Slovakian Leader in ‘Life-Threatening Condition’ After Shooting

A gunman shot Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia, who is known for defying his fellow leaders in the European Union, multiple times at close range on Wednesday, leaving him in what his office called “life-threatening condition.”

Mr. Fico was shot after emerging from the House of Culture in Handlova, a town in central Slovakia, as he greeted a small crowd in Banikov Square. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, then airlifted to another hospital for emergency surgery.

The gunman, identified by Slovak news outlets as a 71-year-old poet, was immediately wrestled to the ground by security officers.

The interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, said at a news conference that the initial evidence “clearly points to a political motivation.”

Mr. Fico was shot five times and remained in critical condition several hours after the attack, Mr. Eston said. Asked to name the attacker, he said, “Not today.”

The attempted assassination, the most serous attack on a European leader in decades, stoked fears that Europe’s increasingly polarized and venomous political debates had tipped into violence.

Mr. Fico began his three-decade political career as a leftist but over the years shifted to the right. He served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018, before returning to power in elections last year. After being ousted amid street protests in 2018, he was re-elected on a platform of social conservatism, nationalism and promises of generous welfare programs.

His opposition to military support for Ukraine, friendly relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and other positions have put him outside the European mainstream. Like his ally Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, Mr. Fico has been a frequent critic of the European Union.

Like Mr. Orban and the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, Mr. Fico has delighted in presenting himself as a pugnacious fighter for the common man, a forthright enemy of liberal elites and a bulwark against immigration from outside Europe, particularly by Muslims.

His critics have accused Mr. Fico of undermining the independence of the news media, opposed his efforts to restrict foreign funding of civic organizations and called him a threat to democracy. They accuse Mr. Fico of seeking to take Slovakia back to the repressive days of the Soviet bloc.

Mr. Fico’s political career appeared to be over after his ouster in 2018, but he found new support last year by promoting anti-L.G.B.T.Q. positions, attacking the European Union as a threat to national sovereignty and opposing the continued supply of weapons to Ukraine.

In his tenure as prime minister, Slovakia became the first country to stop sending weapons to Ukraine, though nonmilitary aid continued.

His return to power last year mirrored a wider trend across much of Europe: the decline of support for center-left and center-right parties that calmly traded places after elections and agreed on most things.

The shooting was captured on videos, which show Mr. Fico, 59, approaching a small group of people behind a waist-high metal barrier, when an older man stepped forward and fired a handgun from just a few feet away.

On a video from Radio and Television of Slovakia, a public broadcaster, and verified by The New York Times, five apparent gunshots can be heard.

With the first bang, Mr. Fico doubled over at the waist and fell backward onto a bench as more were heard. Security officers then hustled him into a black Audi several feet away, half-carrying him to the car’s rear door.

A post on the prime minister’s official and verified Facebook page said that Mr. Fico was in “life-threatening condition.” “The next few hours will decide,” the post said. Government officials did not say what part of his body was hit.

There was no immediate comment from the police about the attack, the most serious attempt on the life of a European head of government since Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic of Serbia was assassinated in 2003.

The shooting drew a chorus of condemnation from world leaders, including President Biden, who called it a “horrific act of violence,” and Mr. Putin, who lauded Mr. Fico as a “courageous and strong-minded man.”

The president of Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova, whose position is largely ceremonial, said in a statement, “The shooting of the prime minister is first and foremost an attack on a human being — but it’s also an attack on democracy.”

Some of Mr. Fico’s allies in Parliament suggested that his liberal opponents had created the atmosphere for the shooting.

Michal Simecka, the chairman of the opposition party Progressive Slovakia, said he shared in the “horror” of the attack but warned against spreading “false information” about the assailant. In a post on the social-media platform X, he stressed that the attacker was not a member of his movement or connected to his party in any way.

Mr. Fico stepped down as prime minister in 2018, after weeks of mass demonstrations over the murders of a journalist, who was uncovering government corruption, and his fiancée. Protesters said the government was not interested in solving the crime. Several people were later convicted of involvement in the murders, but a businessman accused of orchestrating them was acquitted.

Reporting was contributed by Gaya Gupta, Pavol Strba, Daniel Victor, Lauren Leatherby, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Matina Stevis-Gridneff.

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