By: Jack Urban
On February 25 Ján Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist for left-leaning Aktuality.sk, and his fianceé, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered in their home in Vel’ká Mača, Slovakia. Seven suspects were arrested in connection with the murders, but all were released without charge.
Before his murder, Kuciak had been looking into the alleged theft and embezzlement of European Union (EU) funds by Smer-SD, the governing, pro-European, social democratic party with alleged connections to the Italian crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta. In his unfinished report, posthumously published on February 28 by Aktuality.sk, Kuciak linked business dealings between now Former Prime Minister Robert Fico to an Italian businessman in custody, suspected of drug trafficking along with many other high-profile Smer-SD officials. Moreover, Maria Troskova, Fico’s Chief State Advisor, and Viliam Jansan, the Secretary of the State Security Council, have resigned among allegations of former dealings with an Italian suspect.
The murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová precipitated the largest Central European protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which ended rule by the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and led to its dissolution into Czechia and Slovakia. These protests occurred across Slovakia on March 2nd, 9th, 16th, and 30th, peaking at 65,000 Slovakians in the capital, Bratislava. Marching under the slogan, “For a Decent Slovakia,” protesters demanded early elections, an end to corruption, and the resignation of Prime Minister Fico along with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Chief of Police Tibor Gašpar, who were accused of overlooking Fico’s corruption. To emphasize the connection to the Velvet Revolution, protesters jingled their keys, a symbol of the previous event.
The protest was successful as Fico and Kaliňák both resigned, although Gašpar originally refused to step down. Despite officially claiming he resigned to maintain stability, many speculate Kaliňák stepped down due to public mistrust in his ability to ensure an impartial investigation of the murders in his role as overseer of the police. For Kaliňák’s replacement, President Andrej Kiska tapped Former Health Minister Tomas Drucker, who has no official political affiliation. However, after three weeks in office, Drucker resigned amid mounting pressure to fire Gašpar, though Drucker claimed he could not find any grounds to fire the police chief despite the “polarization he’s causing.” Drucker was replaced by the previous Deputy Interior Minister, Denisa Sakova, who served under Kaliňák for ten years. Her appointment has only further polarized the country. Described as a “professional with a long record at the ministry,” by Fico, many, including President Kiska, see it as a poor choice and wasted opportunity. However, due to the recent turnover in the Interior Ministry, Gašpar has agreed to step down next month and Sakova will appoint the next police chief.
On March 15th, Fico’s ally, Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini formed a new coalition and appointed a new cabinet, avoiding the need to call new elections. Though Pellegrini is popular among voters and will continue the country’s Pro-European and Pro-NATO policies, many see Fico’s decision to appoint him as insincere and a further example of endemic corruption from a party with ties to Slovak oligarchs and the Italian mafia. While Fico stated that he resigned to “prevent chaos in the country and secure stability,” he also said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere,” raising concerns he will continue to pull strings behind the scenes. The current legislature is still expected to serve the remainder of its term until 2020.
Meanwhile, President Kiska has made “radical reconstruction” of the government his main objective. Though much of his power is ceremonial, his position as the moral authority of the government has proved important, serving as the internal voice for protesters. On March 22nd, Kiska addressed the new cabinet, telling them they must “win back the public trust,” though many Slovakians still believe a complete governmental overhaul may be the only answer.
As for the protesters, many do not see Fico’s resignation and the reorganization of the government as a victory; instead, they desire early elections. For student protestor, Oliver Andrejčák, there are only two ways forward: (a) immediate early elections, which could lead to political instability and potentially compromise the murder investigation, or (b) the continuation of this newly formed government, which would “represent a Mafia-based oligarchic state” for two more years, with the vision of total defeat of Smer-SD in 2020. Clearly, neither is optimal, yet as he puts it, early elections have the potential to solve problems of corruption now, while waiting two years would likely bring about the same result with less risk given the amount of time to mobilize an opposition.
For Peter Nagy, a Slovakian journalist and organizer of the protests, a “new trustworthy government with no existing links to corruption and organized crime,” is of the utmost importance. He believes Fico’s resignation will not bring change but rather “undermines the trust of the people in the state” since the government will “still have the same people within it.” Instead, he thinks “the only way for the public to regain trust in the state is to have new elections.”
However, many other protesters are wary of early elections. Another student protester, Jakub Prok, thinks “early elections could … bring … more extremism into Parliament.” Peter Kunder, Director of the Fair-Play Alliance in Bratislava, a nonprofit political watchdog organization, thinks an early election will not change much because the alternatives to Smer-SD do not have clear enough policies, history, or expertise to move the country past its corruption. Moreover, he believes the corruption runs deep in the political culture, and thus a vote by itself is not enough to curb corruption.
Two months after the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, it is still not clear what path Slovakia should take. However, a few things are clear. First, as Grigorij Meseznikov, President of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs, stated, “the power dynamics in Slovakia have clearly shifted.” An undeniable result of the protests is the resignation of Former Prime Minister Fico, and other high ranking government officials. Though this in and of itself does not mean that corruption is in anyway eliminated in Slovakia or even that Fico is out of power, it does prove something important: the people of Slovakia are willing and able to hold their government accountable.
While calls for early elections may satisfy the desires of protestors, there simply are not enough options yet available to contest the Smer-SD’s corrupt hold on Slovakian politics. Of course, waiting until the next scheduled election would mean keeping the corrupt in power and could jeopardize the murder investigation; nevertheless, it is up to the Slovakian people to continue to ensure the impartiality of the investigation, run for office, and vote the corrupt out of office in 2020. Hopefully, when that time comes, Slovakia will be, as Karolina Faska, an organizer of the protests stated, “a country where corruption, not courage, is punished.”
Unlike other members of the Visegrád Group, which consists of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary, Slovakia remains resilient to autocracy and is liberalizing instead. On April 15th, Slovaks returned to the streets to keep pressuring the government for reform, and though protests are waning in their numbers, the political support is still clearly there. As Jan Zilinsky, a Slovakian economist and Research Associate at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab, stated, “people are demanding accountability” and are thereby helping to solidify Slovakia’s democratic future.
Ultimately, no one can predict whether or not Slovakia’s next elections will result in a move towards further corruption, nationalism, and autocracy, like much of Eastern Europe, or towards accountability and the fall of Smer-SD. However, the unprecedented public mobilization clearly demonstrates their commitment to a democratic future.