Small Assassination Attempt in Slovakia; Not Many Hurt

19 May 2024

Small Assassination Attempt in Slovakia; Not Many Hurt

By Gwynne Dyer

Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, once called Slovakia “the black hole at the heart of Europe,” which seems a harsh judgement on five million Slovaks. The assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico was alarming, but we can narrow the problem down to a more specific group of people.

Albright was really talking about the gang of ex-Communists in which Fico honed his political skills. Some were violent thugs from the start, and their tactics have enabled them to hold power in Slovakia for almost half the time since Communist rule was overthrown in 1989. But first, let’s be clear on what this attempted assassination did not mean.

It does not herald a new era of political extremism in Europe. It stands on the lowest rung of the escalation ladder, in which some ‘lone wolf’ individual with obscure or unknown motives tries to kill a prominent political figure.

That always generates speculation about broader motives, like Slovak security expert Juraj Zabojnik’s remark that “when four or five shots are fired, someone is at fault. I didn’t see anyone jump in front of the prime minister” (to take a bullet or five for him).

Come on. Maybe Fico’s bodyguards were distracted, or maybe they just didn’t love him enough to die for him.

The second rung of the ladder is when governments arrange the killing of opponents at home or abroad. This is fairly common, and ranges from India ordering contract killings of Sikh nationalists in Canada to Israel killing Iranian generals with ballistic missiles in Iran’s embassy in Syria. It is seen as very naughty, but not worth a war for.

The highest level is reached when governments arrange the murder of the heads of other governments. That is very rare, because the consequences can be unpredictable and extreme.

Serbian army officers set up the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and triggered the First World War. The murder of John F. Kennedy might have caused the Third World War if the CIA had concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, his assassin, had been acting on Moscow’s orders. (He did spend time in the Soviet Union.)

However, the events in Slovakia last week will not cause a war. “We are on the doorstep of a civil war,” warned Matúš Šutaj Eštok, the interior minister in Fico’s government, stirring up panic while pretending to calm it, but Slovakia is nowhere near that.

Fico’s Smer Party is the kind of nationalist-populist organisation that is now commonplace in eastern Europe. It tries to shut down opposition media – “hyenas, idiots, and anti-Slovak prostitutes”, in Fico’s words – and it likes Putin’s regime in Russia. It loathes Jews, Roma, gays, Ukrainians and the European Union (although it takes EU money).

In other words, Fico is the lost twin to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. They are both cousins to Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński (except that his Law and Justice Party, being Polish, is deeply pro-Catholic and anti-Russian). And they all look hard-right, but it’s more complicated than that.

The fact, generally unmentioned in polite company, is that most underskilled, poorly educated people did better under the Communist regimes than they are doing now. They are getting old, which makes them feel even more excluded. And since Eastern European countries have very low birth rates, they are still quite a big chunk of the adult population.

So if you are an ambitious younger politician who is flexible on ideology, this is the voting group you need to appeal to: disappointed, left-behind, and with all the old national prejudices intact. Orbán started out as a liberal firebrand and he managed to find them; Fico started out as a careerist young Communist and he found them too.

This cohort are not stereotypically ‘right wing’. They dislike minorities and fear immigration, but they are all in favour of big state welfare spending. They are not much concerned about human rights and media freedoms, and a little rough stuff doesn’t bother them either.

The attack on Fico was a much bigger deal and of course they are concerned, but they are unlikely to respond with violence. After all, their party is still safely in power – and anyway, it’s not clear who they should attack.

The man who shot Fico, Juraj Cintula, was a 71-year-old retired security guard with no known political ties, although acquaintances say he had previously supported some of Fico’s policies and opposed others. We don’t know what he was thinking last Wednesday, but it seems to have been a fairly random event.

Fico will survive, although his injuries are clearly life-changing. There is a ‘surge’ in violent rhetoric in Europe, but not in actual violence. As for the voting block that empowers people like Fico, it is ageing out one year at a time.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“That always…him”; and “Serbian…Union”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.