."

The president of Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova, whose position is largely ceremonial, said in a statement, "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 shooting also drew a chorus of condemnation from world leaders, including President Biden, who called it a "horrific act of violence," and Russia's leader, Vladimir V. Putin, who lauded Mr. Fico as a "courageous and strong-minded man."

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Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia on a visit to Prague in February. Credit...Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Fico began his three-decade political career as a leftist but over the years shifted to the right, as did the party he founded, Smer. He served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018, before returning to power in elections last year. After being ousted amid street protests in 2018, he was re-elected on a platform of social conservatism, nationalism and promises of generous welfare programs.

Mr. Fico presented himself as a pugnacious fighter for the common man and an enemy of liberal elites and immigration from outside Europe, and he aligned with Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, in opposing aid to Ukraine and challenging mainstream opinions within the European Union.

Domestically, his critics accused him of undermining the independence of the news media, opposed his efforts to restrict foreign funding of civic organizations and called him a threat to democracy. They also accused Mr. Fico of seeking to take Slovakia back to the repressive days of the Soviet bloc.

Here is what else to know:

Pavol Strba and Gaya Gupta contributed reporting.

May 15, 2024, 7:06 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 7:06 p.m. ET

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The Slovak national flag, left, next to the flag of the European Union flying at the Presidential Palace in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava.Credit...Denes Erdos/Associated Press

Slovakia, which was left reeling on Wednesday after an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico, is a relatively young country whose history is closely intertwined with that of its central European neighbors.

Slovakia is one of two nations born out of the former Czechoslovakia amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the waning years of the 20th century.

Czechoslovakia was a multiethnic nation established at the end of World War I that endured dismemberment by the Nazis and more than four decades of Communist rule. But during the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when independence movements gained strength throughout the Soviet Union, a series of largely peaceful protests called the Velvet Revolution led Czechoslovakia first to independence and then to a split, often referred to as the Velvet Divorce, that left two nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After several years of economic and political upheaval following its independence, Slovakia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and adopted the euro in 2009. As the country navigated the establishment of its national identity, some tensions remained with the Czech Republic, its richer and larger neighbor, which has roughly twice Slovakia's population of five million.

Like much of Europe, Slovakia has been deeply polarized over the past decade. Mr. Fico, who has been a leading politician in the country since its independence, was forced to resign from office in 2018 amid sweeping protests over the murder of a journalist who was investigating government corruption.

He was re-elected last fall, after taking a pro-Russian campaign stance that capitalized on Slovakia's historical Russian sympathies.

May 15, 2024, 5:33 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 5:33 p.m. ET

Slovakia's deputy prime minister, Tomas Taraba, told the BBC late on Wednesday that Fico's emergency surgery appeared to have gone well.

"He's not in a life-threatening situation at this moment," Taraba said.

May 15, 2024, 3:02 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:02 p.m. ET

When asked about the identity of the attacker, the interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, declined to provide further detail. "Not today," he said, adding that officials would provide more information in the "coming days."

May 15, 2024, 2:43 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 2:43 p.m. ET

The interior minister also told reporters that Fico was still in surgery and remains in critical condition.

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Credit...Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

May 15, 2024, 3:05 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 3:05 p.m. ET

The prime minister was shot five times, he said.

May 15, 2024, 2:43 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 2:43 p.m. ET

Slovakia's interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, said in a news conference that an investigation into the attack against Mr. Fico is ongoing, and initial evidence "clearly points to a political motivation."

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Credit...Denes Erdos/Associated Press

May 15, 2024, 1:41 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 1:41 p.m. ET

Hours after the attack, the police in Slovakia have not offered any details or issued a statement on the assassination attempt. They asked the media and the public to disable comments on social media posts and articles about the attack.

May 15, 2024, 1:24 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 1:24 p.m. ET

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Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal of Ukraine and Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia met in April.Credit...Peter Lazar/EPA, via Shutterstock

Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister whose life was in danger after being shot on Wednesday, was elected in 2023, completing an unlikely political comeback after resigning from the position in 2018 after major street protests over the killing of an investigative journalist.

Mr. Fico won in part on a message of social conservatism, nationalism, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric and promises of generous welfare programs. But it was another key plank of his campaign that alarmed many countries in the West: His unsparing support for Russia in its war against Ukraine.

A public opinion poll in March 2023 found that 51 percent of Slovaks believed that either the West or Ukraine were "primarily responsible" for the war. Mr. Fico capitalized on the sentiment, campaigning on stopping all arms shipments to Ukraine while blaming Russia and Ukraine equally for the war.

In October, Mr. Fico said he was halting all military aid to Ukraine, though he said nonmilitary aid would continue. The decision was met with outrage among other E.U. members and supporters of Ukraine.

Mr. Fico, who was prime minister for a decade before resigning in 2018, has aligned himself rhetorically with Viktor Orban, the pro-Russian leader of neighboring Hungary.

"Fico was inspired by Orban, but does not have the same deep ideological roots, and is more of a pragmatist," Ludek Sekyra, a Czech businessman who chairs the Sekyra Foundation, a supporter of liberal causes, said in October. "He has been adept in exploiting unease over the vast influx of Ukrainian refugees, small-country resentment of the European Union and Russian sympathies that do not exist in the Czech Republic."

Though he won the election, he remains reviled by many voters outside his party's loyal base. His party, Smer, is nominally leftist but has moved to the right on immigration and cultural issues.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called Mr. Fico a "courageous and strong-minded man," adding that this "monstrous crime cannot have any justification."

May 15, 2024, 1:05 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 1:05 p.m. ET

Videos from the scene indicate that the attacker shot the prime minister, Robert Fico, in Banikov Square, in the center of the town of Handlova. The attacker is seen standing with other people behind a barrier before shooting Mr. Fico when he came to greet them. Mr. Fico had been at an event in Handlova's House of Culture, according to Slovakian media.

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CreditCredit... RTV Prievidza via Storyful

SLOVAKIA

Handlova

SLOVAKIA

Handlova

May 15, 2024, 12:53 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:53 p.m. ET

The parliament of Slovakia has suspended its meetings and said it was "significantly" bolstering its security measures in response to the attack on Fico.

May 15, 2024, 12:32 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:32 p.m. ET

President Biden said he was "alarmed to hear" about the attack on Fico and condemned the "horrific act of violence."

"Jill and I are praying for a swift recovery, and our thoughts are with his family and the people of Slovakia," he said in a statement, adding that the U.S. Embassy was in "close touch" with Slovakia's government and stood ready to assist.

May 15, 2024, 12:24 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:24 p.m. ET

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Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and seriously wounded on Wednesday.Credit...Vladimir Simicek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Robert Fico, 59, has played a pivotal role in Slovakian politics in the years since it gained independence in 1993 and has served as prime minister longer than any other leader.

Slovakia — a landlocked country of around 5 million people — gained independence after the so-called Velvet Revolution, a series of popular and nonviolent protests in 1989 against the Communist Party in what was at that time still Czechoslovakia. That year, the Berlin Wall fell, Communist power in much of Eastern Europe collapsed and the Cold War in effect ended.

Mr. Fico, who had been a Communist Party member while it was in power, founded the Smer party in the late 1990s. He began the first of his three terms as prime minister in 2006, serving for four years before going into opposition after his coalition lost an election. Mr. Fico returned to power in 2012 but resigned as prime minister in July 2018 following mass demonstrations over the murder of a journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, who had been uncovering government corruption. The protests, which rocked the country, were the largest seen since the Velvet Revolution; demonstrators demanded the resignation of the government and new elections.

Slovakia ranks high in independent assessments of press freedom, but the protesters had also sought deeper changes in the country Mr. Fico had overseen.

The Smer party started out on the political left but has increasingly embraced right-wing views on immigration and cultural issues. Much of the international discussion of Mr. Fico's leadership in recent years has focused on his ties to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, Slovakia's southern neighbor. Like Mr. Orban, Mr. Fico has been a staunch critic of the European Union.

After a parliamentary election last fall, Mr. Fico began his third term as prime minister, then had heart surgery the next month. He emerged to form a coalition government after securing around 23 percent of the vote, having campaigned against sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Not one round of the country's ammunition should be sent to Ukraine, he had told voters.

That stance, in a country where pro-Russian sentiment had historically been significant, worried E.U. leaders in Brussels, who said they feared that Slovakia could form a pro-Russian alliance with Mr. Orban and, potentially, Italy's leader, Giorgia Meloni, that would impede support for Ukraine in the European Union. At the time, it was also seen as a sign of the apparent erosion of the pro-Ukrainian bloc that Europe had formed after the invasion.

Slovakia's military contributions to Ukraine were negligible compared with countries such as the United States and Britain. But last year it became one of several European Union countries on Ukraine's borders to block imports of its grain, fearing that it could undermine Slovakia's farmers.

In April, an ally of Mr. Fico, Peter Pellegrini, won a vote to become Slovakia's president. The position is largely ceremonial, but analysts said the victory strengthened the grip of political forces friendly to Russia in Central Europe, given that Mr. Pellegrini opposed providing military and financial aid to Ukraine.

Mr. Fico was born on Sept. 15, 1964, into a working-class family in the city of Topolcany in the Nitra Region of what is now Slovakia. He graduated in 1986 from Comenius University Bratislava, where he received a law degree, according to the Slovak government's website. He earned a doctorate at the Institute of State and Law at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and served in the military from 1986 to 1987.

Mr. Fico studied in the United States, Britain, Finland, Belgium and France, specializing in human rights and criminal law, according to the government website. He married Svetlana Ficova, a lawyer and professor, and they have a son. News reports in Slovakia say the couple is separated.

A correction was made on 

May 16, 2024

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Italy's leader. She is Giorgia Meloni, not Georgia.

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May 15, 2024, 12:10 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:10 p.m. ET

Slovakia's president, Zuzana Caputova, said at a news conference in Bratislava that the police had arrested the suspected perpetrator at the scene. She again expressed her shock over the attack, calling it an "attack on democracy."

Video

CreditCredit...JOJ via Reuters

May 15, 2024, 12:15 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:15 p.m. ET

Peter Pellegrini, who will soon assume the Slovak presidency, echoed that sentiment. "An assassination attempt on one of the highest constitutional officials is an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy," he wrote on social media. "If we express different political opinions with guns in the squares, and not in polling stations, we endanger everything we have built together in 31 years of Slovak sovereignty."

May 15, 2024, 12:00 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:00 p.m. ET

Slovakia's interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, said that the assassination attempt would be investigated "as quickly as possible." "Slovakia is experiencing the worst day of its democracy," he wrote on Facebook. "For the first time in the 31 years of our democratic sovereign republic, it happened that someone decided to express a political opinion not in an election, but with a gun on the street."

May 15, 2024, 11:57 a.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 11:57 a.m. ET

Fico was airlifted to the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banska Bystrica, a city near Handlova, according to Slovak officials.

Video

CreditCredit...JOJ via Reuters

May 15, 2024, 12:01 p.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 12:01 p.m. ET

He was taken there because it would have taken too long to get to the capital, Bratislava, according to his official Facebook page.

May 15, 2024, 11:51 a.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 11:51 a.m. ET

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Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called the attack "vile."Credit...Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Leaders from the European Union and beyond expressed shock at the assassination attempt against Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, on Wednesday, even as the details of the shooting incident outside Bratislava, the capital, remained unclear.

Mr. Fico remains in the hospital in "life-threatening condition," according to his staff.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called the attack "vile" on social media. "Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good," she added.

Charles Michel of the European Council, the other major European Union institution, expressed shock on social media and wrote, "Nothing can ever justify violence or such attacks."

Mr. Fico has had a testy relationship with European Union partners, expressing pro-Russian views and at times siding with Hungary, the bloc's closest Russian ally. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and Mr. Fico's personal ally, said he was "deeply shocked by the heinous attack against my friend, Prime Minister Robert Fico."

But such conflicts were put firmly aside as European leaders grappled with the attack against Mr. Fico, which has come just weeks before a major European Union-wide election is to be held between June 6 and 9.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said that he was "shocked" by the shooting. "I strongly condemn this attack," he wrote on X. "My thoughts and solidarity are with him, his family and the Slovak people."

António Guterres, the U. N. secretary general, strongly condemned the "shocking attack" against Mr. Fico, according to a statement from his spokesperson's office, adding that his thoughts were with the prime minister and his loved ones.

Violent attacks, especially shootings, against elected officials have been extremely rare in recent European history.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine also took to social media to voice shock at the assassination attempt against Mr. Fico. While Slovakia's support for Ukraine has waned recently, it was the first country to deliver fighter jets there when its war began.

"We strongly condemn this act of violence against our neighboring partner state's head of government," wrote Mr. Zelensky. "Every effort should be made to ensure that violence does not become the norm in any country, form, or sphere," he said.

May 15, 2024, 11:33 a.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 11:33 a.m. ET

Images from the scene published by the Reuters news agency showed what appeared to be members of Fico's security detail running around a black sedan. Other photographs and video showed a person handcuffed on the ground at the scene.

Video

CreditCredit...Reuters

May 15, 2024, 11:27 a.m. ET

May 15, 2024, 11:27 a.m. ET

Attacks against elected officials are virtually unheard of in recent European Union history, contributing to the deep shock over the attempt on Robert Fico's life.

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