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Murder in Slovakia

Still hard to fathom at the moment, the ramifications of Jan Kuciak’s murder could usher in an era of political change.

by Martin Ehl 2 March 2018

It was a bizarre image. The head of the government of a European member state standing next to a table with 1 million euros in cash ($1.23 million), guarded by one masked policeman. The scene looked more like the boss of one mafia clan offering money to another. In reality, it was Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico publicly offering a reward for information leading to the perpetrator of one of the worst crimes in recent Slovak history – the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova.


The cash on the table was a symbol of panic, and of the quandary in which the leader of the state and his cohort now find themselves. Fico and his party Smer-Social Democracy have been governing Slovakia almost nonstop since 2006, with just one, two-year pause. These days, Smer resembles more a joint stock company than a political party. Different interest groups have stakes in its activities, and their people are rewarded with many important positions in the state administration and in state businesses, as well as money from European funds – all arranged through shadowy, backroom deals.


Fico has so far been a successful, populist politician who has known how to elicit support from the public, how to deal with political partners, and how to hand out attractive state business opportunities to friends and family members. He has also been skilled at repelling journalists asking unpleasant questions, often using threatening language when speaking about them. All that has created an atmosphere in which a narrow group of businessmen close to Smer could feel untouchable, that they could get away with any crime – even murder.


At the time of writing this column, two prevailing theories have been circulating about the perpetrators of a crime that has put Slovak society in a state of deep shock. The Slovak media has concentrated on links to the Italian mafia because Kuciak’s last article, published posthumously by some local outlets, dealt with one clan’s connections in Slovakia. Unbelievably, two people very close to the prime minister – a former Miss Universe contestant currently working as Fico’s advisor and the secretary of the National Security Council – were those named. It’s hard to grasp if true. The Italian mafia infiltrating the inner circle of the prime minister of an EU and NATO member state!


The other, less popular theory, which police President Tibor Gaspar mentioned on Thursday, concerns the so-called judicial mafia, a reference to an alleged network of judges and other state officials who take bribes to produce favorable decisions in different business cases.


During the TV appearance, the prime minister was visibly not operating in his usual sharp, political mode; he was nervous and shaken. Matus Kostolny, the editor in chief of the Dennik N daily, has described Fico as the one who is losing control of the situation in Slovakia. Politicians who had always brushed off accusations of corruption and nepotism are now under a new kind of pressure.


According to experts, the Slovak police have a slim chance of finding the perpetrator(s). At least two days were lost before the bodies were discovered, and all known evidence suggests the work of professionals. The local police are not exactly known for their independence (some media reports have tied the interior minister himself, Robert Kalinak, to various corruption cases). But their bosses are now a under different kind of political pressure – to get some real results quickly, instead of covering up evidence as they often apparently do in such cases. The Italians mentioned in the report have already been detained.  


“The most important thing will be public pressure,” Daniel Lipsic, a former minister of interior and justice in past right-wing governments, told me, when I asked him what would be the key to solving the case.


The journalism community in Slovakia has been shaken, and emotions have had their role in the coverage of the murder and ensuing investigation. But this is probably the gravest crisis Robert Fico has faced so far in his long career. Slovakia, a member of the Eurozone and the only Visegrad country openly asking for a place at the core of European integration, is experiencing an economic boom and a civic awakening. The murder of the journalist and his girlfriend could open a totally new chapter in Slovak history, which could lead – in an extreme case – to political changes with uncertain results.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

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