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Slovakia's prime minister is shot in an assassination attempt


Officials in Slovakia say that, after hours of surgery, the prime minister, Robert Fico, is in stable but serious condition. He was shot several times at a political event yesterday while meeting supporters. Police have a suspect in custody and say this assassination attempt was politically motivated. NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering this story from Berlin. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. What happened, and how is the prime minister doing?

SCHMITZ: Well, after around five hours of surgery last night, Robert Fico is now in stable condition - serious condition - and he is conscious. And that was after arriving to the hospital in a helicopter in critical condition yesterday afternoon from being shot in the abdomen and left hand at an event in the central Slovak town of Handlova. Fico was shaking hands with supporters when a man approached with a pistol and fired five shots before being tackled by security. The suspect is a 71-year-old man described by local news as a poet who is a critic of Fico's government.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about when a president is attacked in the United States - the whole country comes to a pause. Ronald Reagan being shot in 1981...


INSKEEP: ...Is something that happened in my lifetime. Everybody's focused on that for a time. How have people been responding in Europe to this assassination attempt?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, same here in Europe - I mean, wide condemnation. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a vile attack that has no place in a democratic country like Slovakia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack appalling. Reaction inside Slovakia has carried a similar tone, albeit with a tinge of politics, given the tense political atmosphere in the country. At a press conference at the hospital where Fico was last night, Slovakia's Defense Minister Robert Kalinak denounced the political environment that he said led up to this event.


ROBERT KALINAK: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: Here is Kalinak insisting that the assassination attempt was purely about politics, and he seemed to blame the opposition parties in parliament for stoking this, saying, we were not the ones who talked about revenge - saying, it's time to look in the mirror. But, you know, many political observers here say it's Fico's party that has created this political environment.

INSKEEP: OK, so if this is about politics, let's understand what the politics are. Who is Robert Fico and the party he represents?

SCHMITZ: Robert Fico is 59 years old. He's been a fixture of Slovak politics for two decades, serving as a populist prime minister three times. His party is a left-wing nationalist party, and he is friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian strongman, Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Fico has pushed for state control over Slovakia's free press, and he's been plagued by corruption scandals.

In 2018, he was forced to step down after protests against him following the murders of a Slovak investigative journalist and his fiance. The journalist had been working on stories about connections between the Italian mafia and members of Fico's inner circle. Fico later faced criminal charges for creating an organized crime group, but a prosecutor close to Fico's party then threw out the indictment. Fico is a very controversial figure, both in Slovakia and throughout the EU, for his pro-Russia and illiberal political stance.

INSKEEP: I can hear strands of that that are very specific to Slovakia and other things that maybe resonate farther across Europe.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting. You know, this gets to a bigger issue throughout Europe at the moment - the rise of nationalist, populist political figures and the stark political divisions that are being fought on the ground. You know, the European Parliament elections are coming up in a few weeks, and we see those very divisions in the campaigns for office. It's a really tense political time in Europe and beyond.

INSKEEP: Glad you're there covering it, Rob. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.