To get a broader understanding of the situation, we asked five opinion-leading Slovaks their take on the recent tragedy.
We must not look in disbelief at the assassination of Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in Slovakia, but think hard and act responsibly to avert a further democratic decline not only in that country but across the entire region.
Regardless of who the assassins were – be it Italian or local mobsters – they gunned down not only a brave and innocent man but also shot at the belief that EU-integrated Slovakia is free of the corruption wide-spread across other democracies in the area.
In October last year, an investigative journalist working on leads from the Panama Papers was killed in Malta during the country’s EU presidency. This is another instance proving that EU membership itself does not insulate a nation from fraud or even politically-motivated murder.
However, it does not testify against EU enlargement itself. Even the very prospect of membership pushed failing states towards reforms and general prosperity. Rather, this shows that the process is incomplete, and we need to double our efforts to further deepen the process of democratic consolidation.
This needs to be underlined since the ricochet of shots fired in Slovakia may hit also those who believe that the EU enlargement helped overcome the dysfunctional post-communism heritage and establish the once failing states anew. To them, it must now seem that the democratic crust of Slovakia is razor-thin and frail despite any pro-EU language of the ruling coalition.
In fact, the tragedy is likely to spark a “strong-hand” reaction which will demand a more radical approach. It may be the end of Smer’s moderately pro-EU message, which has been crucial as this is a country that just narrowly avoided a neo-Nazi from being elected to high office. And it may help along the Kremlin narrative – as the Slovaks are rather susceptible to such accounts – which could lead to an undermining of trust in the democratic institutional order.
But this is only one negative scenario. The potential of a popular mobilisation against corrupt elites that look up to the norms and principles universally considered as “European” should not be overlooked.
Recent regional elections wiped away both radical right and Smer-favoured candidates. The demise of the current government is now more likely but it does not have to be to the benefit of radicals.
This is an opportunity for the press and civil society to mobilise a public that would demand a renewal of political ideals; one that would continue to lead the country in the right direction and set a promising example for others in the region.
Concerning the recent tragedy, and questionable government response, surrounding the murder of Jan Kuciak, can you see any serious political implications developing from this case?
Balasz Jarabik, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The murder of Jan Kuciak and his partner, Marina Kusnirova, is Slovakia`s Ukraine moment. Many Slovaks talk about a return to the 90s, to a mafia-infested state of Slovakia, but the difference is there has been rapid erosion in trust of the central authority, whether referring to the police or the government. Back in the 90s, in early transition times where violence was common, the state and its credibility was in a start-up mode, but this was long before any EU integration.
Those who ordered this heinous act may have calculated its impact on the government, which was already mired in corruption scandals and weakened internally. As there was no murdered journalist till now, the implications go far beyond the immediate gain of hashing out any evidence related to criminal activity.
Therefore, disregarding to the results of the investigation, Slovakia is entering a turbulent political period. Similar to the ruling party Smer, factions of the opposition will be viewed as part of the problem, support for a “strong hand” instead of liberal parties may be the winners.
Viera Zuborova, Bratislava Policy Institute
At this moment with all the information that we have, I’m concerned how we will be able to solve the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée. The fact that some of the closest colleagues and advisors of the leading government party, Smer-SD, has done business in the past with people suspected of being linked with Italian mafia leads us to believe, that the investigation will be discredited.
If this tragedy will not be solved immediately, the picture of the Slovak Republic will never be as it was before. The latest declaration of Slovakia’s highest political elites – that Slovakia is the last island of liberal democracy in this Central European region – is now seen as a bad joke.
However, one thing will be changed in the future and that is Slovakian society. The society, which was desperately fighting from the 90s to be a part of the West, is gone for now, and for now, the Byzantine character of the state has won. Kundera´s statement about Central Europe being a kidnapped West of the Byzantine East has never been so true as in the last few days in Slovakia. The problem is that the Byzantine character of governance is rooted deeply in the political and societal system of Slovak republic.
The first positive effort to make things right is the abdication of Marek Maďarič, as the minister of culture, who was also previously vice-chairman of Smer-SD. However, returning the Slovakian political system back to a liberal democratic regime will take much longer than in 1989.
Grigorij Meseznikov, Institute for Public Affairs (IVO)
I suppose, the murder of the investigative Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová, will have a dramatic impact on the overall political development in the country.
This is the first murder of journalist after 1989, and serious questions appear in this respect.
Firstly, it seems that the key information that Ján Kuciak was working on the cases associated with the criminal activities of Italian mafia in Slovakia leaked to mafia people from the police authorities, and as a result, a courageous journalist and his fiancée paid the highest possible price for it – they lost their lives.
Secondly, it turned out that the Calabrian mafia goblins had penetrated to the top of the strongest ruling party Smer – Social Democracy, even directly to the highest office of the government, to Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Thirdly, the anger of the opposition, the independent media and the public is now much stronger than it was at other corruption cases in the past.
Citizens are asking how is it possible that dubious Italian “businessmen”, suspected of fraud at home in Calabria, had such favourable business conditions in Slovakia (for example, when using
European agro-subsidies)? How is it possible that these “entrepreneurs” had so many friends among the top politicians of Smer party? How is it possible that these people enjoyed support from Smer politicians and state representatives, while the investigative journalists were forced to listen to insults and allegations that they are “anti-Slovak prostitutes” who damage their country by their articles from Prime Minister Fico? So far, no answers have been given to these and other, no less serious, questions from the government officials.
Not long ago, the Smer party looked like a monolith. Today, as a result of the murder of Ján Kuciak, serious cracks have emerged: the first member of the government, Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, resigned. Until then, the ruling coalition looked relatively coherent.
With mounting revelations and publications of compromising data, the pressure on two coalition partners – the Slovak National Party and Most (Bridge) party – is rising. Few dare to predict how many members of these parties would support a vote of non-confidence against Prime Minister Fico which has already been announced by the opposition. It is quite possible, therefore, that in the course of the next few weeks, the name of Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic will no longer be Robert Fico.
Magdalena Vasaryova, Former Slovak Ambassador to Poland
If the Mečiar’s government has been connected with, at least through impression, Robert Remiáš’ murder (who died in a car explosion), Fico’s government is going to be linked from now on with the vendetta on Ján Kuciak.
This means that all our secret police structures must be questioned, and the journalists – who have become united in unprecedented solidarity – are publishing daily new connections of not only Fico but other members of his Smer-SD party with mafia members, corruption, misuse of EU funds and weird friendships.
There are friends disappearing from Facebook, and the Prime Minister has put together one million euros, nobody knows from which bank or perhaps from his personal account. The death of Robert Remiáš and the subsequent amnesty for the perpetrators buried Mečiar. This could be a similar case for Fico and his party’s members.
The problem is who the followers will be. In general, I expect that this is one of the processes of purifying the Slovak society and the young state, to rid it of structures we have known about for far too long. The question is: if Slovakia will not be drowned in this process by the illiberal trends like those seen in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. And this is also my biggest fear.
Andrej Matisak, Pravda
There is somehow a new situation for PM Fico. He just lost one minister from his own party as the Minister of Culture, Mr. Maďarič , has resigned. We may argue that Mr. Maďarič was on his way out anyway. But still, for Fico it is a new situation when one of his people left the government on his own decision; not as it happened before, when people of Smer left the government as the result of some PR damage control plan.
PM Fico has to do some multitasking. What to do with the murder of Mr Kuciak? What to do with Italian mafia operating in Slovakia, even if the case has nothing to do with Mr. Kuciak? What to do with coalition partners, especially Most-Hid and Justice Minister Zitnanska? And maybe what to do with angry people and how many of them will hit the streets?
Can he manage? In a short term, he probably can. Especially if his coalition partners will let him, but it is another serious blow to Smer.
In the longer term, Smer has very little to offer. Some infighting may start if people within the party might feel they are losing their positions. Looking even further ahead, if Smer will stay the most popular party, Fico will still lose the potential to build a coalition .
Smer is losing its attractiveness simply because who would like to be Smer’s candidate for President when you would have to answer questions surrounding Smer and the Italian mafia? And no matter that Slovakia wants be in the core of the EU, Smer will still have to answer those questions also at the European level.
Smer is heading towards becoming a toxic brand, rather slowly but surely.