Slovak Premier in Critical Condition as Leaders Trade Blame

(Bloomberg) -- Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s injuries remain life-threatening even as his condition stabilized a day after he was shot, as a fuller picture emerged of a “lone wolf” assailant driven by political animus.

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The first assassination attempt on a European leader in more than 20 years has sent shockwaves through one of the continent’s most polarized countries and highlighted the inflammatory politics that have become prevalent since the pandemic and turbocharged with Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“We have crossed a red line in Slovakia that we have never before crossed since the foundation of our country,” Peter Pellegrini, a Fico coalition ally who is set to take office as president next month, told reporters outside the hospital in the city of Banska Bystrica where Fico underwent a five-hour surgery. Fico “escaped death by a hair’s breadth,” he said.

Pellegrini said he spoke with Fico, who was able to respond, “but only a few sentences.” The prime minister’s conditions remains “very critical,” he said, adding that Fico is not yet “completely safe.”

Fico, 59, was fired on at close range in an attack by a 71-year-old assailant during a public appearance northeast of the capital on Wednesday. The premier underwent surgery to treat “multiple” gunshot wounds and is being attended by a team of doctors, hospital Director Miriam Lapunikova told reporters.

‘Lone Wolf’

Authorities have identified the suspected assailant as Juraj C. from the western Slovak town of Levice. After a Security Council meeting in the capital Bratislava, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj-Estok said that while the suspect acted alone, police are focusing on a political motive for a man who participated in anti-government protests last year directed at Fico.

Clearly pointing a finger at critical media coverage, Sutaj-Estok said the suspect had been opposed to the government’s effort to scrap a special prosecutor’s office, halt military aid to Ukraine and overhaul public media.

“The shooter was interested in politics — he followed news you wrote,” the minister said, repeatedly urging journalists to report only facts and challenging the veracity of their reporting on Fico’s government.

Who Is Robert Fico, the Slovak PM Who Has Been Shot?: QuickTake

Pellegrini called on political parties to halt campaigning for the June European Parliament election, which has grown vitriolic in the nation of 5.4 million.

“Suspend your election campaign at least until the situation calms down and we know more about the investigation into this heinous act,” the president-elect told reporters earlier in the capital.

‘Political War’

While Fico is hospitalized, the head of government’s power devolves to his four deputies, though one may be tapped as an interim leader while the prime minister is incapacitated. Fico’s three-party coalition has a comfortable majority in parliament.

Slovakia’s bonds, which tend to be illiquid, were largely unchanged after the assassination attempt – a testament to the country’s euro-area membership shielding it from market volatility.

Slovakia’s most dominant political figure since the country joined the European Union 20 years ago, Fico returned to power last year as a force of opposition to EU institutions in Brussels. But his Russia-friendly stance has put him at odds with partners, threatening to undermine EU unity in helping Ukraine. At home, Fico has wielded his power to restrict media freedoms and overhaul the judiciary.

Read more: Shooting of Slovak Premier Brutally Exposes Political Divide

Political acrimony was unleashed soon after shots rang out, with Fico’s allies placing the blame on the opposition and “liberal” media. Andrej Danko, the leader of the Slovak National Party that governs in coalition with Fico, vowed “to start a political war.”

Slovakia’s outgoing president, Zuzana Caputova, called for calm after the shooting of a political figure who had branded her an “American agent.”

“As a society, we live in a time of many conflicts, but please let us not bring them to the level of hatred,” Caputova said Thursday.

It was the first shooting of a European head of state or government since the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The pro-European reformer who took a stand against organized crime in the Balkan nation was gunned down in central Belgrade.

Since his return to power, the Slovak leader has drawn protests nationwide for rewriting the criminal code and scrapping a special prosecutor’s office, tasked with fighting serious crime and corruption. Last month, he lashed out at the country’s media for what he called hostility to the government as his cabinet proposed tighter controls over public television and radio.

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--With assistance from Peter Laca, Andras Gergely and Zoltan Simon.

(Updates with president-elect’s comments from third paragraph.)

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