UARU
Anti-Government Protests Sweep across Slovakia
19 March, 2018

The murder of a Slovakian investigative journalist and his partner has sparked mass anti-government protests across the central European nation. Journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner were killed last month while Kuciak was looking into the Slovakian government’s links to the Italian mafia.  

Strategic and Security Studies Group expert Olexia Basarab says that the recent protests were "not entirely unexpected, adding that the political situation was pretty tense for a pretty long period, and there were a number of political scandals dealt with corruption on the highest level of Slovak government.”  

What was unexpected, however, was the murder of a journalist. While this may be a disturbingly common occurrence among other post-Soviet states, Slovakia has always been “pretty safe for journalists,” according to Basarab.

“If we recall the country's history, in 30 years there were only three cases, where journalists disappeared. There were no murders, there were no beatings of journalists. Their usual modus operandi to act against journalists was the judicial way, so cases in courts, defamation cases and so on.”

The escalating public outrage prompted the resignation of the country’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose close allies have been linked to Italian organised crime. This was revealed in Kuciak’s final article, which was published posthumously.

But Fico’s resignation has not satisfied the protesters. His replacement and close ally, Peter Pellegrini, has also been linked to corruption, having been allegedly involved in schemes to misappropriate European funds, according to Basarab.

Photo credit: EPA.com

Demonstrators are demanding early elections and a complete overhaul of the government. Although it is currently unclear if these demands will be met in full, Basarab believes that these protests could inspire positive change in the central European country.

“I am pretty optimistic about some change because we see that these political rallies are becoming more and more intensive, more and more people are coming, so there is some perspective that they will press for some actual change,” Basarab says.

Hromadske spoke to Strategic and Security Studies Group expert Olexia Basarab via Skype to discuss the escalating protests, the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner what all this means for Slovakia.

My first question is about the protests in Slovakia, following the murder of the journalist and investigator Jan Kuciak. Can you please tell us more about what is actually happening now? What is the mood of the people in the country?

Well, these protests are not something unexpected in Slovakia because the political situation was pretty tense for a pretty long period, and there were a number of political scandals dealt with corruption on the highest level of Slovak government. There were scandals, for example, that dealt with the organised crime working with the VAT schemes on illegal VAT returns, and all the journalistic investigations were leading to the top officials of ruling political party Smer. During last year and before, from time to time, there were organised political protests, anti-corruption rallies and so on. And the murder of the investigative journalist created a kind of point that made this situation boil because, in Slovakia, there was a kind of public consent that this country is pretty safe. And this country was pretty safe for journalists. If we recall the country's history, in 30 years there were only three cases, where journalists disappeared. There were no murders, there were no beatings of journalists.

Photo credit: Dmytro Sherman/Novaya Gazeta

Their usual modus operandi to act against journalists was the judicial way, so cases in courts, defamation cases and so on. And the murder of journalists, and moreover together with his fiance, young people – 27 years old, who had no record of some political involvement, they were just professionals. Jan Kuciak was an analyst, who was working with open sources, open data, analysing economic records and creating the [wider] picture of how politically-tied business works in Slovakia. So, there are two...

Let me say that we can talk about two moments, which joined. So, first of all, this long period of really strong political conflict between the ruling party and people supporting the opposition, and, on the other hand, the moral problem, the problem of murdered young people. And, actually, if the government would act logically and professionally, there would not be [such] a big political crisis, if the investigation was carried out properly. But, unfortunately, from the very first day, the investigation was carried in a pretty [improper] way. This was acknowledged also by a European Parliament delegation visiting Slovakia during last week and they also acknowledged that the police investigation did not follow some standard procedures. So, the other problem was that Jan Kuciak was also writing about some pretty suspicious business connections of the Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, about the police president Tibor Gaspar, and about the business of the wife of the chief of the National Anti-corruption Agency, Krajmer.

So, the problem was that all these leading persons in law enforcement, they somehow dealt with suspicious business schemes, and with the ruling party, and they were now leading the investigation of the murder of the journalist who [was] writing about their problematic connections.

So we can say that the murder was the stimulus but not the real reason behind this protest? What are people's demands now in this protest? What do they want?

Actually, for me, now it's hard to translate correctly the main slogan of this protests. It's like something for...

For right Slovakia

Let's just... "For a just Slovakia." So the main idea is that people need justice. To some extent, it recalls [for] me, pretty strongly Ukrainian protests. People need justice, people need just and thorough investigation and also, the problem of this political business connections, in public appropriations, using European funds. It's also a big problem. So they try to call for, let's say, justice and honesty. And this is one of the moment, why this protests now do not have some visible results, for example. There were already three big rallies, but they did not issue, for example, one joint petition of statement because it's a grassroots event. And opposition parties, they are not involved so much. The organisers are people from different backgrounds. Sometimes they are friends or colleagues of the murdered journalist, like in the city of Nitra. In Bratislava, there were political activists, who previously organised rallies against corruption, who have not dealt with any opposition parties. So there are no political leaders for these rallies. There are no, by now, very bright media personalities, who would speak on behalf of these people. Right now, it's just people showing their dissent.

Photo credit: EPA.com

We can see that Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, actually resigned after these protests. How has the president reacted? How is the political establishment in general reacting to these events, to these protests?

The Slovak president, he has not directly dealt with any party. Although, he enjoys the sympathy over the opposition parties. But, he's trying to play a role, or kind of judge, in between the different political forces. So, from the very beginning, he proposed two ways: first -- government reconstruction, second -- elections. However, the Prime Minister Robert Fico and the Minister of Interior, for the first period, they wanted to stay in power, to leave everything as it is. However, the protests pressed them to resign. But this is not a big win for the protesters, by now, because Prime Minister Fico proposed to the president that he will resign under some agreement: first -- that the new Prime Minister would be from the same Smer party, second -- that the coalition will stay the same and, third, actually the main one -- that there won't be [any] elections before the scheduled elections in 2020. So, opposition is not so keen on taking the government. It could organise elections in several ways. So for example, they could stop going to parliamentary sessions. So if 75 MPs stay somewhere, for example, in the premises of the parliament, or at home, or whatever, in three months the president [would] have to dissolve the parliament. Or, they can vote against the government or, also, there was one more option I currently forget, whatever. The issue is that the opposition is pretty careful changing the government because, first of all, they do not want to be accused [of] coup d'etat. It was one of the first moves of Premier Fico. He accused that the opposition wanted to make something like the Ukrainian Maidan, to commit a coup d'etat and take the government. Second, a new government, if it would be completely new -- not reconstructed -- it would need to do something with this system of corruption, which has been established for a pretty long time. So, it has been developing for more than twenty years, and now they would need to break some established connections, schemes, and it's enormous work and it is unlikely that they will be visibly successful, [like] what we see in Ukraine, for example.

Actually, one of the biggest demands of the protesters, as far as I know, is the new elections, to hold new elections in the country. In your opinion, what can we expect next? Will the protests continue? What will the government's reaction be, or the president's, or the parliamentarians’? What can we expect next?

Next, we need to follow the composition of the new government. Who will be selected the new ministers? For example. The personality of the new Prime Minister is not very optimistic because Pellegrini, who was entitled to compose a new government, he is known for problems with some projects aimed [at] signs and 15:36  of the Slovak government. So he has a pretty big record of scandals with European funds and misappropriation. This is a younger person, from the same political group, with the same political culture, the same political connections, so the government... We would expect almost the same government. Maybe persons would be different, but they general scheme will stay the same. Here, both what will be the reaction of Slovaks? How intensive will the reactions be? By now I am pretty optimistic about some change because we see that these political rallies are becoming more and more intensive, more and more people are coming, so there is some perspective that they will press for some actual change. By now, for example, no president of police, no Chief of National Anti-corruption Agencies, have resigned. And this was one of the main demands also. So, we would expect next Friday, one more rally. And what would happen in between? No political expert will dare now to say, but, it's a long story we will face here, in Slovakia. Slovaks are not so fond of active protests. They are much more calm people, who prefer some standard political means over conflict solution. So, by now, they will try to use rallies as a means to press on the next government, and, anyway, to make a move and announce the new elections. But, I cannot say this for sure.  

/Interview by Ostap Yarysh

/Text by Sofia Fedeczko