International review Investigation

Slovakia faces up to deep-rooted corruption problems

Фото убитых журналиста и его невесты и поминальные лампады
Источник фото: AP/ James Shotter.

This material belongs to: Financial Times.

Journalist’s death shifts the mood from optimism to a realisation that all is not well.

At 6.30am on Monday, the editor of the Slovak website, Peter Bardy received a phone call that turned his world upside down: one of his journalists, Jan Kuciak, a young reporter who had been investigating mafia networks in eastern Slovakia, was dead.

Within a couple of hours Mr Bardy was in the website’s office in Bratislava, breaking the news to his shattered colleagues that Jan had been killed. “I had to tell them that he is dead. I had to call his brother and sister,” says Mr Bardy. “Monday morning was one of the worst moments of my life.”

The brutal murder of Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, was the first killing of a journalist since the central European nation of 5.4m people gained independence in 1993. Police suspect that it may have been connected to Kuciak’s investigative reporting — a revelation that has plunged Slovakia’s politics into turmoil, and provoked outrage among its citizens.

“This sort of thing can happen in Russia or Venezuela or China or somewhere else. But we are in the middle of the EU,” says Maria Nemcova from Bratislava. “It is really scary and not really understandable. Since [Monday] I have followed everything. I can’t concentrate on my work, I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights. I feel emotionally involved.”

Many Slovaks share Ms Nemcova’s feelings. On Friday, tens of thousands braved bitingly cold temperatures in protest vigils across the country. In Bratislava a huge crowd gathered in front of the office of prime minister Robert Fico, bearing placards with slogans such as “Mafia get out of my country” and “€1m [is not equal to] two lives”. Some Slovak media said the protests were the biggest in the country’s history.

Beyond the horror at the death of a young couple, much of the emotion in Slovakia stems from anger at the deep-rooted problems with corruption that the killings have flagged up — and which a decade and a half of EU membership has failed to root out.

“In recent years, there was a growing sense of optimism in the country, especially in comparison with what is going on in Poland and Hungary with their problems over the rule of law. We started seeing ourselves as an island [of success], after decades of being the underdog in the region and having to catch up,” says Lukas Fila, chief executive of N Press, which publishes Dennik N, one of Slovakia’s main newspapers.

“This shifts the mood dramatically. The death of a journalist is a strong symbol and brings us back to the realisation that maybe not all is well and that we still have to struggle to be a free country.”

Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovakia has boomed. The tiny central European state has won so much foreign investment that, per capita, it is now the world’s biggest car maker. In 2009, it became the second former communist state to adopt the euro, a move that symbolised its desire to anchor itself in the European mainstream.

But despite the dramatic economic gains, many Slovaks complain that corruption continues to infect national life. Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index placed Slovakia 54th out of 180 countries, behind the likes of Cyprus, Georgia and Namibia.

“I feel corruption every day,” says Sebastian, a small-business owner from Cadca, a town close to the border with Poland and the Czech Republic. “If you are a young man with a small firm and you don’t have the contacts you need, then winning a tender is a big problem. The first step whenever you want to do something is to bring a present.”

Массовые протесты на фоне убийства журналиста
Источник фото: AFP.

Ms Nemcova agrees. “For many people corruption is a huge problem,” she says. “I haven’t had the chance, in inverted commas, to experience it. But my mother has health problems, and if it gets worse I know I may face the choice of whether to pay someone to make sure she is first in the queue [for treatment].”

The political fallout of the killings remains unclear. But pressure is mounting on the government of Mr Fico, who has dominated Slovak politics for over a decade.

Kuciak’s last article – published posthumously – alleged links between a member of the Italian mafia and two officials close to Mr Fico. On Wednesday, the two officials, Viliam Jasan and Maria Troskova resigned until the murder investigation is complete, but both “categorically” denied any connection to the tragedy, and claimed their names were being abused in a “political struggle” against Mr Fico.

The opposition is calling for the departure of interior minister Robert Kalinak and police chief Tibor Gaspar. Andrej Kiska, the president, called on Sunday for either early elections or a wide-ranging government overhaul in order to restore public faith in the state. Mr Fico rejected this.

Meanwhile, the country is facing up to the death of a young couple. Kuciak was buried on Saturday. Kusnirova was buried in her wedding dress on Friday. “There is no question that a line has been crossed by these murders,” says Milan Nic, from the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Slovakia is one big village and the whole country feels this.”