Slovaks Protest After Murders Prompt Premier's Allies to Quit

(Bloomberg) -- Key allies of Slovakia’s prime minister resigned from the cabinet as opposition supporters protested in the capital in a call for other officials to go over last week’s murder of a journalist in the eastern European Union country.

Culture Minister Marek Madaric stepped down Wednesday, saying he was “not able to bear” that reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee died in an execution-style attack that officials said may be linked to his investigations into organized crime gangs, including the Italian mafia. Two of Premier Robert Fico’s aides also stepped aside. The murders have rocked the country of 5.4 million and prompted the second-largest opposition party to organize a protest demanding Fico fire his interior minister and the chief of police.

"We’re here to show our strength, that we won’t be scared and will continue the fight that Jan Kuciak started," OLANO party Chairman Igor Matovic told a crowd of hundreds of supporters calling for the dismissal of Interior Minister Robert Kalinak and police Chief Tibor Gaspar. "We’ll show them that Slovakia belongs to us and not the mafia."

With media rights deteriorating across the EU’s eastern wing, the country’s first high-profile murder of a journalist has revived memories of media intimidation by organized crime bosses during the 1990s rule of authoritarian leader Vladimir Meciar. Press freedom in Slovakia hasn’t declined as much as in its neighbors Hungary or Poland, but ties between the government and news outlets have worsened after a spate of reports on opaque procurement and tax-fraud cases by companies with links to politicians.

Strong Pressure

Slovakia’s main newspapers ran blacked-out front pages on Tuesday and news channels showed nonstop looped footage from outside the house in the town of Velka Maca, a town 55 kilometers (35 miles) east of Bratislava, where Kuciak and his betrothed, Martina Kusnirova, were found slain.

Madaric, a former vice chairman and one of the architects of Fico’s Smer party, had in the past criticized the group’s leadership for not doing enough to tackle corruption. His departure from the culture ministry underscores the pressure the killings have put on Fico.

The opposition’s focus on Kalinak is particularly significant, as he is the prime minister’s political protege and has served as interior minister in Fico’s three cabinets that have run the mountainous ex-communist country consecutively since 2006 except for a two-year gap at the start of the decade.

"The pressure on Fico is very strong; we have never been so close to a change of government," Grigori Meseznikov, the director of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs, said by phone. "Kalinak’s dismissal could calm the situation to some extent, but the train has left the station."

Mafia Link?, the news website where Kuciak worked that’s owned by Axel Springer SE and Ringier AG, published his last, unfinished story on Wednesday linking several businesses operating in Slovakia to the Italian mafia. The article accused the companies of stealing EU agriculture subsidies and making death threats against local farmers.

It also detailed past business connections between the companies and two of Fico’s aides. The officials, Security Council chief Viliam Jasan, and Fico aide Maria Troskova, a former Slovak contestant in the Miss Universe pageant, issued a statement saying they were both stepping down until an investigation into the murders is completed. They said the accusations were a political attack against the premier.

"Their deaths shook us the same way as they have the entire Slovak public," the aides said. "The linking of our names with this disgusting act by some politicians and media is absolutely over the line. We categorically deny any connection with this tragedy."

The premier rejected the idea that any of his colleagues could be linked to criminal affairs. After attacking journalists for years for what he calls biased reporting, he denounced the murder and displayed 1 million euros ($1.2 million) in cash on Tuesday that he said would go to anyone who could provide information leading to arrest of the perpetrators.

"The deaths of two young people has become a simple political tool for the opposition, with which it wants to push people into the streets and gain power," Fico told reporters. Opposition leaders "don’t need evidence, because they’re investigators, prosecutors and judges at the same time."

While Slovakia adopted the euro, attracted billions of euros in investment from global car makers and raised its living standards during Fico’s 10 years in power, his government has faced public protests over corruption. Fico has vowed to crack down on graft, but despite a raft of reports of impropriety in public tenders, no senior politician has ever been convicted.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.