In his writings, Kuciak was uncovering connections between the Italian mafia group known as the ‘Ndrangheta and the country’s public administration. The Italian crime syndicate has been making money through various schemes – from value added tax fraud to European Union subsidies for organic “farming” of barren fields – with the likely knowledge of Slovak officials. It was also revealed that the Prime Minister Robert Fico’s former personal assistant, Maria Troskova, and his national security adviser, Viliam Jasan, acted as business partners jointly with members of the ‘Ndrangheta. Even when Italian authorities alerted the Slovaks to the magnitude of the problem, police took no action.
To be sure, complaints about corruption and cronyism are nothing new in the part of the world that liberated itself from the shackles of communism less than 30 years ago. Economic transition and privatization offered opportunities to the well-connected – oftentimes those with ties to the communist regime – to become very rich quickly, souring the experience of living a free, democratic and increasingly prosperous society for many Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians who were not quite so lucky. The perception of unfairness lingers, even though by most objective standards of inequality Central European societies are doing extremely well.
Yet, to see explicit connections between organized crime and politics in full daylight has become too much even for the Slovaks, hardened by decades of corruption scandals, overpriced government purchases and poor quality of public services. Like his murdered fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, a trained archeologist, Kuciak was only 27 years old. The two were planning to get married in May.
Following mass protests that took place across the country on Friday night, what is at stake is the basic legitimacy of the system of government that Slovaks are living under – one that was sold to them as liberal, Western-style democracy. Notwithstanding Slovakia’s prosperity (real per capita incomes have more than doubled since the country’s independence in 1993), its membership in the EU and the Eurozone, and its good international standing, it is inevitable that many will see their country’s democracy as a facade for criminal practices, including murder.
That can have fatal consequences, especially if Fico continues to misread the mood in the country (on Monday, he accused George Soros of fomenting a new color revolution in the country). In comparison to Slovakia, authoritarian populists in Hungary and Poland acceded to power after relatively minor scandals. With large popular mandates and promises to clean house, both the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary then packed the judiciary with political appointees and started cracking down on political dissent, independent media and civil society.
There is no shortage of demagogues in Slovakia who will claim that an extraordinary situation will require extraordinary measures to destroy the nexus of politics and organized crime. It is not hard to see why voters might be receptive to such messages, especially if the main governing party closes ranks. But going down that path risks undoing the country’s division of powers, checks and balances, and its fragile rule of law.
Alternatively, the moment of crisis can be used as an opportunity for a genuine political renewal, striking a balance between the determination needed to fight organized crime and the preservation of the country’s damaged political and legal institutions.
For that, the current cabinet has to go and allow a caretaker government to lead the country until an early election can be called. Paradoxically, the current governing coalition – composed of Fico’s Social Democrats, moderate nationalists and a centrist Hungarian party – was built in March 2016 as an explicit bulwark against extremism, following an election had that ushered bona fide neo-Nazis, the Kotleba-People’s Party Our Slovakia, into parliament. But on its present course, it will inevitably strengthen extremism as the only alternative to what increasing numbers of Slovaks are seeing as a shambolic form of democracy.
The West, including European institutions and the United States, have a momentous opportunity to help. Many among those who are losing confidence in Slovakia’s democracy are still looking with hope to Brussels and Washington. Besides assisting with the investigation, which ought to include foreign experts in order to be credible, Western governments should make it clear that they are standing with Slovakia’s journalists, democratic forces and civil society – including by reaching out to them directly and providing them with financial and other backing whenever necessary. Otherwise, there is a real risk that Slovakia will join the growing list of countries veering off the path of liberal democracy and rule of law.