BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Protests in Slovakia over the murder of a journalist have led to the prime minister’s resignation and a cabinet reshuffle. Still not satisfied, the demonstrators now want the police chief out and a crackdown on corruption.
Nearly 50,000 people marched through the capital Bratislava and other cities on Thursday in a fresh sign of anger over a cozy political system many say turns a blind eye to graft.
The outcry began in February when 27-year-old Jan Kuciak was found shot dead at home with his fiancée Martina Kusnirova.
His investigative reporting had focused on graft involving politically-connected businessmen so public anger at his killing was also directed at Prime Minister Robert Fico who has led the Smer party’s government for 10 of the last 12 years.
Fico resigned in March leading to a cabinet reshuffle that left Smer in power and though the murders remain unsolved many expected the protests to subside.
Instead, they have focused on police president Tibor Gaspar, who has held his post for five years during which time there have been few big corruption prosecutions. Gaspar says there is no reason to resign.
“The protests have already achieved a lot and the best scenario they can hope for is a reform of the police, a key condition if they want to see any development in the prosecution of high-ranking corruption,” said Aneta Vilagi of Comenius University. “But it won’t happen immediately.”
Police say Kuciak was likely murdered for his reporting. He covered suspected tax fraud and other graft by people with links to Smer and other parties.
In his final unfinished report, Kuciak also probed Italians with suspected mafia links in Slovakia. One had past business dealings with two Slovaks who later worked in Fico’s office. They have resigned and deny links to the murder and those accused of corruption in Kuciak’s stories also deny wrongdoing.
With Fico’s deputy Peter Pellegrini now prime minister many worry little further will change. Previous governments have taken steps to fight corruption but the drive has mostly led to prosecution of petty bribes.
For example, a cardiologist received a two-year suspended sentence in 2015 for accepting a bribe of 1,000 euros, a box of chocolates and two ducks. Another doctor pleaded guilty to accepting cash bribes, a bottle of vodka, thirty free-range eggs and two kilos of walnuts last week.
Slovakia’s protests are in part a reflection of its unique trajectory within Eastern Europe under Fico.
The country of 5.4 million has seen strong economic growth in the past decade, driven by automotive production. At the same time, Fico positioned the country as a pro-European bastion in a eurosceptic region.
Slovakia has been a European Union member since 2004 but unlike its neighbors Poland and Hungary has avoided disputes with Brussels over the rule of law.
In addition, most analysts say Fico’s leadership style was less authoritarian than that of leaders in Poland and Hungary and credit the Smer government with leaving media and judicial freedoms in place.
Slovakia saw its first landmark verdict last year when two ex-ministers were sentenced to nine and 12 years for rigging a public tender in 2007. Both remain free pending appeal.
Many recent scandals in Slovak newspapers linger. In 2011, a secret service file - known as Gorilla - leaked and pointed to high-profile corruption across the political spectrum.
In 2016, thousands marched to a luxury apartment complex overlooking Bratislava Castle to demand Fico vacate a flat he rented from a developer investigated for tax fraud. The developer now faces charges but Fico remains in the apartment.
“When people read about the biggest scandals in newspapers and then hear about these petty cases, it only makes them angrier,” said sociologist Zora Butorova.
The biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 show another ex-communist country struggling to wipe out persistent graft ingrained by decades of authoritarian rule and a swift transition to democracy.
Slovakia ranks 54th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, behind neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic but ahead of Hungary.
According to the group, no senior Slovak politician has been sent to prison for corruption in the past six years. Six regional politicians have been given suspended sentences.
“Corruption in Slovakia is comparable to other central European countries. The difference is how rarely it is prosecuted and punished,” said Marian Lesko, a political analyst with another NGO, the Stop Corruption Foundation.
Editing by Jason Hovet and Matthew Mpoke Bigg