Slovakia's Fico says he was targeted for Ukraine views, in first speech since assassination attempt

FILE - Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives to a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Fico, has been released from hospital where he was treated after an assassination attempt on May 15. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File) (Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BRATISLAVA – Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico said Wednesday he believes he was targeted for having a Ukraine position contrary to the European mainstream but bears no malice toward the gunman who seriously wounded him three weeks ago.

The prerecorded speech posted online by Fico, who opposes military aid to Ukraine, was his first appearance since the assassination attempt and came just days ahead of his country’s polling Saturday in European Parliament elections.

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Fico, who took office last fall after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform, has been recovering from multiple wounds after being shot in the abdomen as he greeted supporters on May 15 in the town of Handlova. The assailant has been arrested, but not named by authorities, who at first said he acted alone but later said they were searching for a “third party.”

Seemingly in good shape as he spoke, Fico pledged to be back at work in about a month and said he felt “no hatred” towards his attacker and planned no legal action against him. “I forgive him,” he said during the 14-minute speech,

Still, he slammed the opposition and others, saying: “After all, it’s evident that he only was a messenger of evil and political hatred.”

Fico, considered a leftist populist leader, suggested that his views on Russia’s war on Ukraine and other issues that sharply differ from the European mainstream made him a victim. Fico ended his country’s military aid for Ukraine after his coalition government was sworn in on Oct. 25. He also opposes EU sanctions on Russia, and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.

“It’s cruel to state this, but the right to have a different opinion has ceased to exist in the European Union,” he said, blaming unspecified Western countries for the alleged situation.

Fico was released from hospital in the central city of Banska Bystrica last week, and taken to his home in Bratislava, where he continues to recuperate.

A video of the attack shows him approach people gathered at barricades and reach out to shake hands as a man steps forward, extends his arm and fires five rounds before being tackled and arrested. Fico immediately underwent a five-hour surgery, followed by another two-hour surgery two days later.

The country’s Specialized Criminal Court in the town of Pezinok ordered the suspect, who is charged with attempted murder, to remain behind bars. Prosecutors told police not to publicly identify the suspect or release details about the case.

Government officials originally said they believed it was a politically motivated attack committed by a “lone wolf,” but later announced that a “third party” might have been involved in “acting for the benefit of the perpetrator.”

Fico said Wednesday he “had no reason to believe” that it was an attack by a lone deranged person.

Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party won Slovakia's Sept. 30 parliamentary elections and is in a close race to win the European Parliament election against the main opposition Progressive Slovakia, a pro-Western liberal party.

His government has made efforts to overhaul public broadcasting — a move critics said would give the government full control of public television and radio.

That, along with his plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor, has led opponents to worry that he would lead Slovakia down a more autocratic path, following the direction of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

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

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