(Bloomberg) -- It started with the slaying of a young journalist and his fiancee at their home. Then came street protests not seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now the future direction of another European country is at stake as a prime minister fights for his political life.
How quickly things have changed for Slovakia. A bastion of stability in a region dominated by nationalist governments at odds with the rest of the European Union, the country has been thrust into political turmoil.
Tens of thousands of people turned out again last week to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who they blame for allowing rampant corruption. Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, a close ally of Fico, resigned on Monday before a key party in the governing coalition said it would push for an early election. It means a vote could come within months.
“If the government collapses, there's a danger that Euroskeptic parties rise to power, which could seriously alter Slovakia's stance towards the EU,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague. “A change could lead to Slovakia joining Hungary and Poland, and possibly the Czech Republic could slide there too, which would be a very dangerous situation for the whole central European region.”
It seemed everything was going right for Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million wedged in the heart of a continent. A change of power 20 years ago and ensuing economic reforms turned what U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “the black hole of Europe” in 1998 into a world superpower in car production and a member of Europe’s single currency.
Yet the rosy picture started to crumble in February, when investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova were killed in what the police said may be related to his work about the mafia’s outreach all the way to the country’s political leadership.
Fico, 53, has refused demands from protesters in more than 40 towns and cities, opposition parties and a coalition partner to stand down. The premier denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
Slovakia is “living a success story,” Fico said. “We've come a long way over those 25 years and people's lives are better. This story can't end with one tragedy, however painful it is.”
Fico has headed Smer, the most popular party, for 19 years and convinced opponents to join his third government two years ago. He won mass support with handouts for the poor including free train tickets and welfare programs.
While the gloss started to come off during his latest term in power, the country’s per-capita gross domestic product stands at more than $16,500, up 26 percent from when he first became prime minister in 2006, based on World Bank data.
The Slovak leader has portrayed himself within the EU as a counter-voice to populist strongmen such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
That image was tarnished last week as he lashed out against his rivals and accused them of orchestrating attacks against him with the help of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The comments echoed Orban, who has made the Hungarian-born financier the arch enemy of his “illiberal democracy.”
“Fico recently said that Slovakia is an island of pro-European sentiments in central Europe,” said Paul Lendvai, 88, a Vienna-based author of numerous books on central Europe. “You can’t be an island of democracy when you’re up to your waist in dirt.” He called it a “very dark period for Slovakia.”
It harks back to troubled times among Slovaks. Soon after the country split from Czechoslovakia and gained independence in 1993, it deep dived into a period of power grabs and cronyism under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar. It derailed entry into NATO and put EU membership at risk.
Meciar lost power in 1998 and following governments introduced a flat tax and sold state assets to western companies. It quickly earned Slovakia the political kudos needed to join NATO and then the EU in 2004 along with its neighbors.
The country is one of the world’s largest per-capita producers of cars, churning out Porsche Cayennes and Audi Q7 SUVs at the Volkswagen AG plant outside of Bratislava. The capital’s region is among the richest in the EU’s eastern states.
The problem is that people have lost trust in institutions and the authorities and Slovakia is “deeply divided,” Ingeborg Graessle, a European Parliament member from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic party, told reporters on Friday after co-leading an EU fact-finding mission.
“I hope it will end like in 1989 and the regime will go,” said Peter Bezak, 28, a marketing specialist at a mass protest on Friday in Bratislava. “I’m ready to come here every day until Fico and Kalinak are gone.”
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