After Rude Awakening, Slovakians Demand Real Change

As the largest protests since 1989 rock Slovakia following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, fellow contributors wonder about the future of the country.

Slovaks don’t have a tradition of protest. When demonstrations do happen, it’s something serious.

In November ’89, we were too young to take part in the Velvet (or Gentle) Revolution, in 1998 we were still teenagers, not understanding what U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described as “the black hole in the center of Europe” – Slovakia under the autocratic Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

But in the last five years of progress and healthy economic growth in the democratic atmosphere of the EU, our generation has learned that protest is a legitimate way to express civil discontent. Perhaps it is this success that creates the courage to protest.

Why the Fury?

Slovakia has been considered a remarkable success story in recent years, firmly anchored in the EU and a member of the eurozone since 2009. Slovaks understand the importance of a common European project – those born after 1989 identify automatically with the EU and Robert Fico’s government has often sided with the core nations France and Germany rather than its fellow members of the illiberal Visegrád group (Czechia, Poland and Hungary.)

This dream vanished on Monday, February 26, when Slovak police found a young couple, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, archaeologist Martina Kusnirova, slaughtered in their apartment near Bratislava. An investigative journalist, Kuciak (27) had been working on an article uncovering a pattern of fraud in euro fund distribution with ties to the Italian mafia. And more to the point – with potential ties to the Slovak governing party, Smer. [N.B. our partner for this issue of “Empire to Republic,” The Slovak Spectator, published Ján Kuciak’s last report online: “Italian mafia in Slovakia. Tentacles reaching out to politics”].

Kuciak was the first journalist ever to be murdered in Slovakia. The atrocity reveals what some in power have wanted to conceal – a reality very different from their government’s achievements. Many of the achievements are of course real, from stylish shopping malls and the euro to mobility and study opportunities across Europe. But now a hidden dimension has been exposed: an arrogant style of government with a PM who speaks of journalists as “anti-Slovak whores” and corruption at all levels of society. There have been investigations of murdered citizens and lawyers that have never been resolved – and now journalists are being removed from the scene. The late Slovak actor Marian Labuda commented after the division of Czechoslovakia: “When there was some sort of scandal in Bratislava, a prosecutor from Prague turned up to investigate. And vice versa. Of course, splitting the federation into two independent states might well have been motivated by some who preferred there be no more such unpleasant visitors.”

A deeper problem is the growing sense of apathy and mistrust in the future of their own country. Slovaks know that their doctors and nurses have been leaving en masse for jobs taking care of Czechs or Austrians, while Slovak women travel to Austrian border clinics to give birth in dignity. Normal but absurd, freshly minted teachers prefer to work in Italian lingerie shops rather than teach back home, where the salary is at best €500 per month gross.

The state is apparently incapable of providing economic, social and what’s worse, even physical protection to its citizens. Investigations are closed with a laconic court verdict: “The act did not occur.” As in communist Czechoslovakia, Slovaks again found sanctuary in apathy and lost interest in public affairs. Polls showed extremists and populists gaining ground.

A Rude Awakening

The murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova sparked massive protests in Bratislava and over 40 other Slovak towns and banished the sense of apathy. It triggered the resignation of Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Prime Minister Fico himself. Current protests are demanding more, a moral revolution. The younger generation understands that Slovakia is not in the Far East of Europe. Now a recurring chant has become, “We are not going anywhere!” They are demanding real change in their home country. And this time, they are going to stay.

Alena Bohunická and Jan Jindra
Alena Bohunická is a lecturer at Faculty of Arts, Comenius University in Bratislava; Jan Jindra is a graduate of the Institute of International Studies, Charles University in Prague.

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