The 1020 - Slovakia: Rising Up Against Corruption
Last month, The 1020, a programme exploring international relations from Webster Vienna Private University, had the opportunity to interview Dr Jozef Bátora who shared his analysis of the ongoing crisis in Slovakia. Listen to the podcast on Soundcloud by visiting this link.
On February 26, 2018, Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were found dead in their apartment after relatives called the police because they had not heard from them for several days. The couple was brutally murdered in what appears to have been a contract killing. Ján Kuciak, a talented young journalist, was investigating corruption within the Slovakian government and its ties to organized crime. Dr. Bátora explains that this kind of politically-motivated murder was unprecedented and sent shockwaves throughout the country. While in the 1990s, Slovakia experienced “all kinds of crimes related to mafia structures”, over the past ten years those crimes had been on a steep decline. The country’s initial reaction to the news was one of “shock and utter disbelief”. The couple, murdered in cold blood, had just purchased a house on the outskirts of Bratislava and was about to get married. Slovaks sympathised with the couple, feeling like they could relate in some way to their situation, and were deeply shocked by their tragic demise.
Just one day after the news broke, citizens took to the streets in protest demanding unbiased investigation and governmental reform. To this date, this ongoing movement has led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, and the chief of police has announced that he would step down at the end of May. Even though the first demonstrations were clearly an emotional reaction, attendees managed to maintain a calm demeanour throughout the protests. However, rumours started circulating about the possibility that the marches could degenerate into violence at any moment. The government was only too happy to relay that information in the media, warning that provocateur elements might join the crowd and disrupt the peace. Moreover, there were reports that emboldened fascist groups might infiltrate the movement and start fights in an attempt to “protect the regime”. At that point, it was unclear whether people would actually show up and march. Yet, there was a considerable turnout, with an estimated 65,000 people in the streets of Bratislava, an unprecedented situation for the last 30 years. Dr. Bátora, an active participant in the movement, explains that “it was an amazing feeling. I remember 1989 as a 14 year old […] I was in the streets back then […] it was kind of a similar sensation, of a revolutionary movement, and a very peaceful one”. He adds that, in some respects, this wave of protest can be seen as a prolongation of the Velvet Revolution, a way to continue what was started back then.
Indeed, Slovakia, which has been a Member State of the European Union for 14 years, remains a transitional society. Shifting from a communist state to a liberal democracy, it has managed to become relatively successful. However, while its economic results have been quite satisfying, its democratic institutions have proven unstable and inadequate. Throughout the Visegrád region, corruption is rampant, and Slovakia has yet to find a way to address this challenge. Bátora points to the “40 years of communism [which] have brought about different developmental patterns in those societies, as compared with Western Europe”. Nonetheless, the Slovak people aspire to become a normal Member State of the European Union. Indeed, there is a sense in the society that it is time to move on, but it will not be an easy task.
Today, the country is facing a tough dilemma. Since February, many voices have called for new elections to bring down the government they deem responsible for the current crisis. Holding new elections at this point, however, would not only be unconstitutional according to Slovak laws but could also lead to worse results. Indeed, it is hard to predict how anticipated elections would turn out, as the opposition is feeble, and fascist elements might seize this opportunity to win more seats in Parliament. On the other hand, the new government that was sworn in is just an extension of the old one, as the same coalition has remained in power. And, as Bátora explains, “the nature of this country, as a captured state, is something that one does not necessarily deal with if one does not change the actual coalition in government. So, it is a bit of an impasse”.
On May 4, 2018, almost three months after the murders, people were still in the streets, expressing their grievances with the coalition in power. Slovak society is rising up against corruption at a time when it seems that many countries around the world are dealing with “autocratic, xenophobic and populist leaders”. As illustrated by the Trump presidency in the US and the Brexit in the UK, it appears that no society has been immune to those tendencies. We might be witnessing a counter-reaction, a “new wave of societal mobilization against the autocrats and the populists”. While the reasons behind them may vary, protests are popping up everywhere: in Hungary against Orbán, in Poland against the tightening of abortion laws, and in the United States following the shooting in Florida. Bátora concludes the interview on a positive note, admitting however that “only the future will show whether this is actually happening”.
The 1020 team