Slovaks know only too well how corruption undermines the rule of law — but fixing the problem is another matter.
By Miroslava Germanova*
n the months leading up to his arrest for suspected forgery and tax crimes, Slovak entrepreneur Marian Kocner sent associates a string of text messages about police investigations and court cases focused on his property and media businesses.
Kocner was notorious for alleged ties to organised crime and would later be charged with ordering the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who had been probing his business dealings.
According to leaked texts from his phone published recently by local media, Kocner discussed “managing” his legal troubles through contacts in the police and prosecution. Other texts refer to “advising” government politicians.
For many Slovaks, the texts are a reminder of the sheer depth of corruption in a country still reeling from the shooting of 27-year-old Kuciak and his fiancée in Bratislava in February 2018.
They see the texts as proof that Kocner, who was already in custody when he was charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder, thought he was above the law, though he denies any wrongdoing.
“Slovakia has been a mafia state where people like Kocner dictated the most important decisions in the country,” leaders of For a Decent Slovakia, a protest movement, said in a statement this month.
“A system like this cannot be built in a day. It has been created by the 12-year-long government of [former Prime Minister] Robert Fico and his minions, a government with no respect for law and for basic democratic principles.”
After Kuciak’s murder, For a Decent Slovakia organised mass demonstrations that forced Fico’s resignation as prime minister, although he is still leader of the ruling SMER-SD party.
And earlier this year, voters elected anti-corruption lawyer Zuzana Caputova as president in a clear rejection of business as usual.
“After Jan Kuciak’s murder, something essential changed,” said Matus Kostolny, editor-in-chief of the Dennik N daily, one of the outlets publishing the leaked texts. “The shock was so great that it really shook the system.”
Slovaks will head to the polls before March 2020 for parliamentary elections — the first since Kuciak’s murder — and opposition parties say fighting corruption will be their priority.
But transparency experts say Slovakia has a long way to go in unravelling ties between politicians, state institutions, oligarchs and organised criminals.
The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, GRECO, last week urged Slovakia to take decisive action to crack down on graft among government ministers and other top officials, as well as in the police.
Enough is enough
Public anger over corruption has been brewing for about a decade.
Protesters first took to the streets in 2012 after leaked secret service wiretaps revealed politicians and oligarchs discussing kickbacks for business favours. The investigation into the case continues and nobody has been arrested.
In 2016, demonstrators demanded a proper probe into the shady dealings of Ladislav Basternak, a businessman with links to Kocner and several top SMER-SD politicians including Fico.
Fico lives in a luxury apartment building owned by Basternak, who was sentenced to five years in prison last year for millions of euros of tax fraud. Kocner owned the apartment next door to Fico until he sold it in September 2017.
The sale of the apartment was just one line of enquiry in a series of articles by Kuciak on Kocner. After asking him about it, Kuciak received a threatening call from Kocner. He reported it to the police but they dismissed his complaint, it later emerged.
Kuciak’s murder several months later sparked Slovakia’s biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.
Hundreds of thousands demanded not only Fico’s resignation but that of Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, Police President Tibor Gaspar and the head of the special prosecutor’s office, Dusan Kovacik.
“The public realised just how big a problem corruption really was,” said Michal Pisko, project coordinator of Transparency International Slovakia.
According to a February 2018 survey of public opinion by the European Commission, 85 per cent of Slovaks thought corruption was widespread in the country and nearly half felt it had got worse over the past three years.
The demonstrators mostly got their way. After Fico’s resignation, Kalinak and other ministers left the cabinet and the police got a new president. The special prosecutor kept his job, though long-stalled investigations have been reopened, and some solved.
Meanwhile, police have charged three men and a woman with the murder of Kuciak and his partner, as well as with planning three more killings — of two prosecutors and a former minister, all known adversaries of Kocner.
A matter of trust
Such high-profile arrests belie a dearth of prosecutions for corruption generally.
“There is no top-level corruption in Slovakia,” Interior Minister Kalinak famously said in 2017. And if prosecution statistics alone are the measure, he was technically correct.
In contrast to the Czech Republic or Romania, no top official has ever been brought to book for corruption in Slovakia.
Last year, 47 people were charged with corruption crimes, and around a quarter of the cases involved bribes of under 20 euros.
Yet according to the European Anti-Fraud Office, Slovakia is a leader in misusing or stealing EU funds. A single case of customs fraud uncovered last year was worth a whopping 300 million euros.
In recent years, corruption cases of all sizes have surfaced in nearly every sector: education, science, healthcare, agriculture, security, the military, social care, culture and the environment.
Significantly, most only came to light thanks to investigative journalists, anti-corruption NGOs or opposition politicians.
“Neither the big corruption nor the big fish are ever penalised here, which creates a lot of frustration,“ said Pisko from Transparency International.
Experts say such frustration can fuel right-wing extremism.
“Nearly a quarter of people in this country look to extremists and fascists who claim that ‘order’ will fix it all,” said Kostolny from Dennik N.
“In the past century, we’ve had two totalitarian regimes here and both were full of corruption. Order is not a solution to corruption. Transparency is.”
In presidential elections in March, more than 10 per cent of voters backed Marian Kotleba, leader of a party widely considered to be neo-fascist, while more than 14 per cent supported right-wing populist Stefan Harabin.
Perhaps ironically, Slovakia is in some ways considered a pioneer of transparency within the EU.
Since 2011, public institutions, cities and towns have been required to publish all contracts and tenders in a public register.
“When we give open sources to the people, civic engagement is much higher,” Pisko said. “It’s impossible to say how much it has impacted on corruption, but it’s definitely meant that politicians don’t dare do as much.”
According to opinion polls by the European Commission, trust in public institutions is improving.
In the spring of 2018, only 38 per cent of Slovaks trusted the police and 21 per cent trusted the government.
Last autumn, after the arrests of Kocner, Basternak and Kuciak’s alleged killers, trust in police rose to 45 per cent while faith in the government hit 32 per cent.
As elections loom early next year, For a Decent Slovakia is gearing up for a big anti-corruption protest in September.
And independent media in Slovakia, energised in the aftermath of Kuciak’s killing, say they will keep up the pressure for public accountability.
“I think we’ve never been this close to change,” Kostolny said.