Slovakia Is at a Dangerous Moment

“Fico was shot.” The message arrived in one of my group chats shortly after 3 p.m. on Wednesday. I checked the news and forwarded what I could find out to my friends and family. Information was limited, and headlines like “Robert Fico Was Shot After the Government Meeting in Handlova” seemed absurdly matter-of-fact.

Yes, Mr. Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister, has been a controversial figure. But could he really have been shot multiple times on a weekday afternoon in May? On Friday, he remained hospitalized in serious but stable condition after undergoing surgery.

Slovakian politics are deeply polarized in ways that have tipped into rhetorical and even physical violence. Journalist and activists, particularly women, have received online threats. In 2016 I was attacked on the way home from work. In 2022 two men were fatally shot outside a gay bar in an attack that may have been politically motivated. Last fall, two former ministers brawled at a press event.

But in large part, the hateful rhetoric — of which there is lots — is confined to the internet, and it has become normalized. Lawmakers, activists and journalists take it to be the price of participating in civic life. We reassure ourselves that those who write threatening messages online are not usually the ones who carry them out.

That’s not to say the atmosphere hasn’t had an impact on politics. Zuzana Caputova, the progressive departing president and a civil rights lawyer, has been open about the fact that death threats against her and her family helped her decide not to run again.

But someone has now shot the prime minister. In retrospect, it seems that the hateful rhetoric was gradually, inevitably building to violence, and we are waiting in this dangerous moment to see what comes next. Either the attack will trigger harsh action from the government and make everything worse. Or cooler heads will prevail, and we will pause, pick up the pieces of our fractured country and try to put them back together.

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