A chain of events set in motion by the assassination of a local investigative journalist and his girlfriend has left Slovakia's corrupt and ineffectual Prime Minister Robert Fico fighting for his political future.
It all started last month, when investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova were assassinated. Kuciak had been working on a series about endemic corruption in the Slovak government, which he had linked to a cocaine trafficking and money laundering operation involving members of the 'Ndrangheta, an Italian organized crime group based in Calabria, a region in Southern Italy. Afterwards, police arrested seven Italian nationals living in Slovakia, and charged them with the murder. Kuciak had been working with an international investigative reporting consortium, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project,
One wouldn't expect the murder of a journalist in a small central-European nation to make international news. But, somehow, it did: Even Buzzfeed ran a story about the killing with the (nausea-inducing) headline "A Powerful Italian Mob You May Not Have Heard Of Is Blamed In Murder Of Journalist And Girlfriend."
Since then, Slovakia has been rocked by protests as the murder of Kuciak brought the extent of corruption in Fico's government into the open.
And now, instead of praising the Slovakian people for standing up against crime and corruption perpetrated by a government that has long since lost any accountability it had, Bloomberg ran a story warning that the fall of Fico's corrupt government could open the door for a populist government to seize power. That would leave Slovakia with right-wing leaders, just like neighbors Poland and Hungary.
Tens of thousands of people turned out again last week to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who they blame for allowing rampant corruption. Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, a close ally of Fico, resigned on Monday before a key party in the governing coalition said it would push for an early election. It means a vote could come within months.
"If the government collapses, there's a danger that Euroskeptic parties rise to power, which could seriously alter Slovakia's stance towards the EU," said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague. A change could lead to Slovakia joining Hungary and Poland, and possibly the Czech Republic could slide there too, which would be a very dangerous situation for the whole central European region."
According to Bloomberg's bafflingly reductive interpretation of recent Slovakian history, "it seemed everything was going right for Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million wedged in the heart of a continent. A change of power 20 years ago and ensuing economic reforms turned what U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the black hole of Europe" in 1998 into a world superpower in car production and a member of Europe’s single currency."
Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova
But amid this growth, Fico, the leader of Smer, the country's most popular party, for 19 years. And as anybody who studies corruption in government will tell you, a lack of democratic accountability is the primary condition necessary for corruption to flourish.
Last week, tens of thousands of protesters crowded the streets of Bratislava to demand Fico's resignation. But thanks to the hubris that inevitably accompanies feelings of political invincibility.
Fico, 53, has refused demands from protesters in more than 40 towns and cities, opposition parties and a coalition partner to stand down. The premier denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
Slovakia is "living a success story," Fico said. "We've come a long way over those 25 years and people's lives are better. This story can't end with one tragedy, however painful it is."
Fico's latest term in office has been marred by allegations of corruption. But, as Bloomberg emphasizes, the country's gross domestic product is up 26% from when he first became prime minister in 2006. Furthermore, Fico has promoted himself within the European Union as a counterweight to Hungary's far-right leader Viktor Orban, who is engaged in a long-running legal battle with the EU over his refusal to admit refugees and migrants. The country is also one of the world’s largest per-capita producers of cars, churning out Porsche Cayennes and Audi Q7 SUVs at the Volkswagen AG plant outside of Bratislava. The capital’s region is among the richest in the EU’s eastern states.
On Tuesday, the Reuters reported that a junior party in Fico's coalition looked set to jump ship. The party, the Most-Hid party, a centrist party that represents the country's ethnic Hungarian minority, has said it wants a deal on a snap election, or it will walk.
Ironically, Fico has blamed foreign forces for trying to destabilize Slovakia - including Western billionaire George Soros - echoing claims made by Orban, even as Fico has taken pains to contrast himself with the Hungarian leader.
An EU member since 2004, Slovakia has grown rapidly in that time and entered the euro zone in 2009. Fico's Smer party has long led in opinion polls by a wide margin, gaining voters with a mix of handouts, such as free train tickets for students and pensioners, and controlling the deficit.
Fico has yet to respond to these demands. But his coalition, which has 78 votes in the 150-member Slovak parliament, is facing a no-confidence vote next Monday. At least 90 votes are needed for an early election.
If one is approved, just watch the European Union do everything in its power to discredit Fico's opponents, preferring to prop up a corrupt centrist than grant populist parties an inch of ground.