Bratislava, Slovakia – Several thousand people gathered in central Bratislava on Friday evening to mark the second anniversary of the brutal murder of Jan Kuciak. The shooting of the journalist was a watershed for Slovakia – one that is now playing out ahead of elections on February 29.
It was a sombre crowd, estimated at around 8,000, that filled Namestie Slobody (Freedom Square) in the Slovak capital to honour Kuciak and his fiance, Martina Kusnirova, who were gunned down in their home on a cold February night.
The assassination stunned Slovakia, and alerted a slumbering liberal cohort to the dangers stalking the country.
“We want to commemorate what Jan and Martina meant for Slovak society,” says Eva Lavrikova from Za Slusne Slovensko (For A Decent Slovakia), the civil society movement organising the gathering. “It was not a tragedy for them only, but for all of us. It showed that things were much worse than we ever thought.”
This solemnity pervaded the quiet here. No flags waved in the winds gusting around the square; few placards were raised. Monks led prayers before Kuciak’s parents and Kusnirova’s mother appeared on stage, all visibly shaking.
But anger and determination were also present here, as speakers called for justice to be served upon the politicians and shady business figures widely blamed for leading Slovakia to the brink. Similar events remembering Kuciak were held in more than 60 cities across Slovakia and internationally.
“I’m here to commemorate Jan and Martina, but also to say enough is enough,” said Jana, a 28-year-old accountant standing in the crowd with her young son.
As a special court opened on January 13 to tackle Slovakia’s highest-profile case in the 30 years since communism fell, Miroslav Marcek admitted he had pulled the trigger. He and three others are on trial, while a fifth man cooperated with police after he was arrested and was sentenced to 15 years for his part in the killings.
“I am guilty,” Marcek, a 37-year-old former soldier, told the court. “I knocked on the door, Mr Kuciak opened, I shot him in the chest.” Kusnirova, he lamented, was not supposed to be there.
On trial, businessman Marian Kocner denies ordering the hit.
But Kuciak was in the midst of investigating a scam involving European Union funds in the east of the country that allegedly linked the powerful oligarch to Italy’s notorious ‘Ndrangheta mafia clan, and also to the office of the prime minister himself, via a young and glamorous assistant.
The trial has shown just how deeply Kocner has become involved in the country’s power structures, leading to claims from the opposition that Slovakia has become a “mafia state”, in which democracy and the rule of law have been replaced by corruption and cronyism.
Found in Kocner’s safe was a cache of videos taken by a camera apparently hidden in the office of the state prosecutor, shown in other files to have been friendly to the oligarch. Other information from the investigation suggests Kocner bribed judges and had access to high-level police files.
Friday’s crowd on Namestie Slobody, along with the opposition and much of the media, lays the blame at the feet of Smer, the populist, nominally centre-left, party that has dominated Slovak politics for most of the past decade and a half.
“Smer did nothing to reform the institutions to deal with this criminality,” says Pavel Sibyla from Progresivne Slovakia (PS), a liberal party founded in the wake of the murder. “Rather it has allowed deep-rooted corruption to thrive.”
PS is part of a disparate grouping of “democratic opposition” parties that hope the trial and the anniversary of the murder will help them unseat Smer, which has ruled for 12 of the last 14 years, at next week’s election. But nationalists, populists, and even neo-Nazis also hope to take advantage.
The upcoming poll is seen as crucial to the future of Slovakia, a member of the EU and NATO.
“This really is a vital election,” says Sona Szomolanyi at Bratislava’s Comenius University. “It will determine the direction of Slovakia for years to come. The danger is that, should the current ruling parties remain [in power], we’ll end up with a similar scenario to Hungary, which has become an illiberal system.”
The mood on the square stood in stark contrast to the anger that exploded onto the streets in huge rallies at the time of the murder two years ago.
The wave of rage was so strong it swept Robert Fico, Smer’s “strongman” leader, from the prime minister’s chair. Around a year later, it carried Zuzana Caputova, a 45-year-old political activist and PS founder, to the presidency.
However, the Smer-led coalition managed to cling on. But the ruling party, which in 2012 formed Slovakia’s only single-party government to date, has now seen support plummet to around 17 percent. That would likely leave it reliant on smaller nationalist and far-right parties to try to form a government.
That frames the election as a straight fight between these authoritarian forces and a vaguely defined “democratic” bloc of as many as six centrist parties, featuring populist eurosceptics and libertarians, conservative Christian democrats, and classic liberals.
The evidence heard during the trial appears to support media reports that stunned Slovakia last year, after encrypted messages on Kocner’s phone were reportedly deciphered by police and allegedly leaked to journalists.
The public was chilled last year to read reports that the oligarch sent jokes about the murder to associates, and his indictment says that, after failing to dig up any dirt on the journalist – whom he had under surveillance – Kocner wanted to “get rid” of Kuciak to “prevent further disclosure of his activities”.
The purportedly leaked messages also suggest Kocner met frequently with Fico, as well as with other members of the government and political parties. Suspicions of corruption also linger around senior police officials, judges and prosecutors, and the security services.
The interior minister and the country’s top police chief are just some of the officials who have been ousted from their jobs, as Smer has desperately sought to douse the flames of scandal. The party has defeated previous corruption allegations over the past 15 years, but now looks unlikely to overcome the scale of outrage sparked by emerging evidence of the capture of the state by organised crime.
The demands for the country to chart a new course are so strong that even the incumbent is campaigning under a slogan of “responsible change”.
“The murder was a game-changer,” says Peter Kmec, a policy adviser to Prime Minister Peter Pelligrini, who succeeded his mentor Fico when he was forced to step down. “Slovak society has changed, and so we must also.”
The polls suggest that, despite the likelihood Smer will still take the most votes, the combined opposition groups are likely to scrape across the threshold required to get a chance to hammer together a coalition.
However, other forces are lurking, hoping to take advantage of the deep fissure that has been torn open in Slovak society.
Marian Kotleba, leader of the neo-Nazi People’s Party – Our Slovakia (LSNS), has ditched his habit of marching around in black uniforms, and his promises to Slovaks left behind by capitalism and globalisation to tear down the corrupt system has him in third place, with around 10 percent support in recent polls.
PS warns that Smer could work with LSNS to keep itself in government, and has organised high-profile counter-demonstrations around the country at the fascist party’s campaign events. However, Kmec insists his party has ruled out any cooperation with Kotleba.
Milan Nic, at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says the Kuciak murder has turbo-boosted political developments in Slovakia. At this election, he suggests, the country will take the first step in what is likely to be a regional trend, as a new generation of democrats take on the populists who have come to dominate in Central Europe.
Yet there are risks. The highly fragmented political field means that up to six parties could be needed to form a majority for the opposition.
If putting together a functioning coalition will be hard, cleaning up a system riddled with corruption is likely to prove a monumental, and slow-moving, task.
And should they fail, there are neo-Nazis waiting to take over.