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Toxic Political Culture Has Even Some Slovaks Calling Country ‘a Black Hole.’

More than a quarter century has passed since the United States called Slovakia a “black hole in the center of Europe” — an island of autocratic malaise surrounded by spry new democracies. The insult, leveled in 1997 by Secretary of State Madeline Albright against a country that has since joined NATO and the European Union, still stings.

But some in the Central European nation, appalled by an attempt last week to assassinate their prime minister, Robert Fico, and the frenzy of political finger-pointing that ensued, including warnings of civil war, are wondering whether Ms. Albright was on to something.

“We are back in a black hole; I’m not sure we ever got out of it,” said Roman Kvasnica, a prominent Slovak lawyer who denounces a political culture in which threats and personal insults are routine. In his own legal work he has faced numerous threats, including a warning that he would get a “bullet in the head” from a tycoon charged with ordering the 2018 murder of an investigative journalist digging into government corruption.

Exasperated by his country’s divisive struggles to establish the rule of law and resist the temptations of strongman leadership, the lawyer displays a portrait of Vaclav Havel, an icon of democratic idealism, on the wall of his country house in western Slovakia. Mr. Havel served as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, the state that in 1993 split amicably into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia.

Mr. Havel, a former playwright whose writing helped bring down the Berlin Wall and who later was president of the Czech Republic, is a reminder, Mr. Kvasnica said, of the road not taken by Slovakia, which spent much of the same period under the rule of Vladimir Meciar, an early pioneer of nationalist-tinged populism and a master of stoking polarization.

Hopes that Slovak politicians might overcome their venomous feuds faded on Sunday when President-elect Peter Pellegrini announced that efforts to get opposing parties to sit down together and agree on “basic rules for decent political battles” had collapsed. Recent days, he said, showed that “some politicians simply are not able to display a basic self-reflection, even in the aftermath of such an immense tragedy.”

Peter Kalinak, the deputy prime minister, who is running the government in the absence of the critically wounded Mr. Fico, added to the unease by backing away from officials’ previous insistence that the gunman was a “lone wolf.”

“The situation seems even worse,” Mr. Kalinak said Sunday at a news conference in Bratislava, the capital. New evidence, he said, indicates “there was some form of assistance in terms of concealing the clues and that a third person acted in favor of the perpetrator.”

“All of this is shocking, and for many of us it would be much easier if we could speak about only one person,” he added.

The only person so far charged in the case is a 71-year-old amateur poet, former coal mine worker, stone mason and supermarket security guard. People who knew him in his hometown, Levice, in central Slovakia, say the man, named only as Juraj C. by officials, jumped between often contradictory causes and had no strong affiliation with either of the two main political camps.

But he nursed intense grievances toward the whole system, according to people who knew him, which is not rare in Slovakia.

Of all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that shook off communist rule in 1989, Slovakia has the highest proportion of citizens who view liberal democracy as a threat to their identity and values — 43 percent compared with 15 percent in the neighboring Czech Republic — according to a regional opinion survey released this month by Globsec, a research group based in Bratislava. Support for Russia has declined sharply since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but 27 percent of Slovaks see it as key strategic partner, the highest level in the region.

Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, said such views highlighted a deep paradox for Slovakia, which is by many criteria a successful model of transition from communism. It has become a manufacturing hub for German carmakers, developed a vibrant and diverse media landscape and become so well integrated in the European Union that it is the only country in the region to use its common currency, the euro.

But many of its people — particularly those living outside big cities — feel left behind and resentful, Mr. Meseznikov said, and are “more vulnerable than elsewhere to conspiracy theories and narratives that liberal democracy is a menace.”

The picture is much the same in many other formerly communist countries and has allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orban in neighboring Hungary to establish an increasingly authoritarian system. But Slovakia’s politics are particularly poisonous, swamped by wild conspiracy theories and bile.

The foundations of this were laid in the 1990s when Mr. Meciar formed what is still one of the country’s two main political blocs: an alliance of right-wing nationalists, business cronies and anti-establishment leftists. All thrived on denouncing their centrist and liberal opponents as enemies willing to sell out the country’s interests to the West, Mr. Meseznikov said.

“Meciar was a pioneer,” he said. “He was a typical representative of national populism with an authoritarian approach, and so is Fico.”

On the day Mr. Fico was shot, Parliament was meeting to endorse an overhaul of public television to purge what his governing party views as unfair bias in favor of political opponents, a reprise of efforts in the 1990s by Mr. Meciar to mute media critics.

The legislation was part of a raft of measures that the European Commission in February said risked doing “irreparable damage” to the rule of law. These include measures to limit corruption investigations and impose what critics denounced as Russian-style restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. The government opposes military aid to Ukraine and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, is often at odds with the European Union and, like Mr. Orban, favors friendly relations with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.

In the run-up to the election last September that returned Mr. Fico, a fixture of Slovak politics for more than two decades, to power, he and his allies took an increasingly hostile stance toward the United States and Ukraine, combined with sympathetic words for Russia.

Their statements often recalled a remark by Mr. Meciar, who, resisting demands in the 1990s that he must change his ways if Slovakia wanted to join the European Union, held up Russia as an alternative haven: “if they don’t want us in the West, we’ll go East.”

Dominik Zelinsky, a researcher at the Slovak Academy of Science’s Institute for Sociology, said that, despite the intensity of the current political conflict, there was no risk today of Slovakia again “becoming a complete outsider” adrift from the European Union and NATO.

But, he added, “the frames that the society and its elites use to interpret the conflict remain the same: a choice between a Western path and being something of a bridge between the East and the West, as well as a choice between liberal democracy and illiberal, authoritarian government.”

When Mr. Fico first became prime minister in 2006, he stood on the left but, needing help to form a stable government, turned to the Slovak National Party, a nationalist grouping that had earlier been allied with Mr. Meciar.

Andrej Danko, the leader of the party, which is now part of the new coalition government formed by Mr. Fico after the September election, said that the attempt to assassinate Mr. Fico represented the “start of a political war” between the country’s two opposing camps.

Accused by its critics of stoking dangerous tensions and animosity toward the media, the government has responded by asserting that the other side started the fight by blaming Mr. Fico and his allies for the 2018 murder of the investigative journalist.

“Not only Robert Fico, but all of us were labeled murderers,” the deputy prime minister, Mr. Kalinak, told a Czech newspaper on Saturday, referring to the case. “If I used the same yardstick now as they did then, I would say that they are murderers.”

Iveta Radicova, a sociologist opposed to Mr. Fico who is a former prime minister, said Slovakia’s woes were part of a wider crisis with roots that extend far beyond its early stumbles under Mr. Meciar.

“Many democracies are headed toward the black hole,” as countries from Hungary in the East to the Netherlands in the West succumb to the appeal of national populism, she said. “This shift is happening everywhere.”

Sara Cincurova and Marek Janiga contributed reporting from Bratislava, Slovakia.

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