A fan of Vladimir Putin and fast cars, Robert Fico should return as prime minister of Slovakia following parliamentary elections on Saturday. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the career of a politician who was ousted from power five years ago after a journalist was murdered for revealing government corruption, and who used populism and disinformation to rise again.
Following early parliamentary elections on Saturday September 30, the pro-Russian populist Robert Fico, 59, who has been laying low for five years, should return to his former post as prime minister of Slovakia if he can find enough allies to form a government.
With 99.98% of the ballots counted, Fico’s centre-left party, Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), won 22.9% of the vote, beating the centrist Progressive Slovakia party (17.9%).
Twice elected as prime minister of this Eastern European country of 5.4 million inhabitants, Fico has come a long way after he was forced to resign in 2018 following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.
The double murder sparked huge anti-government protests demanding Fico’s resignation, after the murdered journalist revealed ties between the Italian mafia and the Smer-SD in an article published posthumously. Kuciak's investigation, which focused on Maria Troskova, a former model who became Fico's assistant, uncovered links between an Italian businessman, the Calabrian mafia and Troskova, threatening thus Fico’s inner circle.
The billionaire businessman Marian Kocner was charged in 2019 with ordering the murder, before being acquitted the following year. However, other suspects were convicted after they pleaded guilty, including the shooter, a former soldier who was given a 23-year prison sentence.
Journalists called 'prostitutes'
At the time of the murder, Fico was already known for having a difficult relationship with the press: On more than one occasion, he publicly described Slovak journalists, who regularly accused the government of corruption, as "idiotic hyenas" and "dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes".
Even though an anti-corruption coalition took power in 2020, Fico managed to keep his seat in parliament following his resignation.
Fico now prefers to avoid all interaction with the press. While campaigning, he addressed his electorate mainly through videos posted on Facebook, YouTube and Telegram – videos that are among the most popular in Slovakia – managing to successfully turn disinformation into a campaign tool.
A survey carried out in 2022 by the Globsec think-tank showed that 54% of Slovaks are vulnerable to fake news such as the conspiracy theory that the world is governed by secret groups that want to establish a totalitarian ‘New World Order’.
Body-building and fast cars
In the streets of the capital Bratislava, the posters of Fico's party promise "stability, order and well-being", of which he claims to be the guarantor. In the new world that Fico promises, migrants and LGBT+ people – the targets of his most virulent attacks – are no longer welcome.
"I will certainly never be a supporter of them [LGBT+ people] being able to marry, as we see in other countries," he told a press conference recently, after saying adoption by same-sex couples, which is not possible in Slovakia, was a "perversion".
He is married to a lawyer with whom he has a son. According to Slovak media, the couple are separated. The politician – who likes fast cars, football and body-building – is open about his admiration for Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule, writes Slovak sociologist Michal Vasecka in his book "Fico: Obsessed with Power".
Fico recently announced that he would not authorise the arrest of Putin, who is the subject of an international warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, if he ever came to Slovakia. He also promised on the campaign trail to put an end to Slovakia's military aid to Ukraine.
"His relationship to Russia is historically determined by the socialist motto 'With the Soviet Union for Eternity'", writes Vasecka. Fico, who has spent his life navigating the political chessboard, began his career with the Communist Party when he was a lawyer.
In 1999, he left the Party of the Democratic Left, the political heir to the Communist Party, to found his own, the Smer-SD. In 2006, this party won a landslide victory in parliament, catapulting Fico to the position of prime minister two years after Slovakia joined the EU.
Fico then formed a coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party, which shared his anti-refugee rhetoric and populist leanings, and boosted his popularity during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis by refusing to impose austerity measures.
During the 2015 migration crisis in Europe, he took a stand against migrants, refusing to "create a separate Muslim community in Slovakia" and criticising the European quota programme for distributing refugees.
Fico first forged a reputation on the European stage as his country’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg from 1994 to 2000.
Having previously hailed Slovakia's adoption of the euro as a "historic decision", he is now openly attacking the EU, NATO and war-torn Ukraine in the hopes of appealing to far-left and far-right voters.
True to form, he does this in a provocative and misogynistic manner, having made Slovak President Zuzana Caputova his scapegoat for several years. The anti-corruption lawyer, nicknamed "Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich", became the country’s president in 2019.
The French daily newspaper Le Monde described in an article one of Fico’s encounters with Caputova in vivid detail. During Labour Day celebrations in May 2022, he called Caputova an "American whore". And "the more of a whore a person is, the more famous they become", he said.
This article has been translated from the original in French.