Slovakia PM Robert Fico: Political heavyweight with pro-Russian views

Published - May 15, 2024 09:02 pm IST - PRAGUE

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico. File

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was said to be in a life-threatening condition after being shot on May 15, took power for the fourth time last October and has turned the country's foreign policy towards more pro-Russian views.

He has also initiated reforms of criminal law and the media, which have raised concerns over weakening the rule of law.

During a three-decade career, Mr. Fico, 59, has skilfully weaved between pro-European mainstream and nationalistic anti-Brussels and anti-American positions, while showing a willingness to change course depending on public opinion or changed political realities.

He embraced more extreme positions over the past four years that include strident criticisms of western allies, pledges to stop military support for Kyiv, opposition to sanctions on Russia and threats to veto any future NATO membership invite for Ukraine.

His coalition halted Slovak official shipments of weapons for Ukraine and he has spoken about what he called western influence in the war which only led to Slavic nations killing each other.

Mr. Fico has remained steady throughout his career, however, on promises to protect living standards of those left behind in a country where conditions for many are only slowly catching up to western Europe and where many hold relatively fond memories of a communist-era past.

"Fico is a technician of power, by far the best in Slovakia. He does not have a counterpart at the moment," said sociologist Michal Vasecka, from the Bratislava Policy Institute.

"Fico is always following opinion polls, understands what is happening" in society.

His campaign call of "Not a single round" for Ukraine appealed to voters in the nation of 5.5 million where only a minority in the NATO member country believe Russia is at fault for the Ukraine war.

Mr. Fico, who analysts see inspired by Hungary's Viktor Orban, has said he has Slovak interests at heart and wants the war to end. Western allies and Ukraine say halting military aid to Kyiv would only help Russia.

"We see Viktor Orban as one of those European politicians who do not fear to openly defend the interests of Hungary and Hungarian people," Mr. Fico told Reuters in emailed responses last year.

"He puts them in the first place. And that should be the role of an elected politician, to look after the interests of his voters and his country."

Born to a working-class family, Mr. Fico graduated with a law degree in 1986 and joined the then-ruling Communist party.

After the 1989 fall of Communist rule, he worked as a government lawyer, won a seat in Parliament under the renamed Communist party, and represented Slovakia at the European Court for Human Rights.

Mr. Fico has run SMER-Social Democracy party since 1999 after establishing it to oppose the reformist centre-right cabinet.

He parlayed dissatisfaction with liberal economic reforms into his first election victory in 2006.

But he also kept the nation on course to adopt the euro in 2009 despite forming a government with nationalists.

His second cabinet won after another centre-right coalition broke up two years later, and a tough stance against migrants helped him win re-election in 2016. After that win, he declared he wanted Slovakia as part of the EU's core with France and Germany.

Mr. Fico's political fortunes faded in 2018 when journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating high-level graft, and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were killed by a contract killer.

This fuelled mass protests against graft and Fico was forced to resign. SMER lost power in a 2020 election to parties pledging to weed out corruption, and his party split.

Polling under 10%, Mr. Fico once sought to address voter fears during the coronavirus pandemic when he slammed government health measures.

"He became the most prominent political representative of a movement against face masks or vaccination," said political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov.

At the same time he a tapped into dissatisfaction with bickering in the ruling government and raised doubts with its pro-western course, chiming with pro-Russian narratives on social networks that had spread across Slovakia.

Mr. Fico also swatted away accusations of graft that have dogged his party during his political career. He was charged with criminal conspiracy in 2022 to use police and tax information on political foes — charges he denied and which were later dropped.

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