Social divisions and hostile rhetoric in Slovakia provide fertile ground for political violence

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A man walks with a child next to a banner that reads "Violence is Not the Way" and " No Violence" in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Friday, May 17, 2024. When a gunman shot Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico this week, shock rippled across the Central European country even though the pro-Russia leader himself warned that the country was so divided that an assassination attempt was possible. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

BUDAPEST – When a gunman shot Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico this week, shock rippled across the Central European country — even though the pro-Russia leader himself warned that the nation was so divided that an assassination attempt was possible.

Slovaks have long disagreed over the path their country should take; should it retain traditional ways and a friendly relationship with Moscow or embrace liberal values and press ever closer to the West. But recently that polarization over the country’s future, fueled by vitriolic rhetoric from politicians, has deepened.

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The country of 5.4 million has been beset by large protests deriding Fico's policies since he returned to power in September, after campaigning on a nationalist and EU-skeptic platform.

Slovakia, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, was one of neighboring Ukraine’s staunchest supporters when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022. Fico, seeking closer ties with Moscow, vowed to immediately cease providing weapons assistance to Kyiv.

This shift alarmed many Slovaks who had envisioned a future firmly aligned with the West and the European Union.

Slovakia was once firmly behind the Iron Curtain as part of Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution , which started in 1989, ushered in an end to communist rule, and the dissolution of Czechoslovakia — the Velvet Divorce — soon followed, bringing independence to Slovakia in 1993.

Grigorij Meseznikov, a political scientist who heads the Institute for Public Affairs think tank in the capital Bratislava, said Slovak society has been divided ever since because of the economic and social inequities that emerged as the country transitioned to a democratic market economy. But he blamed what he called the hostile communication strategies of Slovak politicians for the growing hostilities in recent years.

“While polarization is a reflection of the real dividing lines in society, the confrontation is a function of the politicians, it’s a consequence of political style,” Meseznikov said.

Slovakia’s “pro-liberal democratic forces” stand in contrast to Fico’s brand of pro-Russian national populism, he said, characterized by “provoking hostility with radical rhetoric and blaming political opponents.”

The wave of protests that has swept Slovakia came in opposition to some of Fico’s central policies, including his plan to overhaul the penal system and to take control of Slovakia’s public broadcaster.

Last month, the prime minister said on Facebook that he believed rising tensions in the country could lead to the murder of politicians, and blamed the media for fueling divisions. He referred to journalists and liberal Slovak politicians as “rats.” He called a major television network, two nationwide newspapers and a news website his enemies, and refused to communicate with them.

But the tensions didn't begin when Fico took office.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Slovakia particularly hard and many Slovaks rejected vaccinations and lockdowns and resisted the then-government's efforts to impose them. Fico, a vocal critic of Slovakia's pandemic response, was detained by police in 2021 for organizing an anti-government rally that had been banned due to lockdown rules.

Disagreements ratcheted up again with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, pitting pro-Western Slovaks against those who prefer a more conciliatory approach toward Russia.

Government officials have criticized protesters and opposition politicians who speak out against Fico's policies, calling them servile to a perceived Western liberal order headed by the EU and United States.

Jan Lipnican, a 27-year-old software engineer from Banska Bystrica — where Fico remained hospitalized after the shooting — said everybody is responsible for the societal division.

“In Slovakia, it’s not really left or right. It’s like populists versus the progressives,” he said. “Everyone is pointing the finger at each other, they don’t want to work together. Everyone is trying to polarize.”

Zuzana Izakova, a Bratislava resident, said on Friday that society must "realize that we cannot create such a hostile environment, and there should be some act of self-reflection from both sides.”

Still, Fico’s political allies have been eager to cast blame on their opponents for precipitating the attack.

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said Thursday that the shooting suspect cited his dissatisfaction with Fico's policies as motivation for the attack and that he had recently attended an anti-government protest. Estok said the man was “radicalized” by liberal politicians and he blamed the media for inciting what he characterized as a “politically motivated attack.”

“We are standing on the edge of civil war,” Estok said. “The assassination attempt on the prime minister is a confirmation of that.”

Some Slovak leaders have sought to allay tensions and avoid assigning blame. At a news conference on Thursday, outgoing President Zuzana Caputova portrayed the divisions as a problem for which all the country's leaders bore responsibility.

“As a society, we live in a time of many conflicts, but please don’t push them to the level of hatred,” she said. “What happened yesterday was an individual act. But the tense atmosphere of hatred was our collective work.”

But others directly blame Fico's hostile narratives for turning people against each other.

“This society is divided because of Robert Fico and his Smer party, they have been dividing and radicalizing society, and I think this is the result of all that," said Marian Kulich, a Bratislava resident.

“We are living in a Russian information war in Slovakia,” Kulich added. “Russian propaganda has an influence here and people believe the disinformation. Society has been divided for a long time and this is another thing that will radicalize them even more.”


Associated Press reporters Stanislav Hodina in Prague and Bela Szandelszky in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, contributed reporting.

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