Slovakia’s prime minister is expected to survive assassination attempt, deputy says

Slovakia’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and gravely wounded after a political event in an attempted assassination that shocked the small country and reverberated across Europe

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday, but his deputy prime minister said he believed Fico would survive.

The prime minister had been greeting supporters at an event when the attempted assassination took place, shocking the small country and reverberating across Europe weeks before an election.

“I guess in the end he will survive,” Tomas Taraba told the BBC, adding: “He’s not in a life threatening situation at this moment.”

Doctors fought for Fico's life several hours after the pro-Russian leader, 59, was hit in the abdomen, Defense Minister Robert Kalina told reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of the capital, government officials said. Fico was shot while attending a meeting of his government in the town of 16,000 that was once a center of coal mining.

A suspect was in custody, and an initial investigation found “a clear political motivation” behind the assassination attempt, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said as he briefed reporters alongside the defense minister.

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, but his return to power last year on a pro-Russian, anti-American message led to even greater worries among fellow European Union members that he would lead his country further from the Western mainstream.

Kicking off his fourth term as prime minister, his government halted arms deliveries to Ukraine, and critics worry that he will lead Slovakia — a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO — to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest Fico’s policies.

A message posted to Fico’s Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Banská Bystrica, 29 kilometers (17 miles) from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

The attack comes as political campaigning heats up three weeks ahead of Europe-wide elections to choose lawmakers for the European Parliament. Concern is mounting that populist and nationalists similar to Fico could make gains in the 27-member bloc.

But politics as usual were put aside as the nation faced the shock of the attempt on Fico’s life.

“A physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy,” outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement. “Any violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we’ve been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let’s stop it.”

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called the shooting “an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy. If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardizing everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty.”

The recent elections that brought Fico and his allies to power have underlined deep social divisions, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, Slovakia’s neighbor to the east.

Gábor Czímer, a political journalist at Slovakian news outlet Ujszo.com, said Fico’s return to power had uncovered signs that “Slovak society is strongly split into two camps” — one that is friendly toward Russia and another that pushes for stronger connections with the EU and the West.

“At the same time, I couldn’t imagine that it would lead to physical violence,” Czímer said.

Estok, the Slovak interior minister, told reporters outside the hospital that the country was “on the edge of a civil war” from the political tension.

“Such hateful comments are being made on social networks today, so please, let’s stop this immediately,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was alarmed by the assassination attempt. “We condemn this horrific act of violence,” he said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was “shocked and appalled” by the attempt on Fico’s life. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the violence against a neighboring country’s head of government.

“Every effort should be made to ensure that violence does not become the norm in any country, form or sphere,” he said.

Slovakia's Parliament was adjourned until further notice. The major opposition parties, Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, canceled a planned protest against a controversial government plan to overhaul public broadcasting that they say would give the government full control of public radio and television.

Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka called on all politicians “to refrain from any expressions and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension.”

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala wished the premier a swift recovery. “We cannot tolerate violence, there’s no place for it in society.”

The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia until 1992.

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Janicek reported from Prague. Associated Press Writer Justin Spike contributed from Budapest, Hungary.

Rescue workers wheel Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

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Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured following the cabinet's away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

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FILE - Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives to a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Media reports say on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 that Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was injured in a shooting and taken to hospital. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File)

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Rescue workers take Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

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Rescue workers wheel Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

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Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured following the cabinet's away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

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Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks during a press conference after the cabinet's away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May, 15, 2024. Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured after the away-from-home government meeting in Handlova, according to information confirmed by Parliamentary Vice-Chair Lubos Blaha, who suspended the House session. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

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FILE - Leader of the Smer-Social Democracy party Robert Fico addresses the media during a press conference a day after the Slovakia's general election in Bratislava, Sunday, March 1, 2020. Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was wounded in a shooting Wednesday May 15, 2024 and taken to hospital. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

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Rescue workers wheel Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

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Slovakia's prime minister was attacked by an armed assailant and hospitalized Wednesday. (AP Graphic)

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Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak speaks during a joint press conference with Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok, right, at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak pauses during a press conference at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Policemen stand outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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The Slovak and European Union flags fly outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Policemen stand outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Television crews report from the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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A police line is placed outside the entrance of the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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News crews walk outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Police and officials stand outside the entrance of the emergency room of the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Police and officials stand outside the entrance of the emergency room of the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Wards are lit at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Police and officials stand outside the entrance of the emergency room of the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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Police cars are parked outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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