- - Thursday, March 8, 2018

PRAGUE — The shocking killing of a young Slovakian journalist investigating ties between an Italian organized crime network and the political establishment has transfixed the nation and set into motion a chain of events that may undermine the government.

Amid a welter of conspiracy theories, street protests and even a cameo appearance by billionaire philanthropist and conservative bugbear George Soros, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s populist coalition government is lashing out at its critics in a bid to hold on to power.

“This murder put political corruption into focus,” said Aneta Vilagi, a political scientist with Comenius University in Bratislava. “Many are of the point of view that this is too much. People actually lost their lives because somebody tried to hide this level of corruption. The effect is quite tremendous. It’s like an earthquake.”

The event that sent the country into chaos was clear enough on the surface: On Feb. 25, 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were found shot dead in their home outside Bratislava.

At the time of his death, Kuciak — an enterprising journalist whose use of public data to reveal official corruption in Slovakia made him one of the nation’s most promising and controversial reporters — was preparing a story revealing ties between the Calabria, Italy-based crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta and officials within Mr. Fico’s office.

In its aftermath, the president has called for a “radical restructuring” of the government and the Catholic archbishop of Bratislava predicted that the outrage of the population would not soon cool.

“If the murderer thought he was silencing people, he did the opposite,” Archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky said. “The great outrage over these deaths has brought people across Slovakia together and maximized the victims’ voice.”

In a heavily Catholic country, he urged Christians to stand together against “corruption, hatred, lies and fraud.”

Kuciak’s story began as an investigation into why Mr. Fico, whose tenure has been plagued by corruption scandals within his Cabinet, hired a young former Miss Universe contestant, Maria Troskova, as one of his assistants despite her lack of experience.

Kuciak, working with an international team of journalists, traced Ms. Troskova to an Italian businessman with close ties to ‘Ndrangheta. Their research revealed that the crime group had infiltrated impoverished parts of the country and forged relationships with local government officials in order to skim off funds from European Union development projects in Slovakia.

Martin Turcek, an investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak at the digital outlet Aktuality.sk, told The Washington Times that uncovering corruption is “business as usual” in Slovakia, a former communist stronghold where Soviet-backed apparatchiks used to run the country without regard for civil or private property rights.

The case is seen in the region as a particularly dramatic — and violent — illustration of the struggles many post-communist countries have faced building trust in government institutions and rooting out corruption and favoritism for government insiders.

Kuciak uncovered cases of multimillion-dollar tax fraud between business interests and government officials without receiving threats of violence, said Mr. Turcek. His latest investigation, however, was of a different caliber.

“He’s a person who devoted his life to making this country better,” said Mr. Turcek. “Unfortunately, that’s what probably ended his life.”

Mr. Fico denounced the “attack on the freedom of press and democracy in Slovakia” shortly after the bodies were found and offered $1.24 million for information about the killings.

Posthumous publishing

The journalist’s death did not prevent his work from seeing the light of day.

Two days after the announcement, Aktuality.sk and its international partners published Kuciak’s report linking the prime minister’s office to the Italian Mafia. Police quickly arrested seven people named in the article — including an Italian business associate of the prime minister’s allies — on suspicion of murder. But authorities later released the suspects because of a lack of evidence.

Interior Minister Robert Kalinak told a parliamentary committee this week that Slovak police have interviewed more than 100 people in what has become the largest police investigation in the country’s history. Mr. Fico has rejected opposition demands that he fire Mr. Kalinak, a political ally, the Reuters news agency reported.

But popular unhappiness with the government’s handling of the assassination has yet to subside, with the release of the suspects provoking voters already reeling from both the slayings and the reported corruption.

On March 3, protests erupted in 25 cities, including the capital, Bratislava, where about 20,000 people led by President Andrej Kiska marched on the government’s headquarters chanting, “Enough of Fico” and “An attack on journalists is an attack on all of us.”

Mr. Kiska repelled Mr. Fico’s attempt to move to the president’s post four years ago.

Mr. Fico also has suffered some losses from within.

Culture Minister Marek Madaric stepped down on Feb. 28, saying he couldn’t “identify with the fact that a journalist was killed during my tenure.” Additionally, two top officials in Mr. Fico’s government resigned because of their reported ties to the Italian crime syndicate.

“There’s a huge public distrust of the state,” Mr. Kiska told reporters Sunday. “This distrust is justified.”

Mr. Kiska has demanded that the prime minister call snap elections or expel suspected corrupt politicians from his government. Mr. Fico refused and accused the president and other critics of playing politics and seeking to “dance on the graves” of Kuciak and his slain fiancee.

Mr. Fico also this week implied that the president was colluding with Mr. Soros, who has used his vast wealth to promote open government and liberal policies in his native Hungary and other Eastern European states.

Mr. Fico said a meeting in September between the American billionaire and Mr. Kiska proved that they were conspiring to dismantle the government.

“I really wonder why no Foreign Ministry official took part in this meeting,” he said, adding that the pressure on his government after the killings was “an attempt at total destabilization” by foreign forces.

Mr. Soros, through a spokesman, dismissed the charges of interference this week and said his meeting with Mr. Kiska focused on improving the treatment of Slovakia’s minority Roma community.

Slovakian opposition parties are now calling for a vote of no confidence in parliament. One of Mr. Fico’s coalition partners, the liberal Most-Hid party representing Slovakia’s Hungarian minority, is reportedly considering deserting the government.

“It’s impossible for this party to sustain in a ruling coalition with a prime minister who is praising these toxic, absolutely silly narratives,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia, referring to Most-Hid. “Fico wants to survive at any price. But without this party, the government is over.”

In the meantime, Mr. Turcek and his colleagues at Aktuality.sk have banded together with other prominent journalists in the country to continue Kuciak’s work.

“There’s still a lot more storylines that haven’t been published that we are working on right now,” he said. “It’s only the beginning of this story.”

Austin Davis reported from Berlin.

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