Emerging Europe This Week

Slovak PM survives assassination attempt; Ukraine struggles on north-east front

Catch up quickly with the stories from Central and Eastern Europe that matter, this week led by news of the shooting of Slovak PM Robert Fico.

The shooting of Robert Fico

A suspected “lone wolf” gunman was on Thursday charged with the attempted murder of Robert Fico, the Slovakian prime minister, who was described as escaping death “by a hair”.

Juraj Cintula, 71, was arrested at the scene after Fico, a pro-Russian populist, was shot five times as he greeted a crowd in the western town of Handlova.

Doctors described the prime minister’s condition as stable on Thursday, but Tomas Taraba, his deputy, warned that he was “not out of the woods yet”.

The attack has been blamed on deep divides in Slovakian society between pro-Western and pro-Russian and anti-Nato sides, but Matúš Šutaj Eštok, the Slovak interior minister, said Cintula was a “lone wolf” and did not belong to any political groups.

Several Slovak politicians called the shooting an “attack on democracy”.

On Thursday, Slovakia’s outgoing President Zuzana Čaputová appealed for calm and invited all party leaders to a meeting to discuss political tension.

Meanwhile, Slovak President-elect Peter Pellegrini called on all parties to suspend campaigning before European parliament elections scheduled for early June.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelensky told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week that Ukraine urgently needs more military aid as Russia presses ahead with a ground attack in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

“We need the delivery of this military aid as soon as possible. It is primarily about air defence,” Zelensky told the United States’ top diplomat—on a surprise visit to Kyiv—thanking Washington for a recently approved 61 billion US dollars military aid package.

“This is our biggest problem. We really need two [air defence] Patriot systems today for [the city of] Kharkiv, for the Kharkiv region, because people are constantly suffering from shelling, from Russian missiles,” Zelensky added.

Blinken, who arrived to Kyiv by train just weeks after a military aid package for Ukraine was approved by the US Congress following months of political bickering, told Zelensky that US weaponry included in the package was already “on its way,” adding that some deliveries have already been made to Ukraine.

“We know this is a challenging time,” Blinken said.

“But we also know that in the near term, the assistance is now on the way, some of it has already arrived and more of it will be arriving,” he said, adding, “that’s going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield.”

Indeed, Ukrainian forces were this week forced to withdraw from several areas of the country’s north-east amid mounting pressure from a new Russian offensive, as Zelensky postponed all foreign trips underscoring the seriousness of the threat.

The moves came as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said Moscow’s latest operation was “going to plan” and Russian forces were improving their positions daily even as the US rushed to resupply arms and ammunition to Kyiv.

Ukrainian military said late on Tuesday that troops fell back from areas in Lukyantsi and Vovchansk near Kharkiv “to save the lives of our servicemen and avoid losses”.

Moscow launched a surprise major ground assault on the Kharkiv region last week as it sought to advance while Kyiv is struggling for arms and manpower.

Other news from the region

Georgians continued to protest this week against a “foreign agent” law whose adoption by parliament has prompted severe international condemnation. Ruling Georgian Dream party lawmakers voted through the legislation on Tuesday in defiance of protesters, who are concerned that the country is shifting toward Russia. The move has sparked a wave of protests across Georgia, where according to opinion polls more than 80 per cent of the population wants to join the European Union and NATO, and is staunchly anti-Kremlin.

Armenia meanwhile detained dozens of demonstrators in the capital Yerevan this week as large protests flared against government plans to concede land to the country’s historic foe, Azerbaijan. Large numbers of police surrounded the crowds of demonstrators, some wrapped in Armenian flags Police said they detained 63 people for attempting to block roads on Tuesday. Armenia has agreed to hand over to neighbouring Azerbaijan territory it has controlled since the 1990s. Yerevan has started border delimitation efforts, in a bid to secure an elusive peace deal with Baku and avoid another bloody conflict.

France meanwhile this week accused Azerbaijan of fomenting deadly riots in overseas territory New Caledonia, as local officials vowed to restore order in the South Pacific. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that the violence, which has claimed the lives of three indigenous Kanak people and a police officer, had been actively supported by Azerbaijan. “This isn’t a fantasy,” he insisted on Thursday. “I regret that some of the separatists have made a deal with Azerbaijan.” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizada strongly rejected claims the country was behind the unrest.

Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, appears on course for a second term after a first round of voting, following a campaign dominated by the war in Ukraine and fears over neighbouring Russia. Nausėda won 44 per cent of votes cast in Sunday’s election, electoral commission data showed, while prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė won 20 per cent. As no candidate won more than 50 per cent the pair will head to a run-off election on May 26. Speaking to reporters after voting ended, Nausėda pledged to keep up pressure on the country’s western allies for increased military support for Ukraine.

North Macedonia sought on Monday to calm disputes with EU neighbours Greece and Bulgaria that flared up following the landslide election victory of a conservative-backed coalition and president. North Macedonia changed its name from Macedonia after a 2018 landmark agreement with Greece that ended a years-long quarrel over the name, which had been claimed by Greece for one of its regions. At a swearing in ceremony on Sunday, however President Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova referred to her country as “Macedonia,” prompting a heated response from Athens.

Moldova and the EU are set to deepen their defence co-operation to unprecedented levels, as Chișinău defies warnings from Moscow that closer western integration could see it face Ukraine’s fate. Under an EU proposal, set to be agreed next week and seen by the Financial Times, Moldova would increase its intelligence sharing, carry out joint military exercises and be included in the bloc’s joint weapons procurement—measures that would constitute the deepest formal step to link its national defence to western partners.

Romania unexpectedly held borrowing costs steady this week as the European Union’s fastest inflation ebbs more gradually than policymakers had expected. The central bank in Bucharest kept the benchmark interest rate at seven per cent on Monday, defying the prediction of economists who expected a quarter-point cut, which would have been the first easing step in more than three years. “The short-term outlook will remain slightly higher than previously expected,” the National Bank said of inflation in a statement. Romania’s inflation rate slowed to 6.6 per cent from a year earlier in March.

In a landmark domestic violence case in Kazakhstan, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, a former government minister, received a 24-year prison sentence on Monday after being found guilty of beating his wife to death. A jury delivered the verdict in an Astana court during a hearing viewed by citizens nationwide via a live broadcast on YouTube. In addition to a lengthy prison term, Bishimbayev was ordered to pay court costs, estimated at over 5,000 US dollars. One of Bishimbayev’s relatives, Bakhytzhan Baizhanov, received a four-year sentence as an accessory to murder.

Photo: Slovak PM Robert Fico at a European Council meeting in April. © European Union.

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