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Slovakia’s populist prime minister shot in assassination attempt, shocking Europe before elections

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives to a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Feb. 1. Media reports say on Wednesday that Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was injured in a shooting and taken to hospital. Associated Press File Photo

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia — Slovakia's populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday while greeting supporters at an event in an attempted assassination that shocked the small country and reverberated across Europe weeks before an election.

Doctors were still fighting for his life several hours after the pro-Russian leader, 59, was hit in the abdomen, Defense Minister Robert Kalina told reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated for his wounds.

He said an operation on Fico was not yet complete and described his condition as “extraordinarily serious.”

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 85 miles northeast of the capital, government officials said. Fico was shot while attending a meeting of his government in the town of 16,000 that was once a center of coal mining.

A suspect was in custody, and an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the assassination attempt, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said as he briefed reporters alongside the defense minister.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Kalinak added.

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, but 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 lead his country further from the Western mainstream.

His government halted arms deliveries to Ukraine, and critics worry that he will lead Slovakia — a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO — to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest Fico's policies.

A message posted to Fico's Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Banská Bystrica, 17 miles from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

The attack comes as political campaigning heats up three weeks ahead of Europe-wide elections to choose lawmakers for the European Parliament. Concern is mounting that populist and nationalists similar to Fico could make gains in the 27-member bloc.

“A physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy,” outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement. “Any violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we've been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let's stop it.”

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called the shooting “an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy. If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardizing everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty.”

The recent elections that brought Fico and allies to power have underlined deep social divisions.

Gábor Czímer, a political journalist at Slovakian news outlet Ujszo.com, said the results showed that “Slovak society was strongly split into two camps” — one that was friendly toward Russia and another that pushed for stronger connections with the European Union and the West.

“At the same time, I couldn’t imagine that it would lead to physical violence,” Czímer said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was alarmed. “We condemn this horrific act of violence,” he said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was “shocked and appalled” by the attempt on Fico's life, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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.

Fico, who is in his fourth term, and his leftist Smer, or Direction, party won Slovakia's Sept. 30 parliamentary elections.

But politics as usual were put aside as the nation faced the shock of the attempt on Fico's life.

Slovakia's Parliament was adjourned until further notice. The major opposition parties, Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, canceled a planned protest against a controversial government plan to overhaul public broadcasting that they say would give the government full control of public radio and television.

Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka called on all politicians “to refrain from any expressions and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension,” Simecka said.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala wished the premier a swift recovery. “We cannot tolerate violence, there's no place for it in society.”

The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia until 1992.

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