Suspect in court as Putin’s friends capitalise on shooting of Slovakian PM Robert Fico

<span>Policemen guard the area as they wait for the suspect in the shooting of Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, to be brought to court in Pezinok, Slovakia.</span><span>Photograph: Tomas Benedikovic/AP</span>
Policemen guard the area as they wait for the suspect in the shooting of Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, to be brought to court in Pezinok, Slovakia.Photograph: Tomas Benedikovic/AP

The suspect in the shooting of Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico appeared in a closed court hearing on Saturday outside Bratislava amid growing fears about the future of the deeply divided nation.

The media was barred from the hearing, and reporters were kept behind a gate by armed police officers wearing balaclavas.

Fico, shot several times at point-blank range during a rally in the mining town of Handlová, had more surgery on Friday as the country reeled from the most serious attack on a European leader in decades.


The government has released only sparse details about the assailant or the health of the prime minister , who remains in a stable but serious condition.

Slovak media identified the attacker as Juraj Cintula, 71, who the authorities described as a “lone wolf” who had recently been radicalised.

A poet and former security guard, Cintula was known in his home town of Levice in provincial Slovakia as an eccentric but likable man.

His political views appear to have developed erratically. He is seen railing against violence in one YouTube clip, but later praising a violent pro-Russian paramilitary group on Facebook for their “ability to act without approval from the state”. He later adopted staunchly pro-Ukrainian views, which grew increasingly strong after Russia’s invasion.

In his published writing and personal conversations, Cintula expressed xenophobic views about the Romany community in Slovakia, a popular topic among the country’s far-right parties.

Neighbour and friend Mile L’udovit said the pair would occasionally discuss politics and that Cintula had been angry about the growing attacks on free speech under Fico’s leadership, a major topic of concern for the Slovakian leftwing opposition.

“No one knows why he did it, but I think it was a ticking timebomb before something like this would happen,” said Pavol Šimko, a 45-year-old history teacher, speaking in central Bratislava on Friday.

Wednesday’s assassination attempt in Handlová, 112 miles from the capital, has shone a light on what officials and many Slovaks say should be seen as a wider symptom of the country’s polarised political environment.

“We are now truly becoming the black hole of Europe,” added Šimko, referring to comments made by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who coined the phrase to describe Slovakia in 1997 after the abduction of the son of then president Michal Kováč and the murder of a key witness in the case, police officer Róbert Remiáš.

Acts of political violence have become a grim fixture in recent Slovak history, but this latest is by far and away the most serious.

Other European leaders close to Fico, a divisive and populist official who has been criticised by the opposition for lashing out at independent media outlets and scrapping a special prosecutor’s office, have appeared to be eager to capitalise on his shooting.

Speaking on state radio on Friday morning, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, drew a link between Fico’s views on the war in Ukraine and the attempted assassination.

Since Fico’s return to power, “Slovakia started on the path of peace, and this was a big help for Hungary,” Orbán said. “We have now lost this support. We know that the perpetrator was a pro-war person,” he added, without providing any evidence.

The Hungarian prime minister, who often employs conspiratorial narratives, has spent more than a decade nurturing a relationship with the Kremlin and has repeatedly argued the west should stop providing support to Ukraine.

Of course [Fico] he became the target. There are only a few like him in Europe. And they need to take care of their own safety

Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president

In his radio interview, he suggested – again without evidence – that the shooting in Slovakia was part of a geopolitical struggle. “The combinations that connect the assassination attempt with the war are not unjustified,” he said.

“The pro-war parties are negotiating with each other, which is why the head of the [George] Soros empire and the US secretary of state also went to Kyiv,” Orbán said.

In Moscow, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev praised the Kremlin-friendly Fico, also implying that he was targeted for his views on the Ukraine war. “Of course, he became the target. There are only a few like him in Europe. And they need to take care of their own safety,” he said.

Ľudovít Ódor, opposition party Progressive Slovakia’s lead candidate for the European parliamentary elections, said that foreign politicians “should not misinform foreigners and should not make political capital out of this for themselves”.

In an interview with independent Hungarian news outlet Partizán, Ódor, who briefly served as Slovakia’s caretaker prime minister last year and comes from Slovakia’s Hungarian-speaking minority, warned that “we have seen how this just comes back like a boomerang to us”, noting that many people in southern Slovakia watched Hungarian media.

The attack has also raised questions about a possible failure by the Slovak security services and sparked fears in other European capitals that similar incidents could occur there.

Slovak authorities have opened an investigation into the response of security forces at the scene. A source said that the security services were caught off guard and that Cintula was not known to them.

“Other European security services will be looking at their measures, realising that the danger can come out of nowhere,” the source said.

Polish PM Donald Tusk said on Thursday he received threats after the assassination attempt on his Slovakian counterpart, with a media outlet reporting his security protection would be strengthened.

In Belgium, prime minister Alexander De Croo filed a police complaint against a radio presenter who urged listeners to “take him out”.

Related: ‘The genie is out of the bottle’: Robert Fico shooting highlights far wider crisis in Slovakia

“You see that it is possible to shoot down a prime minister. So I would say: Go ahead,” the radio presenter told his listeners on a station that airs from the Belgian province of West Flanders.

Some in Slovakia said they were anxious the attack would embolden the authorities to launch assaults on the media, civil society and the opposition parties.

“I worry that the ruling coalition will now use the shooting as a pretext for a big crackdown. They already started blaming the opposition and the media for it,” said Lenka Szabóová, a student in Bratislava. “This should be a time of coming together. But it seems like it will only tear us apart.”