Slovaks debate if Fico will seek vengeance after assassination attempt
    Article by Financial Times

    WORLD  20 May 2024 - 17:05

    A recent article published by the Financial Times says that as Robert Fico recovers from the shocking attempt on his life, Slovaks ponder what kind of leader will emerge from the near-death experience. Will the prime minister turn the page or will he seek revenge and cement his grip on power?

    Fico was shot at close range last week in what authorities described as a politically motivated attack. On Sunday, the interior ministry said the attacker, who was apprehended at the scene, may not have acted alone as previously believed. The premier’s condition stabilised after two rounds of surgery following the shooting.

    The assassination attempt stunned Slovaks and reverberated across the continent only weeks before elections to the European parliament. The parliament in Bratislava was suspended and the main parties called for a temporary halt to the campaign for the EU vote.

    “People now focus on whether Fico can recover but then they will debate what he will do next,” said Matej Kováč, a political consultant.

    “I’ve seen every kind of change and deal that Fico could make and I feel he is our most talented politician, but he has so far used that mostly to be in power rather than to maintain a long-term vision for the country.”

    In October, the Moscow-friendly politician started his fourth term as premier in an unwieldy three-way coalition led by his Smer party. Tapping into long-standing pro-Russian sentiment in the country, Fico criticised EU sanctions against Moscow and called for a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine — a Kremlin line.

    The 59-year-old has sat in parliament since 1992 and has dominated domestic politics since Slovakia joined the EU two decades ago. He has helped fuel divisions within Slovak society while striking backroom deals with different parties to take power.

    Although Fico was a Communist before the fall of the Berlin Wall and positioned Smer as notionally social democratic, he has morphed into a nationalist conservative. He ran an anti-EU, anti-Ukraine and anti-migration campaign in last year’s general election.

    But since returning to power, he did not attempt to block EU aid to Kyiv, in stark contrast with his ally Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary. His government has also allowed Slovakia’s privately owned defence companies to send more weapons to Ukraine.

    Domestically, however, Fico has emulated Orbán on a number of policies, taking steps to stifle his critics in the media, civil society and law enforcement. These moves have prompted criticism from Brussels, human rights groups and the liberal opposition, who have all warned against the country heading in an authoritarian direction like neighbouring Hungary.

    On Wednesday, Fico was shot just as parliament was debating a controversial plan to overhaul RTVS, the public broadcaster, which he accuses of having a liberal bias. Others warn the reform would erode the editorial independence of RTVS.

    Fico has a long record of verbally attacking journalists, but unlike Orbán, he did not use his previous time in power to create a loyal media, said Balazs Jarábik, a former Slovak official now at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. That may be about to change.

    In his election campaign, Fico stoked anti-liberal resentment, accusing the mainstream media of being too deferential to the pro-EU parties that were in power before him, Jarábik said. Once he recovers, the premier could complete his mission of bringing the state broadcaster in line with his government.

    The ruling majority is also pressing ahead with a law critics say will crack down on foreign funding and stigmatise NGOs that receive it — in a move reminiscent of Hungary’s crackdown on opposition figures and civil rights groups that have financial ties with the West.

    In February the Slovak government closed down an anti-corruption agency, despite warnings from Brussels about the impact it would have on the rule of law and the risk of losing access to EU funds.

    Some European officials fear Fico could become a more disruptive force also within NATO, like Orbán, who delayed the accession of Finland and Sweden. Before the attempt on his life, Fico joined the Hungarian leader in opposing Dutchman Mark Rutte as the next secretary-general of NATO.

    However, up to now, Fico has proved to be more compromising in private than in his pugnacious public appearances, said a senior EU official, adding that the Slovak premier was “certainly not in Orbán’s league”.

    Wednesday’s shooting is not the first watershed moment for Fico. In 2018 he was forced to resign as premier amid mass protests over the killings of a journalist and his fiancée. The reporter, Ján Kuciak, was investigating ties between Smer politicians and organised crime.

    “Fico knows how to navigate difficult waters, but 2018 left him completely shocked by how abruptly he got forced out,” said a Western diplomat in Bratislava.

    “He now makes clever and opportunistic calculations combined with vengefulness towards those who ousted him, which includes a long list of journalists, prosecutors and civil society activists.”

    Other EU officials in the Slovak capital still hope the premier will not go full-Orbán.

    “When Fico came back to power, some people said he would now be the second Orbán, but there is still clearly a gap between what he says for his domestic audience and what he does, so it’s not a black-and-white story,” said an EU official. “I think he is very aware that Slovakia depends on EU money, so he will not go fully against EU rules and try to control everything in every area.”

    Caliber.Az

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