Slovakia was at the crossroads even before its leader's shooting

The attempted assassination of Robert Fico has exposed cracks in a country that is at the faultline of a divided continent

A person is detained after Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot at close range in an assassination attempt in Handlova last week. Reuters
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Slovakia was pitched into the global headlines last week, right when its fate represents a crisis point for Europe.

The attempted assassination of Robert Fico, the veteran and iconoclastic Prime Minister, was a graphic illustration of the tensions roiling the continent as the Russian war on Ukraine endures through a third year.

Mr Fico is a bounce-back politician who has held the Prime Minister’s office before and in his return to the European stage presents Brussels with a challenge that goes beyond the immediate discord over a withdrawal of support to Kyiv.

As he recovers from his life-threatening injuries, there will be a lull period, something underlined domestically by the main opposition declaring a 100-day moratorium on campaigning, even though the European Parliament elections loom next month. Those elections are ever more a faultline for the continent. The backdrop is Russia’s renewed headway along a fresh Ukrainian frontline, and the pressures there can now only be expected to build throughout the European summer.

Meanwhile, the victory of Peter Pellegrini, a Fico ally, in Slovakia’s recent presidential election confirms that the country is deeply polarised.

President Zuzana Caputova, the incumbent who has often clashed with Mr Fico and whose losing campaign portrayed her as an anti-populist candidate, secured more votes in this year’s election than she did in 2019. However, Mr Pellegrini’s victory consolidated the left populist movement’s grip on power in Slovakia.

The last government gave away all of Slovakia’s viable armour and Soviet-era air force equipment to Ukraine, then benefited from modernised western replacements. But when Mr Fico took over as Prime Minister late last year, he announced that all of Bratislava’s support would halt.

This made relatively few waves as Slovakia’s early support had been exhausted. It was his push to introduce reforms (which diminished the metropolitan elite institutions) that was causing greater ructions.

What binds Fico and Orban at this moment in history is the alignment of relationships with the Kremlin

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last week issued a report warning Brussels against punishing Slovakia for its lurch away from the bloc’s norms and standards on the judiciary and press freedom. The reason given in the report is that Slovakia could still fit into a trend of the awkward member.

Once synonymous with how then prime minister David Cameron tried to position the UK to ward off Brexit ahead of the 2016 election, pulling the lever marked “take back powers” is a fact of life in modern Europe.

Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch kingmaker, has just backed a new government in The Hague based on just that governing programme. Mr Wilders wants the Netherlands to exit EU migration policies to launch mass deportations of migrants, some of whom could soon have their visas revoked.

Mr Fico himself is a post-communist politician who is pursuing an agenda that overlaps with other renegade EU leaders who have bucked against the reins of Brussels.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, once a hero of the barricades who rose alongside the liberals driving the downfall of the communists, is the stocky exemplar of this type of politics. But there is a handful of other leaders going down the same track.

What binds Mr Fico and Mr Orban at this moment in history is the alignment of relationships with the Kremlin. European policy at its most ambitious is being held up. While western aid isn’t being crippled like it was during former US president Donald Trump’s four years in power, it is steadily more handicapped.

Mark Mobius, the celebrity investment guru for Fidelity International in the 1990s, used to appear in an advertisement asking if the viewer knew their Slovenia from their Slovakia.

At that time, then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, born in neighbouring Czech Republic, called Slovakia “the black hole of Europe”. It was briefly so out of line with the post-Cold War Eastern European trajectory that it was taken off the accession path to Nato.

Political violence is not something that has only now reared its ugly head in Slovakia.

During Mr Fico’s last term in 2018, an investigative journalist was shot dead by contract killers who also murdered the journalist’s fiancee for good measure. The ensuing protests brought down the Fico government. Back in the hot seat, the Prime Minister has taken on liberal media again and is attempting to shut down the state broadcaster RTVS, seeking to replace it with a new outfit under tighter regulations.

Europe’s make up is undergoing more structural change than at any time since the late 1990s. The trends are not new, but the war in Ukraine has heightened the tensions around the shifting politics.

The position of the continent’s neutral countries has not been insulated from these pressures either. Some like Sweden have repudiated the neutrality status despite decades of evolving the doctrine to suit their national defence.

When Ireland revealed that its top general, Sean Clancy, was poised to be installed as the head of the EU Military Committee last week, the news raised questions. How could a small nation that spends relatively negligible amounts on its defence take on such a pivotal role? Was French President Emmanuel Macron not calling for the bloc to turn its spending firepower to defence in the face of a world threatened by war?

That Lt Gen Clancy was succeeding an Austrian general, the leader of another neutral force, seemed to reinforce the antiquated nature of the move.

Meanwhile Switzerland, where I just spent a part of last week, is the most famously neutral country. Its officials have spent weeks preparing for a peace conference, to be co-hosted by Ukraine, next month. This is a truly important effort to get talks started for the first time since the spring of 2022.

However, the conference has been scheduled to be held a day after the G7 meeting in neighbouring Italy – and, tellingly, Russia has not been invited.

Published: May 20, 2024, 4:00 AM