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Slovakia makes slow progress in tackling corruption

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By David Hutt
FILE- In this Friday, March 9, 2018, file picture demonstrators light the torches of their smartphones during an anti-government rally in Bratislava, Slovakia.
FILE- In this Friday, March 9, 2018, file picture demonstrators light the torches of their smartphones during an anti-government rally in Bratislava, Slovakia.   -   Copyright  Ronald Zak/AP Photo, FILE

The man once tasked with tackling corruption in Slovakia is facing up to eight years in jail after he was found guilty of corrupt activities himself.

Last week, Slovakia’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction against Dušan Kováčik, the former head of the elite prosecutor's office, for accepting bribes to release the boss of a criminal group from prison and leaking classified information from the prosecutor's office.

The court did reduce Kováčik's his sentence from 14 years to eight, and acquitted him of the additional charge of supporting a criminal group, overturning rulings made by a lower court last year.

Nevertheless, analysts have called it a “groundbreaking" decision. "Never before was such a high-ranking public official, from an institution responsible itself for investigating and prosecuting criminal proceedings, sent to prison,” said Katarína Klingová, a senior research fellow at Bratislava-based think tank the GLOBSEC Policy Institute.

The sentencing she added, was an important step in “cleaning out the house”: the Slovakian government’s ongoing campaign to eradicate corruption, state capture, and inequality before the law.

Since 2020 the Slovakian authorities have brought dozens of high-ranking officials to justice, including the former attorney general, and ex-chiefs of police and tax administration.

Slovakia struggled with corruption after the fall of communism in 1989 and its breakaway from Czechslovakia four years later. By 2018, it was ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. 

Andrej Kiska, the country’s president at the time, called Slovakia a "mafia state”.

The problem exploded into public consciousness the same year, after a young investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his finance were murdered outside their home. Kuciak had been investigating links between organised crime and political elites.

Bundas Engler/AP Photo, FILE
Light tributes are seen during a silent protest in memory of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia, 2018.Bundas Engler/AP Photo, FILE

For many, it was reminiscent of the murder in 1996 of Róbert Remiáš, a police officer, which many believe was committed by the Slovak mafia on the orders of the then-prime minister, Vladimír Mečiar. During Mečiar’s tenure, Slovakia was called the “black hole on the map of Europe” by the then-US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Nationwide protests following Kuciak’s murder brought down the government of Robert Fico, the head of the dominant Direction-Social Democracy (Směr-SD) party.

After subsequent investigations, prosecutors alleged that the tycoon Marian Kočner had allegedly tasked Alena Zsuzsová, an associate, with arranging Kuciak's murder. Several individuals were prosecuted for involvement, with most of them confessing.

In 2020, Kočner was sentenced to 19 years in jail for forging promissory notes but was acquitted in a separate trial for involvement in the murder of Kuciak.

Last June, however, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling over the evidence provided during the trial and ordered a retrial by the Specialised Criminal Court, which began earlier this year.

Slow progress on anti-corruption project

With public anger growing about systematic corruption, Slovak voters delivered a resounding message to the country’s traditional political elite at the 2020 general elections that this would have to change. 

OĽaNO, a small populist party, won the ballot with a quarter of the popular vote. Igor Matovič, its leader, campaigned on the single promise to get tough on corruption. He formed a coalition government with three parties that spun the political spectrum.

Armando Franca/AP Photo
Slovakia's Finance Minister Igor Matovic waits for the start of a meeting of of EU finance ministers and central bankers in Lisbon, Friday, May 21, 2021.Armando Franca/AP Photo

Michal Piško, director of Transparency International Slovakia, says the government’s response to corruption since 2020 should be broken down into two categories.

The first is establishing new anti-corruption legislation and tools. The second is guaranteeing the independence of justice and law enforcement authorities, fighting against what is known as “state capture”.

On the former, the government has “lagged behind its promises in many aspects,” Piško said, even though last year the government created a new Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers and a Supreme Administrative Court, as well as several other bodies.

In its 2021 report, the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption also observed slow progress in the country's implementing anti-corruption measures. Eight out of 16 recommended measures were not fully in place five years after the publication of the previous report.

On tackling state capture, however, there has been greater success, and “the sentencing and imprisonment of Dušan Kováčik is an integral part of that,” Piško said.

“There has not been any such high-ranking official imprisoned for corruption in Slovakia so far.”

Partly as a result of this, Slovakia moved up three points in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021, putting it above Armenia and Greece, although it is still among the bottom performers within the EU.

'Good track but still a long way to go'

Much turns on politics, however. Matovic, the prime minister elected in 2020, resigned last year because of his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point Slovakia had the world’s highest rate of infections per capita. He is currently the finance minister.

The governing coalition, a hodgepodge of parties from across the spectrum, has also struggled to find agreement. Boris Kollár, leader of the Sme Rodina (We Are Family) party and speaker of parliament, has frequently clashed with OĽaNO, the largest coalition partner.

“Inconclusive dealing with the pandemic and regular disagreements in the coalition have undermined the government's capacity for action in anti-corruption,” said Piško of Transparency International Slovakia.

Another problem is that the alleged masterminds of corruption networks remain in politics.

Much reportedly leads back to Fico, the former three-term prime minister. Kováčik, the jailed former prosecutor, is the first person thought to be close to Fico who has been imprisoned, noted Klingová, a senior research fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute.

Petr David Josek/AP Photo, FILE
FILE - In this Sunday, March 6, 2016 file photo, Robert Fico, the then chairman of the SMER-Social Democracy, smiles after a TV debate in Bratislava, Slovakia.Petr David Josek/AP Photo, FILE

Members of the current coalition government say Kováčik’s imprisonment is punishment for the alleged breakdown of rule of law during Směr-SD’s year in office.

“The betrayal of these ideals of democratic Slovakia has caught up with him today,” Alojz Baránik, an MP for the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), a member of the coalition government, told local media.

In April, Fico and his former interior minister, Robert Kaliňák, were charged with organised crime offences, including abuse of power and the establishment and support of a criminal group. They are also accused of using classified tax files to wage smear campaigns against political rivals.

Fico denies wrongdoing and has claimed it's a political conspiracy against him and his party.

Because Fico is still an MP, and leader of Směr-SD, he has immunity. The Slovakian parliament voted in May not to revoke this immunity after several abstentions from MPs from the coalition government.

“Justice has lost a battle,” Igor Matovič, the former prime minister, commented after the vote. The case against Fico will continue but without the possibility of a custodial verdict.

Kalinak, the former interior minister, is no longer an MP and was arrested in April. If found guilty, he faces a possible 12 years in prison. 

Earlier this year, Fico appealed to European politicians to help defend his case.

Věra Jourová, the EU justice commissioner and a Czech, reiterated that EU bodies won’t interfere in domestic criminal cases.

And Fico was roundly criticised as he referred to Slovakia’s current president Zuzana Čaputová as “an American missus.” There are also calls for the European Parliament’s Socialists & Democrats Group to kick out Směr-SD.

“All these investigations and scandals have shown that Slovakia has a severe problem with state capture, with corruption at the highest levels of public administration, including police and judiciary,” said Klingová.

“Slovakia seems to be on a good track, but there is still a long way to go.”