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The assassination attempt on Slovakian PM is the latest example of violence in Europe

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week's assassination attempt on Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico is a reminder of the tense political divides in Europe. Officials say the attack was politically motivated. There have also been other attacks on politicians in recent weeks in Europe as people there prepare for European Union elections in a few weeks. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And let's begin with Slovakia. How is the prime minister?

SCHMITZ: Well, Slovakian officials tell us that Prime Minister Fico has undergone a second surgery and is in serious but stable condition. He was shot several times at point-blank range on Wednesday and, soon after, underwent an initial five-hour-long surgery to repair the damage to his abdomen and left hand.

The suspect, a 71-year-old former security guard and poet, faces a life sentence in prison. And police this week have searched his house for clues as to his motivation, but officials are already saying that the suspect is a critic of the policies of Fico's government.

SIMON: And what about political repercussions?

SCHMITZ: Well, in the day following Fico's shooting, politicians from his party, including Defence Minister Robert Kalinak, were quick to point fingers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT KALINAK: (Speaking Slovak).

SCHMITZ: So at a press conference, Kalinak blamed the tense political divides within Slovak society for the shooting, and he also blamed Slovak media for amplifying these tensions. Fico's party is no stranger to making these types of accusations. Fico is a nationalist populist prime minister, and he's routinely blamed Slovakia's press for creating problems, and he's pushed to put the press under more state control.

But now, after his shooting, it appears opposition parties are responding to some of this criticism. Slovakia's major opposition party, Progress Slovakia, announced it would suspend its campaign for the upcoming EU elections in order to, quote, "end the spiral of attacks and blame" that have grown since the shooting of the prime minister.

SIMON: And these tense political conditions are not isolated in Slovakia, are they?

SCHMITZ: No, it's not just Slovakia. I mean, the European parliamentary elections are being held in a few weeks, and we've seen political violence in other parts of Europe. Here in my patch, in Germany, in recent weeks, we've seen an uptick in violence.

Earlier this month, a member of the EU Parliament, Matthias Ecke, who is also a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democratic Party - he was putting up campaign posters in Dresden, when he was attacked by a group of four men. They beat him up so badly that he required surgery to repair a broken eye socket and cheekbone. And that same evening, a campaigner for the Green Party was attacked in the same neighborhood. A day earlier, the deputy mayor of the German city of Essen was punched in the face by another group.

According to the German government, nearly 3,000 physical and verbal threats against politicians were registered by police in the past year, and police say extremist politics are behind many of these threats and violence.

SIMON: I mean, I'm just moved to ask why. What's at the root of all this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. When you ask political observers about this, they sort of look at the combination of an increasing polarization of political views mixed with how social media is able to fuel this polarization in emotional ways that often turn violent. It's similar to what's happening in the U.S. as well. And people seem to be finding it more difficult to talk out political differences and are rapidly labeling those who don't agree with them as the enemy.

But just to be clear, you know, we're focusing here on the violence that's occurred. But it's important to remember that Europe is a big place. And in much of the continent, there is a fair degree of civility.

SIMON: Rob, how might all of this affect European elections that take place in June?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Well, political analysts I've spoken to say that far-right candidates might feel more emboldened from this environment. You know, we'll see. But traditional parties are worried about the far right coming away with more representation in parliament. This past week, we also saw a far-right party in the Netherlands - infamous for its diatribes against Muslim immigrants -actually succeed in creating the next Dutch coalition government. Many observers doubted whether other parties would actually govern with an extremist party like this, but it's happened. And that could have an impact on the upcoming election.

SIMON: NPR's Berlin correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Scott. 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.