Slovakian prime minister fighting for his life after assassination attempt

Robert Fico
Robert Fico, Slovakia's prime minister, was shot while in the Western Slovakian town of Handlova - JAN KROSLAK/AP

Robert Fico, Slovakia’s pro-Russian prime minister, is fighting for his life after being shot by a would-be assassin.

The pro-Russian firebrand, 59, was hit in the hand, stomach and leg as we went to greet a crowd in the Western Slovakian town of Handlova after a government meeting.

A voice was heard shouting “Robo come here” to the prime minister from the crowd of about 50 onlookers outside a cultural centre before four shots rang out at about 2.50pm local time.

“He shouted at him to come closer, he lured him to him and pulled out a gun,” said one witness.

“When the shots rang out, I almost became deaf,” a woman at the scene said.

Local media later identified Juraj Cintula as the gunman. The 71-year-old man from Levice, reported to have owned the gun legally, was swiftly brought to the ground and arrested by police.

There was no indication of a possible motive. Mr Fico has links to Russia and has been mired in the past by a mafia scandal.

Footage of the aftermath showed a suited Mr Fico is seen being picked up from a flower bed by four bodyguards, his back to the metal railing separating him from the public.

As armed security and police enter the crowd, Mr Fico is carried, bent double, to a car by two of his guards, while the others flank them on their guard for further attacks.

The camera pans to show two policemen on top of what appears to be another person on the ground. The railing is pulled back so Mr Fico’s car can pass, which it does at speed.

Mr Fico, who was elected for a fourth stint as prime minister in October after running a campaign promising to end support for Ukraine, was helicoptered to Banska Bystrica Hospital from Handlova, which is 93 miles from the capital Bratislava.

Footage showed the prime minister being rushed into the hospital on a stretcher. A message posted on Mr Fico’s Facebook account said he had “been shot multiple times and is currently in life-threatening condition”.

“The next few hours will decide,” it said after explaining he was taken to Banska Bystrica Hospital, 63 miles away from Handlova because it would take too long to get to Bratislava for emergency surgery.

Before Mr Fico was taken into the operating room, medical staff at the hospital had their mobile phones confiscated to ensure a news blackout around the surgery.

This is the first assassination attempt on a senior politician in the modern history of Slovakia, which separated from the Czech Republic on Jan 1 1993.

However, government officials have faced intensifying death threats since the war in Ukraine.

Until the Left-wing populist’s election, Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. However, Mr Fico has railed against EU sanctions on the Kremlin and opposed sending weapons to Ukraine.

His victory was seen as a blow to pro-Western forces and a boon to leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has also criticised sanctions for harming the economy.

Despite accusations that he is a pro-Putin patsy, the eurosceptic Mr Fico has refused to join a Czech-led coalition of EU states buying ammunition for Kyiv. He campaigned on a promise not to send “one more round” to Ukraine from Slovakia, where there is deep distrust of Nato.

The Russian ambassador to Slovakia condemned the shooting. Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Kremlin propaganda channel RT, said that Ukraine should be blamed for the assassination attempt.

That would suit Moscow but there is no serious suggestion that Kyiv is responsible for an attack on the leader of a Nato and EU member state, which are two organisations Ukraine wants to join.

‘Appalling attack’

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, condemned the attack as “appalling”. “We sincerely hope Robert Fico recovers soon and express our solidarity with the people of Slovakia,” he said.

Vladimir Putin said he knew Mr Fico as a “brave and determined” man and he hoped those qualities would ensure his survival.

Rishi Sunakm the British Prime Minister, said he was “shocked to hear this awful news”. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack”.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said: “Shocking news from Slovakia. My thoughts are with Robert Fico and his family.”

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, said he was “deeply shocked by the news of the cowardly attack” and added that violence should not exist in European politics.

Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia and one of Putin’s most fierce critics, said, “An attack against an elected leader is also an attack against the very idea of democracy.”

Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia’s president-elect and a close ally of Mr Fico, called the assassination attempt on the Prime Minister “a threat to everything that has adorned Slovak democracy so far.”

Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia’s president, condemned “a brutal and ruthless” attack.

Mr Fico led the ruling Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party in 1999 and has led it ever since. He holds the record for the longest-serving prime minister in Slovak history.

Smer politicians pointed the finger of blame at progressive journalists for stoking hatred against a prime minister known for his love of bodybuilding, fast cars, and football, and hatred of migrants and Covid regulations.

Maroš Žilinka, General Prosecutor, vowed that law enforcement would be uncompromising in pursuing justice and punishment for the attacker.

“It is the culmination of those sentiments that are nurtured in society. It is a manifestation of hatred, a manifestation of an attack not only on a person but also as an attack on the prime minister, as well as an attack on the very essence of statehood,” he said on social media.