Observations of an Expat: Robert Fico – from sinner to saint to martyr

The man who shot Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has inflicted major damage on the cause of liberalism.

Fico is a far-right populist who started his political life as a far-left populist. He supports Putin and opposes Zelensky. He is anti-immigrant, anti-vaxer, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and hates journalists. While Fico is fighting for his life in a Bratislavan intensive care unit, far-right politicians in Slovakia and beyond are using his fate as a rallying cry.

In short, Robert Fico is a sinner who has been turned into a saint by an attempted assassination and may yet become a martyr.

When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Robert Fico was a staunch member of the Communist Party and when the first post-Soviet Czechoslovak parliament was elected he successfully ran as a candidate of the communist successor party.

But as the communists fell from favour, Fico jumped ship and in 1999 formed his own political vehicle – Direction Social Democracy (SMER-SD). Seven years later, his party won the most seats in Slovak Parliamentary elections and Fico became prime minister for the first time. He served again 2006 to 2010, 2012 to 2016, 2016 to 2018 and finally from 2023.

In 2018, Robert Fico resigned the premiership after mass demonstrations in protest against the murder of young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée. A short spell in the political wilderness followed, but Fico’s career was saved by the Covid pandemic. He took an increasingly anti-lockdown, anti-vax position in direct opposition to the government’s policy. At one point his support for during an anti-lockdown demonstration resulted in his arrest.

In 2023 Fico was back in the prime minister’s chair at the head of a coalition which included the far-right Slovak National Party and the far-left Voice-Social Democracy (HLAS) Party. On the face of it, his political partners were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but in reality they shared an ultra-nationalist populist agenda with Fico’s SMER-SD.

Fico’s own views became increasingly far-right and ultra-nationalist. Same-sex marriages and adoptions by same-sex couple are “a perversion.” His views on immigration also follow the same line as other European nationalists:  We will not, said the prime minister “accept a single Muslim immigrant.”

Fico is keen on promoting the mid-19th political movement of “Slavonic identity.” This meant backing Serbia in the Balkan wars and Russia in just about everything. Fico accused Georgia of provoking the Russian invasion and described Western sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea as “senseless.”

Fico did criticise the 2022 invasion of Ukraine but again attacked Western sanctions. The Slovak government from 2018 to 2023 had been one of the most prominent supporters of the Ukrainian war effort, sending artillery shells and even fighter jets. In the 2023 election, Fico campaigned on a pledge to send “not one more round of ammunition” to Kyiv.

He has called on Ukrainians to lay down their arms and accept a negotiated solution which leaves the Russians with Crimea and the Donbas Region. Earlier this year, he parroted the Kremlin position when he said: “Ukraine is not an independent and sovereign country.” As for Vladimir Putin, he is “unjustly demonised” by the West.

Fico’s strongest bile is directed at the media. At press conferences he regularly uses profanities to describe the journalists’ who ask questions that he doesn’t like.  The media, says Fico, is “an organized criminal group with the aim of breaking Slovak statehood.” He is called on the national police to investigate Slovakian media for treason.

While Fico was being rushed to the hospital after being shot, the Slovakian parliament was debating a bill to dismantle the national broadcaster RTVS whose objectives, Fico said: “were in permanent conflict with government.”

After the shooting, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, said: “The hateful rhetoric we witness in society leads to hateful acts.”

 

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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17 Comments

  • I would not rule out the possibility that this attempted assassination was a false flag to give the government an excuse to consolidate power and suppress opposition (think Reichstag fire). Whether it is or not, it should not be a reason for democratic opponents of the Slovak government to tone down their legitimate opposition, as that is exactly what the government wants to happen.

  • Trouble is we’ve had centrist governments that have utterly failed to deliver on people’s concerns…Be interesting to see what comes out of the upcoming EU elections… Slovakia holds the bottom two places for those election turnouts 15 & 16 %… The UK occupies the third from bottom with 26%….Those Slovakian Mep’s must blush when they pick up that lavishly funded paycheck ….Fico was voted in by the Slovakian people…..That’s a failure of liberalism – not the act itself .

  • Andy Chandler 18th May '24 - 3:05pm

    Good piece.

    This is why I find what Macron is doing is quite interesting in that we need to redefine Europes political identity and purpose. Centrist, liberalism, social democratic politics have been in managed decline in the last few years. This is not only isolated in Slovakia but also across our European democracies.

    With America probably looking likely to reelect Trump by this election, and the Republican now painted in his neo-right image and his isolationist America first, Europe (EU and its neighbouring Allies like us and Norway) are now more than ever needed in being world leaders.

    But we risk losing that unless we as liberals, centrist, social democrats or just anyone that respects civility and tolerance (even going beyond our Liberal bubbles) to take a more vocal and stronger stance on these examples of populist fantasists.

    Not sure what the solution is but you making a very good observation on these dangers.

  • Mary Fulton 18th May '24 - 4:41pm

    It is ironic that whoever attacked Fico for his illiberal views has just demonstrated that sometimes those who claim to be liberal and tolerant are, in practice, sometimes the least tolerant of all.

  • Alex Macfie 18th May '24 - 5:41pm

    Mary Fulton: The suspect is described as a “lone wolf” who does not appear to have any coherent (never mind “liberal”) politics, so we can’t yet draw any conclusion as to the motive for the attack on Fico.
    What is clear is that the governing parties in Slovakia, along with the Kremlin and other authoritarian European leaders such as Orbán, have wasted no time in seeking to make political capital out of the assassination attempt. The attack is rather convenient for them, as it can be used to shut down dissent as “disrespectful”.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/18/suspect-putin-shooting-slovakian-pm-robert-fico

  • @ Ian Sanderson: Normally I would agree with your assessment, but in the case of Robert Fico, in the first elections after 1991 he was elected to parliament as a member of the successor to the Czechoslovak communist party. To me this indicates that his membership during the Cold War indicated something more than the need to further his career, although when it was clear that the communists were sinking into oblivion he jumped ship and formed his own party.
    @Alex Mastie. I hope it wasn’t a false flag. If it was it indicates the lengths to reach the populist right will go to pursue its objectives. Generally speaking I rank accusations of false flag operations with conspiracy theories. But they do happen. The most recent one was Putin’s bombing of the apartment buildings to justify a second Chechen War and his election. More than 300 innocent people died.

  • Martin Gray 18th May '24 - 6:26pm

    @Alex Macfie..Whatever the reason, this individual felt the need to assassinate a democratically elected head of government.
    As Mary has pointed out – those that have preached tolerance and inclusivity , have been guilty of fuelling the flames of the culture war with their intolerance to those in academia & beyond . It’s a trap they’ve fallen into , & continue to mask that intolerance under the guise of inclusivity …
    If you cannot beat Fico with policies that enthuse the Slovakian people then that’s the responsibility of the liberal opposition. I’m tired of hearing about Polarising populists – it’s a tag used by those that have ultimately failed to deal with voters legitimate concerns..

  • John – Would the surviving relatives of the ~1 million Poles, ~5 million Ukrainians, tens of thousands Lithuanians and Latvians and Estonians, hundreds of East Germans, etc., who died under communist rule look back at that period of time with “nostalgia”?

  • @Martin Gray: Again, the suspect appears to be a lone wolf whose politics look like a contradictory mess, as you would know if you bothered to read the article I linked above. (This is typical of political assassins, such as the ones responsible for assassinations of politicians in this country recently.) Some of his stated views (e.g. on Romany people) are not exactly liberal. If he is indeed the culprit, then it’s most unlikely to be motivated by “liberal” thought, let alone (as Fico’s domestic and international allies would have it) part of a Western liberal conspiracy. My earlier suggestion of a false flag, though also unlikely, is more plausible as it is consistent with how the populist right operates.

    As for “culture war”, it’s mainly the right who are responsible for fuelling its flames. Where the populist right are in power (like here) they use it as a distraction (oh look, a squirrel) from failures in government. And it’s the same in Slovakia. Who is most likely to be responsible for creating a political climate that might to an attempt to assassinate a politician? Those in power, of course, which in the case of Slovakia is the populist (left-)right.

  • Just on the Point about Communism, I am continually astonished by how ignorant (being ki eople died as a result of Communist Governments, mostly from cold, starvation & overwork. You could argue it was Manslaughter or Criminal Negligence rather than Murder but they all feel much the same to the victims.
    Why are we so much more tolerant of the extreme Left, compared to the extreme Right ?

  • And the Slovak government will use the attack as an excuse to descend further into authoritarianism. It comes during an attempt to dismantle a media organisation critical of the government. Who exactly is being intolerant? This reeks of projection.

  • A false flag operation makes no sense: It would mean that either Fico supporters in the Government arranged to attack their own Prime Minister, risking his death, without his knowledge, or Fico himself agreed to be seriously wounded. Neither possibility is plausible. A lone wolf with anti-Fico views on the other hand does make sense, and there are many examples from history of that kind of thing happening (The assassination attempt on Bolsonaro that catapulted him to popularity in Brazil, for example). As for the idea that no ‘liberal’ would do such a thing… Yes, in theory liberalism should imply tolerance, but in practice I’ve met plenty of (small-l) liberals who are highly intolerant of people with non-liberal views.

    I think @Martin Gray is talking a lot of sense here

  • I’m not going to bust a gut defending the “false flag” theory, since it would have been a very incompetent one (but that doesn’t make it impossible. But @Martin Gray is talking nonsense — he and @Mary Fulton are parroting Putinista propaganda by seeking to link the assassination to “liberalism”. Like I said, regardless of who was responsible for the attack, it is remarkably convenient for Fico and his allies, since they can use it to smear any and all political opponents (including liberals) by implying that they encouraged or approved of it. Bolsonaro will have done the same. We should not be validating that sort of propaganda. We know where doing so led to in Germany in the 1930s.

  • Peter Hirst 27th May '24 - 2:30pm

    To counter right wing rhetoric we need a more open debate in the media, schools and parliament about these issues. Once they are debated more freely people can make their own minds up, so reducing influencers’ effect. We should also encourage debating societies and similar organisations so these issues can be addressed.

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