First came the double murder of a journalist and his fiancee, shot dead at their home in a crime that shocked Slovakia.
Then came something equally surprising: a movement triggered by the murder brought tens of thousands on to the streets for the biggest protests seen in the country since the Velvet Revolution. This led to the resignation of the prime minister, Robert Fico, who had dominated Slovakia’s political scene for over a decade, as well as the country’s interior minister.
Now, five weeks after the killing of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, many worry that the new leaders will return to business as usual and sweep corruption scandals under the carpet.
Thousands of mainly young protesters rallied on a central Bratislava square again on Thursday afternoon in an effort to ensure this does not happen. The newspaper Denník N put the crowd at 45,000 people. From the stage, the main demand of the movement was aired: for the new interior minister to fire the chief of police, something he has so far refused to do.
Juraj Šeliga, a 27-year-old PhD student who is taking time away from writing his dissertation on constitutional law to help organise the protests, said the movement had two basic demands: an independent investigation into the murder of Kuciak and his girlfriend, and a new “trustworthy” government.
Slovakia, which was part of the eastern bloc state of Czechoslovakia, became independent in 1993 and joined the EU in 2004. Fico, who had been prime minister for 10 of the past 12 years, portrayed himself as a more reasonable figure than populist and nationalist forces in neighbouring Hungary and Poland, although at times he used populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and once referred to journalists as “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”.
Over the years, the government weathered a number of corruption scandals, partly due to public apathy. “Corruption has penetrated all levels of the state administration,” said Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper SME.
The murder of Kuciak triggered public anger. The 27-year-old journalist had been investigating links between Italian mafia figures and Slovak officials, including revelations that one of the prime minister’s closest aides was the business partner of an alleged Italian mafia clan member.
In time, the protest movement broadened, under the banner of “For a Decent Slovakia”. As the protests gathered momentum last month, Fico took a leaf out of the playbook of Viktor Orbán in neighbouring Hungary, suggesting the demonstrations had been financed by the American philanthropist and financier George Soros, the favoured target of nativist and righwing governments across the world.
“It was an act of despair. Instead of shouldering some of the responsibility for running a country where the mafia had got so close to the top offices of government, he began spreading conspiracy theories,” said Balogová.
Fico severely underestimated the strength of feeling, and in mid-March, was forced to resign, although he was replaced by longstanding ally Peter Pellegrini, from his own Smer party.
Two weeks ago, the organisers called off their planned protest. Even if Pellegrini was seen as Fico’s man, coming from the same party, it was time to “let the battlefield move to parliament,” said Šeliga.
However, the protest organisers called a fresh rally on Thursday due to the refusal of the new interior minister to fire the controversial chief of police.
“I trust the police but I don’t trust their bosses,” said Peter Bárdy, the editor-in-chief of news website Aktuality, where Kuciak worked. At the newsroom, one wall of the conference area is plastered with a spider’s web of connections between Slovak politicians and the mafia, and burly security guards keep watch outside, a new addition since the murders.
The protests have drawn inevitable comparisons to the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent movement that heralded the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. But while that revolution moved from one demand to the next with seeming inevitability, the next steps for the current movement are less clear, particularly given the potential alternatives.
The political opposition is fragmented and made up of various groups polling around the 10% mark, ranging from a neo-Nazi grouping to a supposedly “pro-family” party whose leader has 10 children with nine different women.
The organisers have been careful to insist that the movement is about civic engagement, not party politics, and politicians are banned from addressing the crowd at the rallies.
“In 1989, we had a series of demands that were fulfilled one after the other,” said Martin Bútora, one of the founding members of Public Against Violence, a Slovak political movement founded during the Velvet Revolution. “With these girls and boys it’s more complicated. It’s not so easy to have clear-cut understandable demands.”
There are some signs of a new public engagement with politics. Balogová said that in the weeks since Kuciak’s murder, her newspaper had seen a huge number of people getting in touch with leaks, tip-offs and documents relating to corruption.
The focus for the protest movement now is on pushing young Slovaks to become socially and politically engaged, and perhaps to register for municipal elections in November, where candidates can run as independents, free of party affiliation.
“We are not happy with the new government, but this is not Maidan in Ukraine,” said Šeliga. “We will protest only within the scope of the constitution. We’ve already achieved a lot. A month ago nobody would think it was possible that Fico would go. But decent people, who want to live in a decent country, have pushed him out.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010