Prime Minister of Slovakia in serious but stable condition after assassination attempt, hospital says

Prime Minister of Slovakia in serious but stable condition after assassination attempt, hospital says

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in serious but stable condition Thursday, a hospital official said, after the populist leader was shot multiple times in an assassination attempt that shook the small country and reverberated across the continent weeks before European elections.

A suspect was in custody, and Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said Wednesday that an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the attack on Fico while he was attending a government meeting in a former coal mining town.

The minister did not specify what the motivation was. Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, and his return to power last year on a pro-Russian, anti-American message led to even greater worries among fellow European Union members that he would abandon his country’s pro-Western course.

The attempt on Fico’s life Wednesday came at a time of high polarization in Slovakia as thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly rallied in the capital and around the country to protest his policies. It also comes just ahead of June elections for the European Parliament.

Fico’s government has already halted arms deliveries to Ukraine, and has plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor and to take control of public media. His critics worry that he will lead Slovakia — a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO — down a more autocratic path.

Zuzana Eliasova, a resident of the capital Bratislava, said the attack on Fico was a “shock” to the nation and an attack on democracy at a time when political tensions were already running high.

“I believe that a lot of people or even the whole society will look into their conscience, because the polarization here has been huge among all different parts of society,” she said.

Doctors performed a five-hour operation on Fico, who was initially reported to be in life-threatening condition, according to director of the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banska Bystrica, Miriam Lapunikova. He is being treated in an intensive care unit.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of the capital, government officials said.

Slovakia’s Security Council was set to meet in the capital of Bratislava on Thursday to discuss the situation, a government office said, adding that a government meeting would follow.

Fico returned to power in Slovakia last year, having previously served twice as prime minister. He and his Smer party have most often been described as left-populist, though he has also been compared to politicians on the right like the nationalist prime minister of neighboring Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

Fico’s comeback caused concern among his critics that he and his party — which had long been tainted by scandal — would lead Slovakia away from the Western mainstream. He promised a tough stance against migration and non-governmental organizations and campaigned against LGBTQ+ rights.

Despite the controversy surrounding Fico’s leadership, condemnation of the attack came from both his allies and adversaries. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message to Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, expressing his support and wishing the prime minister a fast and full recovery.

“This atrocious crime cannot be justified,” Putin said in the message released by the Kremlin. “I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-willed person. I truly hope these personal qualities will help him overcome this harsh situation.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also denounced the violence against a neighboring country’s head of government.

“Every effort should be made to ensure that violence does not become the norm in any country, form or sphere,” he said.

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Josek and Jenne reported from Bratislava, Slovakia. Associated Press journalists Jan Gebert in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed.

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