Monday 19 March 2018

Slovaks take to streets over gun murder of journalist

Mass protests pile pressure on prime minister

Protesters in Bratislava. Photo: Getty Images
Protesters in Bratislava. Photo: Getty Images

Tatiana Jancarikova

Tens of thousands of Slovaks have rallied this weekend to demand the resignation of prime minister Robert Fico's government following the murder of a journalist that has shocked the central European nation and stoked anger over sleaze in public life.

Investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who was shot dead at home with his fiancee Marina Kusnirova last month, had covered fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen. His last unfinished story looked at Italian businessmen with suspected mafia links operating in Slovakia.

One of the businessmen, who denies having ties to the Italian mafia, had dealings in the past with two people who went on to work in Fico's office. They have both resigned but deny any connection with the killings.

Nobody has been charged with the murders.

Kuciak's journalism and then his murder have rekindled public frustration with the government's failure to tackle graft and cronyism in Slovakia nearly three decades after the fall of communism and 14 years after it joined the European Union.

Fico has led the country of 5.4million people for 10 of the last 12 years and the economy has flourished, but the protesters in the capital Bratislava last Friday (estimated at up to 50,000 by the public broadcaster) chanted "Enough of Fico" and jangled keys - just as they did in 1989 anti-communist rallies.

Jan Kuciak and Marina Kusnirova
Jan Kuciak and Marina Kusnirova

Organisers demanded a thorough investigation of Kuciak's death and a "new trustworthy government".

"Politicians in power have lost our trust," said protester Maria Kuliovska, a 30-year-old mother. "We don't trust them to have an independent investigation. They have failed to investigate all previous scandals."

Thousands marched in other Slovak cities, while hundreds of people gathered in cities in Europe and elsewhere.

In the wake of the killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova, Slovakia quickly turned from what seemed to be a stable EU country into chaos.

In a speech last month, Slovakian president Andrej Kiska talked about his country as "successful, proud and self-confident".

On March 4, however, he said Slovakia faced a "serious political crisis" triggered by the shootings.

The political storm has been intensifying daily since the bodies were found on February 25.

Amid heated exchanges between the ruling coalition and the opposition, claims by prime minister Fico of conspiracies against him, and his repeated verbal attacks on president Kiska, a growing number of people have started to turn against the Fico government, threatening its very existence.

"Many have realised that the situation is becoming critical," said Michal Vasecka, an analyst from the Bratislava Policy Institute think-tank.

"A fight started to prevent Slovakia from becoming another Hungary, an autocracy controlled by a small group of oligarchs."

Reflecting the popular mood and growing protests, Kiska called for substantial changes in the government or for an early election to resolve the crisis. "There's a huge public distrust of the state," Kiska said. "And many don't trust law enforcement authorities. This distrust is justified. We crossed the line, things went too far and there's no way back."

Kiska, a political rival of Fico, has said Slovakia is suffering a crisis of trust and has called for a revamp of the three-party coalition or an early election.

Kiska, Fico and parliamentary speaker Andrej Danko - the country's three highest officials - failed in talks last Friday to agree a planned written declaration to help defuse tensions.

Slovak media called last Friday's protest the biggest since 1989. Some universities let students out early. One of the country's largest banks allowed employees to leave work early to take part.

Fico has accused foreign forces of trying to destabilise Slovakia and has questioned the president's meetings with financier George Soros in New York last year without any foreign ministry official present.

The attack on the Hungarian-born billionaire echoes those of Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has accused Soros of interfering in Hungarian politics.

Fico said he would meet his two coalition partners over the weekend to seek a deal to keep the government in place. He has resisted a call from the Most-Hid party to sack interior minister Robert Kalinak, his close ally.

Some analysts say Fico's coalition could break up, though he might be able to continue leading a minority government with the backing of a far-right party in parliament.

Martin Slosiarik, an analyst at Focus polling agency, said Fico had never faced a crisis on this scale. "Kuciak's last story has had a serious impact on people's trust in the system of government, and the murder of two young people has added a strong moral aspect," he said.

Sunday Independent

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