(Bloomberg) -- Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico suffered life-threatening injuries after being shot in public, the first assassination attempt on a European leader in more than two decades that underscores the deep polarization in the country.

Fico, 59, was rushed to the hospital and remains in surgery and in “very serious” conditions following an attack by a 71-year-old man during an appearance away from the capital. The alleged assailant was identified only as Juraj C. from the western Slovak town of Levice and the police believe he had a “clear” political motivation, government officials said.

The dominant political figure in the eastern European nation of 5.4 million since the fall of communism, Fico returned to power last year as a force of opposition to European Union institutions in Brussels. His Russia-friendly stance has put him at odds with partners, threatening to undermine EU unity in helping Ukraine.  

“What happened today is an insurmountable scar that will haunt us for many years,” Defense Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters at the hospital. “We have endured a very tragic day that for us means the fight for the life of the prime minister.”

 

It was the first shooting of a European head of state or government since the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The pro-European reformer who took a stand against organized crime was killed after being gunned down in central Belgrade.

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, one of Fico’s chief critics in the country, earlier condemned what she described as a “brutal and reckless attack” on the prime minister. 

“I am shocked,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I wish Robert Fico every strength to recover from the attack at this critical time.” Hateful rhetoric leads to “hateful actions,” she told reporters later. 

Fico was walking toward a crowd of people when five shots were fired, according to video from the scene. The prime minister could be seen falling to the ground. He was then lifted by security guards, loaded into a car and driven away, media reported.

Slovakia’s parliament in Bratislava suspended its session as leaders across the political spectrum rebuked the assault, the first of its kind in the nation’s history. Fico’s allies seized on the attack to accuse the opposition of inflaming division in the country.

Read more: Who Is Robert Fico, Slovak Leader Hit in Shooting?: QuickTake

A polarizing figure, Fico made a political comeback last year after resigning in disgrace in 2018 in response to mass protests over the killing of an investigative reporter probing corruption in Slovakia. 

A close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fico has been accused of adopting Orban’s playbook for eroding independent institutions to shore up his power. The Hungarian leader said he was “deeply shocked by the heinous attack against my friend,” according to a post on social media platform X. 

Target of Protests

Since his return to power, Fico has drawn protests nationwide for rewriting the criminal code and scrapping a special prosecutor’s office, tasked with fighting serious crime and corruption. Last month, he lashed out at the country’s media for what he called hostility to the government as his cabinet proposed tighter controls over public television and radio. 

Still, Western leaders were united in their condemnation of political violence against a head of government in an EU and euro-area member state. President Joe Biden condemned the “horrific act of violence.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it a “cowardly attack.”  

“Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on X. 

Gun ownership isn’t common in Slovakia and restrictions on obtaining weapons are tight. Still, the country is no stranger to gun violence. In the 1990s, after the nation emerged from the split up of Czechoslovakia, it grappled with a spate of mafia-style killings – including a 1999 shooting at a restaurant in which 10 men were killed. 

The investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, was also gunned down at his home with his fiancee in 2018. 

In Handlova, Fico’s cabinet approved a plan to build a nuclear reactor, joining a push across the European Union’s east to expand atomic energy production.

(Updates with further comments from defense minister, details on assailant from third paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.