Robert Fico: why the attempted assassination of Slovakian prime minister could fuel the information war between Russia and Europe

The assassination attempt on Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico on May 15 has sent a shockwave through Europe. Unfortunately political assassinations are not unheard of in this part of the world – indeed, Slovakia itself continues to reverberate from the 2018 assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, an act which led to the collapse of a previous Fico-led government.

However, attacks of this manner on politicians are rare (outside of post-Soviet countries). There has not been an attack on a figure as high-level as Fico in several decades. The suspect in the shooting has been arrested, but it remains far too early to speculate about a possible motive. With that said, it is virtually certain that this will have a massive impact on Slovak, and even European Union, politics.

Even before the events of May 15, the political atmosphere in Slovakia has been quite fraught. Fico and his Smer party have largely dominated the political scene in the country since the 2000s. Before his current term, which began in 2023, he led the government from 2006 to 2010, and from 2012 to 2018.

Fico is ostensibly a centre-left politician. But in many ways his populist and nationalist politics more closely resemble those of Viktor Orbán, the far-right authoritarian prime minister of Hungary. Smer is a member of the Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament but its membership was suspended in late 2023 because of its rightward drift.

Notably (again alike Orbán), Fico is considered one of the most pro-Russian political leaders in Europe. He ran his 2023 election campaign on a platform of ending Slovakia’s financial and military support for Ukraine.

Russian media outlets have immediately seized on this to accuse Ukraine of masterminding the assassination attempt against Fico. Margarita Simonyan, the editor of RT, claimed Ukraine “should be blamed” for the shooting. Importantly, no evidence has currently been uncovered linking Ukraine to the attack. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has personally condemned the attack and expressed his hope for Fico’s recovery – and solidarity with the people of Slovakia.

There are both domestic and regional implications in the wake of this attack. For Slovakia, it is likely that tensions in the country will be ratcheted up. Election campaigns have increasingly been fought in charged environments since the first time Fico came to power in 2006 in a coalition with two illiberal and nationalist parties, the Slovak National Party and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.

This was particularly the case in the 2023 elections, where the alignment of Slovakia on the Russia-Ukraine War was a principal concern. In a Eurobarometer survey around that time, the war was rated as the most important issue facing the country, but with nearly 50-50 splits in support for either providing or opposing assistance to Ukraine.

This polarisation has already begun to play out in the way politicians – both on the side of the government and in opposition – have responded to the attempted assassination.

Interior minister Matúš Šutaj-Eštok alleged that the attack was clearly “politically motivated” and that the country stood on the brink of “civil war”. Worryingly, in a country with a recent history of violence towards journalists, both Šutaj-Eštok and his colleague Lubos Blaha have blamed the country’s “liberal media” for sowing “hatred”.

Interior minister Matus Sutaj Estok and defence minister Robert Kalinak holding a press conference.

Interior minister Matus Sutaj Estok and defence minister Robert Kalinak hold a press conference at the hospital where Fico is being treated. AP/Alamy/Denes Erdos

Given these comments, and the parlous state of media freedom throughout the Visegrad region – which contains the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – it would not be surprising to see some form of crackdown.

Before the attack, Fico was already rolling out plans to place the Slovak national broadcaster under governmental control, sparking protests from the public. There will also rightly be concerns about the potential for Slovak democracy to come under pressure. Again, here, Fico had been engaged in a war of words with the nation’s supreme court before the attack, and had warned that he was monitoring the body closely.

Outside of Slovakia, the attack is very likely to become another front in the ongoing information war between Russia on one side and the EU and Ukraine on the other.

The truth or accuracy of Russia’s accusations about Ukraine involvement may effectively prove to be irrelevant. In the contemporary atmosphere, disinformation has been proven to be stubbornly difficult to challenge and rebut.

Coming as it does amidst both a major Russian offensive in the east of Ukraine and the campaigns for European Parliament elections, the attack on Fico has the potential to add a greater sense of instability to an already contentious environment.

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