As the largest protests since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 rock Slovakia, following the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciák and his fiancée, one young Slovak and Czech wonder what’s next for the country.
by Alena Bohunická and Jan Jindra
Slovaks don’t have a tradition of protest, like the French or the Italians. When demonstrations do break out, though, the reasons for them must be extraordinarily serious.
In November ’89, we were too young to take part in the Velvet Revolution (known as the “Gentle” Revolution in Slovakia). And we were still just carefree teenagers in 1998, too inexperienced to grasp how awfully “black… the hole in the center of Europe” was, as then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described Slovakia under the autocratic Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Yet it was in the last five years of progress and otherwise healthy economic growth that Slovaks have begun organizing themselves politically and showing up at rallies in large numbers. In the democratic atmosphere of the EU, they have learned that protest is a legitimate way to express civil discontent, a way to shout out their fury.
On the first two Fridays of March 2018, up to 50 Slovak towns witnessed the largest gatherings since 1989, when communism collapsed in what was then Czechoslovakia. Protesters were even joined by their compatriots and supporters abroad. In Prague, London, Paris, Berlin, Vancouver, Sydney among others, people stood up to shout – we´ve had enough! A massive crowd on Slovak National Uprising Square in the centre of Bratislava was chanting in a frenetic rhythm: “Enough of Fico!” Perhaps out of nostalgia or as a call for a reset, they even jangled keys again – exactly as Slovaks (together with Czechs) did in 1989 in anti-communist protests demanding free and democratic elections. Today, they call for decency and fairness.
Last Friday [March 9, 2018], people gathered on Slovak National Uprising Square with mixed feelings, knowing that things might turn violent at anytime. Both the Slovak Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior had expressed concerns pointin out that ”these very protests might be dangerous”. Anything could happen.. In spite of the forebodings, record numbers showed up – groups of laughing students, mothers with infants, couples and friends, elderly men carrying posters with slogans that made one laugh rather than be furious, like “Kali-vederci” (expressing hopes the widely scandalized Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák would resign – he did after a massive pressure hence not earlier than after two full weeks) or “Auf-FICEsehen.”
Why the fury?
Much of this may sound hard to believe. Slovakia has been considered a remarkable success story in recent years, firmly anchored in the EU and a member of the eurozone since 2009. But it is perhaps exactly this success that gives rise to this new courage for protest. It is no longer necessary to convince Slovaks of the importance of the common European project – those born after 1989 link their civic identity quite automatically with the EU. The Slovak government even went so far as to assert the place of the country at the EU’s core: side by side with Germany and France, rather than with the Visegrad group of other post-communist neighbours (Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, additional to Slovakia). Slovaks, it turned out, adopted the perspective of Robert Fico’s, their long-term governing PM, and started to truly believe Slovakia could play a leading role for the CEE region.
This dream vanished on Sunday, 25 February, when Slovak police found a young couple, journalist, Ján Kuciak and his fiancee, archeologist, Martina Kušnírová, mercilessly slaughtered in their apartment near Bratislava. An investigative journalist, Kuciak (27) had been working on a report, revealing fraudulent payments of EU funds with alleged ties to one of Italian maffia branches, “Ndrangheta”, and possible involvement of several persons close to the governing party Smer.
For the country and the region, this unprecedented atrocity appears to reveal at last what some have wanted to keep concealed from ordinary citizens. A reality far from their self-satisFIction with the Euro currency, free mobility within Europe and studies abroad, stylish shopping in modern malls or the ability to from any EU country without extra charges. A hidden dimension of this superficial reality of pure consumerism, though, is now being exposed, characterized by a style of governing that is arrogant in the extreme, with a PM who speaks of journalists as “anti-Slovak whores”; by corruption literally at all levels of society, from tiny friendly gestures in form of a chocolate-box to a million euros in cash; lucrative jobs for friends and contacts; by organized crime spilling over to core state institutions.
Looking deeper, one may see overpriced tenders of foreign medical devices purchased for public hospitals that lack basic equipment for ordinary treatment or the deliveries baby. Slovaks have already gotten used to the fact their doctors, nurses or pensioners’ home staff have been leaving en masse for jobs taking care of Czech, Austrian or German patients, while Slovak women travel to private Austrian border clinics to give birth in dignity, as beds are insufficient commodity in maternity hospitals in Slovakia. Quite normal in its crazy absurdity, freshly-minted graduate teachers were reported preferring to work in an Italian lingeree shops rather then making a living at an ordinary Slovak school, where the salary is at best €500.
Meanwile in the foundations of this ”stable successful state,” a feeling of deep mistrust has been growing. The state that is apparently incapable of providing economic, social and what’s worse, even physical protection to its citizens. Slovaks have gotten used to the routine of investigations being closed with a laconic court verdict: “The act did not occur.” Similarly, as in communist Czechoslovakia, they have found their sanctuary in apathy and private microworlds, and had lost interest in public affairs. While the outflow of educated and skilled Slovaks has picked up speed, the poll numbers of extremists and populists have reached new and appalling heights. Alongside that, a “culture” of luxurious cars, fancy sugar-babe girls and their patrons has become absurdly omnipresent.
This degenerated part of society now has a symbol in Ms. Mária Trošková, a former topless model, picked by PM Robert Fico to be his “state aide”. Trošková had been working for the Slovak PM since 2015, accompanying him on numerous official occasions, meeting top diplomats and head of states, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel – all this despite the media questioning her eligibility and asking that her non-existent security clearance ought to be made public. All the while, her erotic pictures circulate across the internet, making people laugh and just go on with their lives.
A Rude Awakening
The Slovak public had been asleep for too long. News of the dual murder shook them to their senses, as dismay and horror took hold. Both the couple’s death, and the realization of the real condition of their society hit them all at once. With their eyes finally wide open, people woke up from the mood of paralysis and resignation where corruption, frauds and unknown girls strolling around at the ministries had become the order of the day. Something once widely tolerated as only one of man´s ordinary misdemeanors.
All together it has triggered real pressure on Fico and his government – his much-criticized Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák resigned on Monday, March 12, the Prime Minister himself yesterday, on Thursday March 15. Equally important, it also seems to have launched a wider process of catharsis. The underlying aim of the current protests already goes far beyond demanding a standard change or reform of government. Now, that seems to be far too little. What is at play today in Slovakia is a moral revolution. One recurring chant of the young has become, “We are not going anywhere!” They are demanding real change in their home country, and they are not planning to leave.
These events also have unexpected dimensions. It is not just the problem of another CEE country, where democracy is – nearly three decades after the fall of communism – still far from Western standards. The murdered journalist Ján Kuciak had hoped to show that Slovakia, since its EU accession, faced new imported problems arising, paradoxically, from the ever-tightener connection among EU countries on one hand, and their still relatively weak cooperation or mutual controls in law enforcement and other areas on the other.
Today many remember the words of Slovak actor Marián Labuda, who died early in January, enormously popular in both Slovakia and in the Czech Republic. Once asked to comment on the division of Czechoslovakia, Labuda gave a deep sigh and pointed out: “In the era of the Czechoslovak Federation, when there was some sort of scandal, fraud or crime 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.”
Slovakia is not in the Far East of Europe. Easy traffic connections and modern infrastructure for the benefit of economic and cultural exchange have made Bratislava almost a suburb of Vienna. However, Slovaks are increasingly determined not to keep leaving the country for Vienna, Paris or London. In Bratislava and elsewhere, these days Slovaks are standing up to demand the decency and fairness that are the essence of democracy, core qualities that have been absent in Slovak public affairs.
And this time, they are going to stay.