A Murder Re-Shapes Slovak Politics

Our neighbor to the East has just elected a new government. The Slovak social democrats, in power since 2006, have now been demoted to junior coalition partner and a previously minor player, the OĽaNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) is now in power. This will be a testing time, even for a country used to rough and tumble Balkan-style politics.

The upheaval began two years ago when twenty-eight year old journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were found shot dead at close range in their house in the small town of Velká Mača. From the first, there was little doubt this was a political murder to silence a journalist investigating high-level corruption at the nexus of business and government:

“This is the most probable explanation,” announced the Police President Tibor Gaspar almost immediately. Specifically, Kuciak had been looking into links between major companies and Premier Robert Fico‘s governing party Smer (social democrats). Kuciak had received threats and filed charges with the police. Massive public demonstrations forced Fico to step down in favor of party colleague Peter Pelligrini.

“Mafia, get out of my country!!!”

After the usual grinding silence of police investigations, the dramatic bombshell came in January this year, when a special unit of Slovak law enforcement announced the arrest of former Public Prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka and a dozen judges on suspicion of abuse of office. Bribes had been paid to shield certain people from investigation. Slovak media had no problem fingering the guilty party: Marián Kočner, a financial and property buccaneer, linked to organized crime. Another round of angry demonstrations followed: MAFIA GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY!!! screamed the placards.

The Slovenská republika was an early success story in the post Soviet era. The (then) new democratic structure was robust enough to shake off strongman (and ex-boxer) Vladimír Mečiar’s attempt to consolidate power in the late 1990s. This correspondent remembers a summer day in Prague in 1998 in the media director’s office of a major advertising agency. She was on the phone to the manager of Slovakia’s principal commercial TV station when suddenly his panic stricken voice reported that a couple of burly thugs were telling him to leave the office; he was no longer in charge. Mečiar’s men were simply taking over. Public and political protest forced them to withdraw two days later, but it was a close call.

Prosperity for Slovakia

After this, the republic prospered. The new flat tax and huge capital investment from several major auto manufacturers powered up the economy, and the country joined the Euro in 2009. Recent events have put the fragile democracy to the test, but today, chances are that the fledgling republic will weather the storm.

Slovakia’s recent election on February 29 was held amidst righteous anger and seething mistrust in the political elite. The result – unsurprisingly – was a re-drawing of the political landscape. The clear winner was the protest party OĽaNO, winning 25% of the vote (up from 11% in 2016). Ironically the party leader, Igor Matovič, is himself a successful businessman with a dubious reputation. But no matter: As the constitution requires, he has been entrusted with forming a government that will likely include both liberal social democrats and the populist right wing Sme rodina (We are Family).

Fortunately, in the time of Corona, the mood is one of national solidarity. The outgoing premier Pelligrini, promised “honest cooperation at the highest levels.”  In keeping with virus containment, press coverage of the ceremony showed pictures of President Zuzanna Čaputová swearing in the new government wearing a handsome maroon dress with matching facemask. A good omen, surely.

(Foto: Facebook/ Caputova)

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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