People attend a protest rally in reaction to the murder of Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa Image Credit: Reuters

For many observers in Brussels and Washington, the political news from Eastern and Central Europe is now often a source of worry. In Hungary and Poland, illiberal nationalist governments are in firm control of the levers of power, steadily eroding democratic norms and squeezing civil society. In Austria, the far right is the junior partner in a ruling coalition. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, populist nationalism has carried the day, with politicians in both countries scaremongering over Islam and refugees.

But developments in Slovakia over the past month offer a rare bit of optimism. In recent weeks, the country has witnessed its largest protests since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 — when mass demonstrations throughout what was once Czechoslovakia led to the fall of its communist regime, and the resignation of its prime minister. On February 25, authorities found the bodies of Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist, and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, a trained archaeologist. Both were 27 years old with a wedding scheduled for May and promising futures ahead of them. Though no one has yet been charged with the murders, government prosecutors believe it was a contract killing.

Attention immediately fell on Kuciak’s work. He had been digging into the connections between Italian mafia organisations and Slovak oligarchs and government officials. The latter included Prime Minister Robert Fico, who had served three terms in power since 2006. Though the public has long been accustomed to graft and cronyism among Slovakia’s political elites, news of Kuciak’s deaths sparked a fire.

“It was unimaginable,” Peter Bardy, the top editor of the news website where Kuciak worked, said to my colleagues. “We’re a member of the European Union. We thought this couldn’t happen.” VCN Top Stories tweeted “Jan Kuciak murder: Slovak PM makes cash reward appeal: Posing next to a million euros in cash, Robert Fico asked for information about Jan Kuciak’s murder.”

“People felt that criminal elements in Slovak society were now able to operate with impunity,” wrote Nicolette Makovicky, a lecturer at Oxford University. Their ire was deepened by an unseemly response from Fico, who dodged questions about Kuciak’s reporting and offered a literal stack of cash worth $1.2 million (Dh4.4 million) as a reward for information into the murder. Then, as public anger grew, he embraced the regional custom of blaming everything on Jewish American financier George Soros.

People power

Mass protests soon sprang up, widening the divisions within Fico’s ruling coalition. He eventually stepped down on March 15, bowing to a dramatic display of people power.

“The peaceful uprising that has transformed politics in this landlocked nation of 5 million is a striking counterpoint to global trends that seem to favour leaders willing to bend rules, norms and institutions to their will,” wrote my colleague Griff Witte, reporting from Bratislava. “From China to Russia to Turkey — and, President Trump’s critics would say, even in the United States — political currents have swung toward consolidated power, nationalist messaging and intolerance for competing voices.”

“I couldn’t have imagined this a month ago. It would have been so naive,” said Juraj Seliga, a 27-year-old law student who was among the protest organisers. “[Fico] was so strong. Now he’s weak.” But Fico remains the head of his party, and the new prime minister is his former deputy. Last week, the ruling coalition survived a confidence vote in parliament and is still holding firm despite calls for fresh elections. Fico could still end up in a situation where he is ensconced in power as the hand behind the throne. “Most of the anger, passion and motivation is holding on, but I can see that normal citizens are getting back to the status quo,” said Peter Habara, another former colleague of Kuciak, in an email to The Post’s Jason Rezaian. “Even though they were protesting a lot, nothing has really changed. The corrupted government is still in power.”

But even elections may not deliver the results the Slovakia’s liberals desire. “Even if Slovaks were to successfully force the early fall of the current governing coalition, they face a stark choice,” wrote Makovicky. “The liberal political opposition is small and fragmented. The latest opinion polls also show that the crisis has pushed more voters towards support for parties with strong nationalist, right-wing orientations.” In the past, Fico has declared that “Islam has no place in Slovakia,” said multiculturalism is a “fiction” and decried the “political correctness” supposedly insulating his country’s Roma minority. Yet, ironically, he has served as a moderate social-democratic bulwark against the more radical politicians to his right. While his ouster may have been a victory for those campaigning against corruption and for accountability, experts warn that Slovakia now could drift in the direction of Poland or Hungary.

“Together with a fractionalised landscape of political parties ... and the presence of well organised radical voices, this is the perfect breeding ground for political extremism,” wrote Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, referring also to anti-corruption protests taking place in the neighbouring Czech Republic. “It is worth remembering that the Centre collapsed in Hungary and Poland after scandals that now seem relatively minor, especially when compared with the Czech and Slovak news stories of colossal conflicts of interest and mafia connections. Unless political classes in both countries change their ways — and do so very quickly — the time will soon be ripe for an ugly, illiberal turn in the heart of Europe.”

But Seliga, one of the protest organisers, specifically told Witte that Slovaks did not want to “end up like Hungary.”

“We have been part of the EU for more than ten years now, it has been almost 30 years since the Velvet Revolution,” said Jozef Batora, a political-science professor in Bratislava, told the Christian Science Monitor. “It is time to be a normal society.”

— Washington Post