Il Ponte – a student periodical based at bratislava international school of liberal arts (bisla)

No Longer Sleeping

No Longer Sleeping

“Who is affraid?” - laser sign on the street of Bratislava during the spring 2018 protests. Photo credit: Matej Repka (c).

“Who is affraid?” - laser sign on the street of Bratislava during the spring 2018 protests. Photo credit: Matej Repka (c).

Laura Palenčíková / May 1, 2018

(6 min read)

• Twenty seven years

• One hundred and fifty articles

• Thousands of hours dedicated to investigative journalism

• Two thousand and eight hundred words about massive corruption

• Five hours one afternoon, sitting in their living room

• Dozens of rounds and two dead

• Two and half months since the murders

• A dozen of ‘the best’ investigators

• Thirty security cameras

• Zero leads

Freedom of press is one of the most fundamental criteria in every country that values democracy and justice. The flood of information in which we are drowning every day offers fertile soil for censorship which might take many forms. One example of self-imposed censorship is when an author decides what information they are willing to share or receive. Another is enshrined in our Labour Code. These are not necessarily negative situations. However, when censorship is carried out by the state, the situation is very serious. Dear reader, wellcome to Slovakia.

The date November 17, 1989, brings up memories of peaceful student demonstrations and the series of events that changed the course of the Czechoslovak nation. Although the events were held because of the International Student Day, the atmosphere in the streets shouted a clear message. Those young people sought the change of the Communist regime. Peacefully giving flowers to police officers resulted in them being attacked and beaten. This was the Velvet Revolution when the oppressive and inhumane Communist regime finally fell from power. The spark of hope awakened at that moment. But not for long. Although a new political strongman, Vladimír Mečiar, won power by fair and democratic means, the truth was mirrored after some time. His administration was perhaps the most controversial one in the history of Slovak nation accompanied by enormous political and economic scandals. His controversial regime shaped Slovak history, and the nation’s mentality, until 1998 when a “parliamentary coup” as the result of free and fair elections successfully ended his government. This was followed by two rounds of Mikuláš Dzurinda’s administration which will especially be remembered for Slovakia’s accession to the EU and NATO.

However, we seemed to forget that no government had managed to pluck out roots of communism and Mečiarism in order to plant truly democratic principles and values. The roots remained even though they were not visible. Those greedy for money and might kept every unhealthy stalk of grass and dead flower trimmed neatly so that we could not see the ugliness.

It has been twelve years now, twelve years of a government headed by Robert Fico and made in the likeness of that strongman of the ‘90s. There have been numerous scandals in Slovakia on Fico’s watch. Here are just a few: highway construction (or the lack of it for exorbitant costs), the embezzlement of EU funds, the embezzlement of funds from the military news service, the emission sales scandal, the social projects scandals (which did not work anyway), the overpriced CT scanner, the Váhostav scandal, the overpriced and underdeveloped website and service, the VAT scandal involving former minister of the interior Kaliňák and current Minister of Finance Jan Počiatek, the Bašternák real estate scandal, and the Gorila investigation scandal.

Somehow, we tolerated all that. Until the headlines hit our screens on Monday morning, February 26, 2018. Several groups of organized crime have operated in Slovakia.

To wake up hundreds of
thousand Slovaks to the depths
of the evil taking place and to mobilize
them to take to the streets,
it took the murders of two
young people.

While during Mečiar’s governments, there were serious allegations of collusion with high-ranking state officials, today there is neither simple suspicions nor allegations in case of Robert Fico. Today, there is evidence. That evidence exists thanks to people who have dedicated their lives to seeking the truth, to calling for justice and fair play, and to being the public watchdogs in our corrupt society.  These are investigative journalists and one was named Ján Kuciak. He and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were shot to death on February 23, 2018. The bodies were found on February 25, and the breaking news notifications popped up on our phones on February 26. At that moment, investigative journalism as the fundamental antidote to political censorship was undermined. That moment reflected a deep political crisis and mobilized hundreds of thousands of people calling for decency in Slovakia. The first march on March 2nd was in memory of Ján and Martina.

Mocking posters of Róbert Kaliňák (minister of interior) and Róbert Fico (prime minister) - both were forced to resign from their positions due to the public pressure of protests. Photo credit: Matej Bôrik

Mocking posters of Róbert Kaliňák (minister of interior) and Róbert Fico (prime minister) - both were forced to resign from their positions due to the public pressure of protests. Photo credit: Matej Bôrik

At the time of his death, Ján Kuciak had been investigating and working on finalizing an article about high-level corruption in the ruling party of Smer. That unfinished article was published simultaneously by all news outlets in Slovakia at midnight on February 27. Smer, with a label “social democracy”, is a populist political party led by Robert Fico who leans towards either popular welfare measures or right-wing nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Ján Kuciak was investigating the connection of government authorities to organized crime, more precisely to a branch of the Italian mafia. Specifically, it appears that the Secretary of the State Security Council Viliam Jasaň and Fico’s chief state advisor Mária Trošková were involved. The mafia side of the corruption is headed up by Antonio Vadala, who is a member of an organized crime group known as ´Ndranghetta from Calabria.

At this “early stage” in the political crisis, few will ever forget the bizarre and theatrical scene from the press conference at Government House. Prime Minister Róbert Fico, Police President Tibor Gašpar, and Minister of Interior Róbert Kaliňák stood next to a table covered in stacks of cash. They were offering a million euros for information concerning the murders.

The day after Ján’s article was published and Trošková and Jasaň quietly resigned. The story, however, did not die. People went out into the streets demanding a prompt investigation of murders and other scandals and cases that that Ján had been writing about.

This was followed by the President Andrej Kiska’s public speech during which he suggested a radical reconstruction of the government was called for. This, of course, did not appeal to Fico. At his next press conference, he spread a few conspiracy theories, this time choosing George Soros as the outsider trying to mettle in Slovakia’s business.

The next significant moment was when Public Prosecutor Vasil Špirko publicly announced that he had filed a criminal complaint against Minister of Interior Kaliňák, the Police President, the director of the National Criminal Agency (NAKA), and on the director of the National Anti-Corruption Unit who had all allegedly tried to complicate an investigation into a certain politically sensitive case. Mr. Kaliňák still refused to resign. The investigation into the murders was full of crucial errors for which the police president was responsible. Fico’s rhetoric became more and more absurd and conspiratorial. On March 9th, a hundred thousand people across Slovakia marched in the streets. Three days later, Minister of Interior Kaliňák resigned (although he never submitted his formal resignation to the President). Three days after that, Prime Minister Fico resigned. None who watched it will forget the arrogance of that moment as he handed his resignation to the Mr. President with a smile on his face. He told Kiska, “Don’t worry, Mr. President, I’m not going anywhere.”

 These changes might be considered very successful. Powerful people stepped down. A new government would be put in place. Yet these changes have not and cannot bring positive effects because they are only formal changes. Fico’s ruling party continues to be the one pulling the strings in government. And so, for a third time, people were handed a reason to head back to the streets. On March 16th, they demanded deeper and more systematic changes. Peter Pellegrini from Smer was appointed the new prime minister and claimed to be independent, although his links to Fico, Slovak oligarchs, and corruption are undeniable. The office of the minister of interior was taken by Denisa Sáková, the former minister’s “right-hand woman”. Personnel changes have also been made in public television where newly-elected Director Jaroslav Rezník seems to be leading a new era of normalization. A regional head of Smer, Ľubica Laššáková, has become minister of cultureand is facing strong opposition.

In the meantime, more significant changes have been taking place behind the scenes. The atmosphere persistent in our Slovak society is startling. These events are clear indicators of the civil and social pains suffered by thousands of citizens and residents of this nation. The fact that the requirements of society are not being fulfilled is reflected in the rising mistrust towards the government and what should be competent institutions, like the judiciary. People are tired, angry and ashamed of their current government. We call for decency in our nation, something to we are fully entitled. Yet, to make real changes, we must keep up the public and civic pressure. By free and fair elections, we must get these people who care more about themselves than our nation out of office. We cannot allow the killing our country.

> > > R E F E R E N C E S :

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