Political context of the murder of a journalist in Slovakia

Political context of the murder of a journalist in Slovakia

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The news about the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová has shaken the entire country. They are not the only people who have been killed in Slovakia since 1989: “undesirable” people have already been physically eradicated in affairs that were linked, to a greater or lesser extent, to politics. 

Demonstration in memory of Ján Kuciak and Martina KušnírováCreator: Archive of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

The year 1996 saw the murder of the former police officer Robert Remiáš, deemed to be a witness to the abduction of the son of then-Slovak President Michal Kováč. 2010 brought the killing of Ernest Valko, the first (and last) president of the Czechoslovak Federal Constitutional Court, which ended when Czechoslovakia did in 1993. Mr Valko worked successfully as defence counsel on behalf of state-owned trade companies in disputes with those who had fraudulently benefited from the earlier privatisation of national assets under then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

Italian lead?

The murder of Ján Kuciak is the first case of a violent death of a journalist in the modern history of Slovakia. As soon as the news about the tragic event spread across the media and to the public, not a trace of doubt was left that it would have a dramatic impact on overall political developments. Essentially, the killing of this young, innocent and popular human being shook the conscience of an immense number of people. The murder triggered public outrage, anger and empathy. As the political context of the heinous crime cannot be overlooked, it is likely that it will significantly affect further developments in Slovakia. The untangling of the knot on the political stage may lead to turbulence, the might of which will not be dissimilar to a volcanic eruption or shattering earthquake. Commentators have even compared the tragic passing of Ján Kuciak to – as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it – a “black swan” that has the potential to fundamentally change Slovakia.

Mr Kuciak’s last article, the completion of which was cut short by his untimely death, has since been published in all of the Slovak media. In that piece, Mr Kuciak unveils the dubious background of the business in Slovakia that is being carried out by a number of Italian nationals close to 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian branch of the mafia. Mr Kuciak suggests that a group led by Antonino Vadala, who had been suspected of a range of criminal activities in his native Italy, has quite comfortably settled in Eastern Slovakia: having effectively drawn European subsidies granted by the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture, Mr Vadala has built himself quite a stronghold there. Mr Kuciak further alleges that the group has forged political links with the most influential political party, Smer – Social Democracy (Smer-SD), at regional and national level. Mr Vadala’s former life- partner (a former model whose images  have appeared in “gentlemen’s” magazines) has become “chief state adviser” to Prime Minister Robert Fico. Another party official, Viliam Jasaň, a former Member of Parliament, has relatives who did business with Mr Vadala. Mr Jasaň has made it as far as being appointed Secretary of the National Security Council. Records published on online social networks have shown that Mr Vadala’s circle of friends include a number of MPs and officials of Smer-SD.

After the news of the murder of Mr Kuciak and his fiancée broke out, a group of Italian nationals close to 'Ndrangheta (or perhaps even members of the organisation) found themselves instantly on the list of suspects. Members of the group were arrested, only to be released shortly thereafter. It is up to the team of investigators to identify the actual murderers, whether the direct executioners or those who commissioned the murder. It isn’t at all unfeasible to suggest that the Italian lead could turn out to be a dead end and the investigation may follow an altogether different path. None of this, however, changes the fact that the case has unveiled the reality of how cosy some segments of Slovak business and mafia circles feel in the proximity of political élites in Slovakia.

Questions yet to be answered

There are a number of significant facts that give rise to concern. The information that Mr Kuciak was working in connection with cases linked to mafia criminal activities is likely to have leaked from the police and reached the mafia members themselves. That might have cost the lives of the daring journalist and his fiancée. Furthermore, the tentacles of the Calabrian mafia have apparently reached the highest echelons of Smer-SD, the most powerful party in the current administration, and have stretched as far as the Office of the Government and Prime Minister Robert Fico himself. This is crushing news, whether or not the murder involved members of Mr Vadala’s branch of the organisation.

The public keeps on asking: How come these dubious Italian ‘entrepreneurs’, who are suspected of crimes back home in Calabria, have enjoyed such a favourable business setting in Slovakia (for instance, in benefitting from European farming subsidies)? Why do those ‘entrepreneurs’ have so many friends among the leading politicians from Smer-SD? How come these people have been sheltered by the manifest support of politicians from the party in Government whilst Mr Fico gave investigative journalists nothing but belligerent attacks and accusations of being ‘anti-Slovak prostitutes’ - whose articles, he alleged, kept damaging the interests of Slovakia? 

Government officials have offered no answers yet. However, the public uproar ignited by the murder of Mr Kuciak is far mightier than the outcry that emerged in response to scandalous corruption or criminal cases in the past.

Political consequences and prospects

At the end of the first week since the murder of Mr Kuciak and his partner, a number of cities across Slovakia held public commemorative gatherings. Just in Bratislava, 25 000 people gathered on Freedom Square in front of the Office of the Government. Demonstrations on such a scale were last held during the Velvet Revolution in November 1989.

The rating of Smer-SD had kept stable for some time, as until recently the party had managed to retain the public image of a solid monolith. After the murder of Mr Kuciak, a major rift cracked open when Culture Minister Marek Maďarič stepped down. Following the mass protest that was held on 3 March in Bratislava, Roman Šipoš, another key member of Smer-SD, stepped down. He had served as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and was quite close to Mr Fico. Let’s suppose that future opinion polls will show that the circumstances surrounding Mr Kuciak’s murder (such as the Italian mafia links to some Smer-SD officials) have undermined electoral trust in Smer-SD and its leaders, costing them points. The inner solidarity within the party might then undergo an about-face. The gradual weakening of the hitherto solid party might swiftly crumble it into mere fragments of steadfast cronies and beneficiaries.

One of the key measures that the public and media keep demanding is the resignation of Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák. There is also the oft-repeated call for Mr Fico’s resignation, and hence that of his entire cabinet. The opposition has been calling for Mr Kaliňák’s resignation for some time. President Andrej Kiska has invited him to do the same. As the investigation of Mr Kuciak’s murder is being overseen by top officials of the Ministry of Interior and the police, Mr Kaliňák’s opponents see the lack of trust in the objective solving of the case to be the major issue related to the investigation. Law enforcement agencies in Slovakia have a track record of having often ignored findings by investigative media. Hence, the public isn’t convinced that law enforcement will not give in to political pressure, and concerns are that they could close the case prematurely. A week after the death of Ján Kuciak, Mr Kaliňák fended off any talk about his resignation. He remained adamant that he would not step down, despite the signals that came from Béla Bugár, chairman of Most-Híd, the party that constitutes the governing coalition along with Smer-SD and the Slovak National Party. Mr Bugár made Mr Kaliňák’s resignation a prerequisite for the further existence of the coalition alliance. Mr Kaliňák’s intransigence is likely to fuel even more public uproar and bring additional tens of thousands of disenchanted people to the streets.

In his public address on 4 March, Slovak President Andrej Kiska stated that the Government had been unable to solve the situation. He further alleged that the Government also didn’t have a road map that would lead them to a solution. The President asked for an extensive, fundamental reshuffling of the cabinet; failing that, he called for early elections. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Fico rejected those options, aggravating the situation further.

Except for a handful of infrequent internal conflicts, the tripartite government coalition seemed to be a stable and coherent alliance as recently as the first months of 2018. Today, however, the increasing number of leads in the investigation into Mr Kuciak’s murder and the related release of compromising material has put the Smer-SD coalition partners, the Slovak National Party and Most-Híd, under increasing pressure. Hardly anyone dares to predict the voting choices to be made by MPs from the latter two factions should a proposal for a vote of  confidence be tabled, as is being signalled by the opposition.

It is, therefore, not implausible to suggest that it might just be a matter of weeks before the name of the Slovak Prime Minister is no longer Robert Fico.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political analyst and President of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, Slovakia.

English translation: Lucia Faltinová