Protesters thronging eastern Europe’s capitals have become a common sight, with demonstrators denouncing what they see as overly cozy relations with Russia, attacks on independent courts, crooked state contracts and overdone austerity. They usually have little effect, as their governments endure the outrage to cling to power. In Slovakia, however, the biggest marches since the 1989 fall of communism are threatening the continued rule of three-time Prime Minister Robert Fico.
1. Why is this time different?
The execution-style murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who was reporting on state corruption, is fueling the protest movement. Kuciak, 27, was found shot dead along with his fiancee in their home on Feb. 25, and law enforcement says his work could be the motive for the double murder. Until his slaying, protests in Slovakia -- like similar rallies in the last year in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- had failed to damage the government. This time, the tens of thousands of people thronging Slovakia’s streets have claimed scalps from Fico’s administration.
2. What had Kuciak uncovered?
He was writing about links between people working for the government and organized-crime gangs stealing European Union aid funds, and police are investigating a possible connection to the Italian mafia. An unfinished, posthumously published story by Kuciak said the ’Ndrangheta crime gang, based in Italy’s Calabria region, had ties to two of Fico’s advisers, who later resigned. There is no established link between the criminal syndicate or the officials and the murder, and the officials have denied any connection. Protesters say only a new government can guarantee a thorough and independent investigation.
3. What effect have the protests had?
Aside from the departure of his advisers, Fico has lost his political protege and interior minister, Robert Kalinak, who resigned after being blamed for botching the investigation of Kuciak’s murder and other corruption allegations. Fico’s three-party coalition is fracturing, with the smallest member, Most, threatening to leave the government unless there are early elections. The opposition has filed a no-confidence motion against the cabinet, which controls only 78 of parliament’s 150 seats. Fico and his Smer party had weathered other waves of mass protest since returning to power in 2012.
4. How has Fico responded?
In one of his first appearance after the murders, he stacked 1 million euros ($1.2 million) in banknotes on a table and offered it as a reward for information that would help catch those responsible. Since then, he’s held news briefings almost daily to say investigators are working nonstop to solve the case. As the pressure intensified, however, Fico accused President Andrej Kiska, a popular independent, of teaming up with the opposition and then said the protests were being organized by foreign actors. He even linked billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros to a plot to “destabilize” the country, an echo of rhetoric popular among nationalistic eastern European leaders, such as Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban, who say that foreign actors are trying to oust their governments.
5. Who’s protesting?
The protests have been driven by civic groups and supported by universities, actors, journalists and cultural institutions. More marches are planned to maintain pressure. While the demonstrations are Slovakia’s biggest since the fall of the Iron Curtain, they were smaller in comparison with recent protests in Romania and Poland. In Poland, more than 100,000 people staged rallies at the end of last year against the policies of the ruling Law & Justice party, including a controversial overhaul of the nation’s courts and legislation to tighten abortion laws.
6. How corrupt is Slovakia seen to be?
The nonprofit group Transparency International gave Slovakia, a member of the euro area, an average score -- 50 out of 100 -- on the perceived level of public corruption in 2017. Media have exposed a number of cases in which state contracts for things ranging from hospital equipment to cleaning services were awarded to companies linked to Fico’s party. Before the 2012 elections, police began investigating alleged connections between businessmen and leaders across the political spectrum that were said to be contained in a file code-named “Gorilla” purportedly originating from the nation’s intelligence service. Smer’s rivals, the then-ruling conservative SDKU party, suffered the brunt of the backlash, losing the vote. Fico, who was also mentioned in the file, has repeatedly denied all allegations of corruption, pledged to crack down on it. More than five years later, the Gorilla probe is still ongoing, but no senior politician in office has been convicted in that probe or on any other involving corruption.
7. What’s next?
The breakup of Fico’s governing coalition or elections midway through the current government term appear to be the most likely outcomes. Most’s proposal for a snap ballot is the coalition’s best chance to remain in control of when an early vote takes place. All the opposition parties are in favor of snap elections, and they should be able eventually to secure the 90 votes required to make it happen.
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