Slovakia at a crossroad: Rule of law or rule of mafia?

In contrast to Israel, Slovakia has hardly ever indicted public officials for corruption, let alone convicted them.

Participants hold a banner reading: ‘PM Robert Fico in bed with Italian mafia’ during a march in honor of murdered Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia, in February (photo credit: REUTERS)
Participants hold a banner reading: ‘PM Robert Fico in bed with Italian mafia’ during a march in honor of murdered Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia, in February
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel has often been unfairly criticized by myriad ideologically different groups for its imperfect democracy.
Although Israeli democracy has faced with an unprecedented number of political and security challenges, it has been lauded for apparent willingness to investigate and indict many high ranking public officials.
For instance, president Moshe Katsav was sentenced in 2011 to prison for rape in and obstruction and prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of bribery, fraud breach of trust falsifying corporate documents and tax evasion. Moreover, Israel sent to prison several ministers (e.g. Arye Deri in 2000 for taking bribery), members of parliament (e.g. Ofer Hugi in 2006 for forgery and fraud) and local government officials (e.g.
Zvi Bar, Ramat Gan mayor, in 2015 for money laundering and bribery).
In contrast to Israel, Slovakia – which has been praised by its Prime Minister Robert Fico as “one of the most democratic and free [countries] in the world” – has hardly ever indicted public officials for corruption, let alone convicted them.
Not that there are not plenty of reasons to do so. The opposite is true.
According to the latest Corruption Perception Index, Slovakia is one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, and African countries such as Namibia, Botswana and Rwanda have received a better ranking.
However, the current political situation in the Central European country indicates that things might change. For more than two weeks, Slovakia has been going through some of the greatest political turmoil since its establishment in 1993. This political earthquake was triggered by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, both 27. It was the first time a journalist has been killed in this post-communist country.
In his last, unfinished, article, published posthumously in most of Slovakia’s newspapers and news sites, Kuciak reported on the ties between the Italian organized crime syndicate known as the ‘Ndrangheta and people in Fico’s government.
According to Europol, the ‘Ndrangheta is among the richest and most powerful organized crime groups at a global level. The article uncovered that a former topless model and Fico’s chief state adviser Maria Troskova, and the secretary of the State Security Council Viliam Jasan, used to be business partners with members of the ‘Ndrangheta including Antonio Vadala, Troskova’s former boyfriend.
The Italian organized crime syndicate established numerous business activities, including carousel/missing trader VAT frauds, yet its major “investments” have been made in agriculture to draw EU farm subsidies, administered by nominees by Fico’s SMER-SD ruling party.
Italian authorities warned their Slovak counterparts about the ‘Ndrangheta activities as early as 2013, but police ignored it. In response to this, Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak despicably lied when he claimed that Italy had no data concerning Antonio Vadala, however, Roma sent to Bratislava detailed information about him and his cronies. Fico’s government flagrantly disregarded also warnings from the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS).
At any rate, corruption and cronyism in government circles are nothing unusual in Slovakia. Fico, who has been prime minister for 10 years, has formed a monstrous kleptocratic nexus among his political party, business tycoons, white collars criminals, administrative apparatus, law enforcement and judicial institutions. One of the tycoons, Marian Kocner, threatened Kuciak and his family following the publication of a story about him. The journalist said he filed a complaint, but police ignored it.
The only element of society which Fico has not managed to control are media – his biggest enemy. Fico contributed to the hateful atmosphere against journalists whom he did not hesitate to call “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes,” “ordinary stupid hyenas,” “toilet spiders” and “slimy snakes” when they unveiled corruption in public procurement. Yet Fico’s government has always managed to sabotage any probe and survive such blatant conflicts of interest.
However, revelations of state cooperation with Italian mafia and the double murder – which in many aspects reflects the Slovak reality – have provoked public outrage. Slovaks lost their trust in public institutions and in the legitimacy of the system of government.
OVER THE last two Fridays, the country experienced some of the biggest public gatherings since the fall of communism, demanding Fico’s resignation from government and an independent and effective probe with the participation of international teams of investigators.
Unsurprisingly, a delegation of members of the European Parliament sent by Brussels has already expressed disturbing skepticism regarding the police’s effort to catch the perpetrators.
Slovakia stands at the crossroads and the country has to decide if it wants to follow the rule of law or the law of organized crime. The answer is simple, however, obviously not for the Slovak prime minister who – drunk with years in power, is unable to read the public mood – has been unwilling to take any political or moral responsibility for the current situation, only escalating public resentment.
He dangerously believes that he is the state and the state is him, thus he believes that everything is allowed and there are no boundaries. Fico unsuccessfully attempts to divert attention from massive corruption scandals with ties to organized crime by making the inquiry the “country’s priority” while inserting himself strangely into the position of the investigator and as a spokesman of police.
Facing tremendous pressure from the public and media, Fico has resorted to spectacular gestures. At a peculiar press conference, he offered €1 million, theatrically laid in piles of banknotes on a table (in accordance with the mob mentality that cash can solve everything), for anyone who comes forward with information about the killings.
Without any reflection on his past offensive rhetoric, Fico accused President Andrej Kiska, opposition parties and independent media of “dancing on the graves” of the victims and abusing this tragedy for “anti-government activities.”
In despair that he might lose power, Fico has shown willingness to use any dirty tactic.
He accused Kiska of destabilizing the country together with “foreign forces” aka George Soros, the philanthropist of Jewish-Hungarian origin. Such vocabulary is typical for conspiracy theorists, far-right parties, antisemitic circles and the leaders of neighboring countries, particularly for Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has gradually dismantled his country’s democratic institutions while accusing Soros of interfering in Hungarian politics. Slovakia seems to be following a similar nondemocratic path while Fico’s government remains in power.
Disinformation campaigns like those about Soros legitimizes these tactics in public discourse and strengthens the logic of extremist movements.
Fico has likely embraced this strategy because his coalition – consisting of his SMER-SD, nationalists and an inter-ethnic party – might break up, though he might be able to continue leading a minority government with the support of a neo-Nazi party – which thrives on anti-Soros agenda – in parliament. Ironically, the surprising success of this antisemitic party in the 2016 parliamentary election “justified” creation of the current coalition as a fortification against extremism. Silent cooperation with the neo-Nazi party would likely lead to the deterioration of Slovak relations with Israel and the European Union.
If Slovakia wants to restore the rule of law, the end of Fico’s government might not be enough. Gaining people’s trust in political and legal institutions will not happen in days but rather in years, and will require serious reform.
A priority of the next government must be a genuine fight against corruption and organized crime. In order to restore a sense of justice, Slovakia might launch a nationwide judicial investigation into Fico’s corrupt nexus, similar to “Mani pulite” – a nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption in Italy held in the 1990s. It’s not going to be an easy task because the opposition in Slovakia is demoralized and fragmented, and many political parties – mostly demagogic populists – would not provide real change, but rather pose danger to democracy.
The author holds master’s degrees in political science and security and strategic studies from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.