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What we know about the assassination attempt on Slovakia's prime minister

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico is in critical condition after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds at a political event in Central Slovakia. Police do have a suspect in custody. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to go over what happened. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. I mean, this is a pretty rare event in Europe - right? - an assassination attempt on a prime minister. What do we know at this point?

SCHMITZ: Well, we know that Robert Fico, the 59-year-old prime minister of Slovakia, was visiting supporters in the Central Slovak town of Handlova this afternoon when, as he was shaking hands with these people, a man approached him and shot him several times at close range. Local media report the suspect as a 71-year-old man who is now in police custody. Government officials say the attack was politically motivated. Here's audio from footage taken immediately after Fico was shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And Ailsa, you can hear people here yelling...

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: ...Sort of chaotic scene as police tackled the suspect and Fico was being carried to his limo by security personnel. A helicopter then took him to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery, which lasted more than 3 1/2 hours. The defense minister said Fico is in critical condition and that the prognosis is, quote, "complicated."

CHANG: What's been the reaction so far?

SCHMITZ: Well, shock and outrage across the board here in Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a vile attack and said, such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack appalling. The reaction in Slovakia has been one of shock and anger. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Lubos Blaha, who is a member of Fico's political party, was on the floor of Parliament when he began to blame those in Slovakia's opposition party for the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUBOS BLAHA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And Ailsa, he's shouting here at opposition politicians, saying, this is your doing. They then cursed and yelled back at him. It was a moment that exemplifies some of the stark political divisions in Slovakia.

CHANG: Tell us more about that. Like, tell us more about Robert Fico and the party that he represents in Slovakia.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Fico has been a prominent figure in Slovak politics for nearly two decades. He's been prime minister three times in the past 18 years, and his party, named Smer in Slovak, which means direction, is a left-wing nationalist party that has close ties with the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin. As prime minister, he has pushed for state control over Slovakia's free press. He's been plagued by corruption scandals.

In 2018, he was forced to step down after mass protests against him following the murders of a Slovak investigative journalist and his fiance. The journalist had been working on stories about connections between the Mafia and member of Fico's inner circle. He later faced criminal charges for this, but a prosecutor threw it out. Many observers I've spoken to say Fico ran for office last year because he wanted to escape future charges. It's safe to say that he is a controversial figure both in Slovakia and throughout the EU.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thank you so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.