Slovakia tries to shake off mafia influence

Evidence is mounting that the populist Smer party allowed mafia-linked groups to extend influence deep into Slovakia.

Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini - reuters
Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini is facing a vote of no confidence, but is likely to survive in office [Julien Warnard/Pool/Reuters]

Prague, Czech Republic – The Slovak parliament began debating a vote of no confidence in the government on Friday.

The motion is unlikely to pass, but Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s coalition remains under huge pressure as a series of revelations connecting ministers, police and judges to a mafia-linked oligarch charged with murder horrify Slovakia.

The three parties in the governing coalition have said they will remain united.

The vote, expected on Tuesday, follows several weeks of sensational leaks of phone messages suggesting officials, including the former prime minister, met numerous times with “entrepreneur” Marian Kocner – whose phone is currently being unencrypted by police as he sits in prison awaiting trial, accused of ordering the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in February 2018.

At the time that Kuciak and his fiancee were shot at home in the middle of the night, the journalist was investigating alleged links between officials, Kocner and the Italian mafia. The assassination shook the Central European state.

Robert Fico, who dominated Slovak politics with an authoritarian hand for more than a decade, was swiftly deposed as prime minister. The interior minister and the country’s top police chief were also dispatched in the face of the biggest protests since the 1989 fall of communism.

The coalition government survived by the skin of its teeth, but now looks in severe danger as evidence mounts that Fico’s populist Smer party allowed mafia-linked groups to extend their tentacles deep into Slovakia’s political and judicial systems.

Leaked messages suggest Kocner met regularly with Fico, as well as other members of the government. Suspicion also surrounds senior police officials, judges and prosecutors. The public was chilled by jokes about Kuciak’s murder that Kocner reportedly sent to associates.

More than 1,000 messages were reportedly swapped with deputy justice minister Monika Jankovska, whom Kocner called his “monkey”. Jankovska resigned on September 3.

“There’s huge public outrage,” said Arpad Soltesz, who leads the recently founded Jan Kuciak Investigative Centre. “No one expected that Kocner’s influence went so far and so deep that Smer had allowed a mafia takeover.”

Out with the old

Such surprise comes despite long-standing claims from opposition parties, civil society groups and the EU itself that corruption was rife and reaches the highest levels of the Slovak state. GRECO, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, recently called for urgent action.

Some suggest that the revelations of state capture by Kocner could help extend a revival of liberal political forces triggered by the protests over Kuciak’s murder.

“We already understood that politics and shady business were working hand in hand,” says Andrej Matisak, an editor for the Pravda daily. “Now, we have confirmation there’s a chance the system will investigate how deep the links go.”

For many, President Zuzana Caputova, a 45-year-old single mother and liberal campaigner, who was little-known before she swept to victory in elections in March, is symbolic of such hopes.

In light of the Kocner revelations, the newly installed president warns that Slovakia is at a crossroads.

“All the establishment parties are losing ground and new parties are gaining,” said Soltesz. “People are fed up with the old system. They now view it as a fake democracy, practically a mafia state.”

However, there is no guarantee that Slovakia’s liberal resurgence will last until parliamentary elections due by March. The vote that put Caputova in Bratislava Castle in March also saw 25 percent support for nationalist and extremist candidates.

Analysts worry that the Kocner revelations could expand support for the likes of the People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS), led by Marian Kotleba, a cartoonish neo-Nazi with a penchant for black uniforms who pledges to introduce “order”.

“The Kocner revelations are likely the last nail in Smer’s coffin,” says Otilia Dhand at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. “But its hardcore supporters will now be seeking a strong leader elsewhere.”

The rising anti-establishment mood and the deepening divide between liberals and conservatives is a risk, Soltesz admits.

“The big question in the upcoming election is whether we will move to a real liberal democracy or fundamentalism and extremism,” he says.

However, he’s hopeful that Caputova’s surprise victory is a sign that Slovakia’s anti-establishment trend will head in a positive direction.

Others are more wary.

“Is the old system really going to be so quickly dismantled?” asks Dhand rhetorically. “I’m not so sure.”

Source: Al Jazeera