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A look at Slovakian PM Robert Fico's politics after yesterday's assassination attempt

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, is in serious but stable condition today, the day after an assassination attempt saw him shot as he was shaking hands with supporters. Authorities say the suspect acted alone in a politically motivated attack. While Slovakia's prime minister is a polarizing figure in his country and around Europe, that has been true for the last couple of decades. It is even more so now because of his stance on Ukraine.

Well, to hear more about this man, we are joined by Dalibor Rohac, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Hi there. Welcome.

DALIBOR ROHAC: Mary Louise, thank you for having me.

KELLY: Tell me more about the man at the center of this. Robert Fico - he came to power last October, but, to use an American expression, this is not his first rodeo. He has served in the past as Slovakia's prime minister, going back years. Just how central a figure is he in Slovakian politics?

ROHAC: So Robert Fico's currently serving his fourth term as prime minister, and he's been very much at the center of Slovak politics for at least the past 20 years. So he rose to prominence in the late 1990s, started his political party, which was modeled initially as a sort of populist version of the Third Way, New Labour, social democracy - basically lambasting the pro-market, neoliberal reforms of the era. And, over time, it took on a distinctly nationalist and anti-American tinge as well. But the core of it was really the idea of a big, strong government protecting the regular, working-class Slovaks against the depredations of globalization, European Union, what have you.

KELLY: And I just described him as a polarizing figure. Tell me a little bit more about why.

ROHAC: He is a polarizing figure because he, I suppose like Donald Trump, likes to play it to the sort of base instincts of his audience, whether it's fears that people have about immigration from Muslim-majority countries or the war in Ukraine, where he was presenting himself as the leader who would protect Slovakia from being dragged into a war against Russia.

I think he was very effective at sort of exploiting fears and also at winding up his political opponents in a way that really pleased his political base. So he's somebody who really elicits very strong emotions. People either love him or hate him. It is hard to find anybody who wouldn't have an opinion about Robert Fico in Slovakia.

KELLY: Hmm. This is all sounding so very familiar to Americans - the comparison you just made with Donald Trump. It sounds like Robert Fico is a populist leader who favors closer ties with Russia and who is very divisive in the country's politics.

ROHAC: I think that is fair. The anti-American dimension of him is something that's been very consistent. I mean, he basically, as a young man, joined the Communist Party. And Slovakia has long had this ingrained distrust of the West and of the United States, which you wouldn't find really elsewhere in the region - not even in Hungary or certainly not in the Czech Republic - and he has played to those sentiments as well.

KELLY: So this is a big question, but what might the story of Robert Fico tell us about broader themes or the direction that Europe as a whole is headed?

ROHAC: I think the important thing is that although it is, in some way, a very parochial Slovak story, it is also a story of something that can happen anywhere where emotions run high, where the public is divided. If anything, political polarization by those metrics in the United States is much stronger than it is in Slovakia. And the idea that somebody can be pushed over the edge and have recourse to violence should not be unthinkable, I'm afraid to say.

And then the related question is obviously how political institutions can respond to such a situation should it materialize, and that's very much an open question in the Slovak context. I hope that the adults in the room on both sides of the aisle get together and help to bring the temperature down, but it's far from a guaranteed outcome.

KELLY: Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies Central and Eastern European politics and economics, thank you.

ROHAC: 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.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.