Organized Crime Sweep Rattles Slovakia’s Elite

The arrest of a prominent businessman with close political ties would have shocked Slovakia a year ago. Yet when Jozef Brhel was detained by police last week and charged with corruption, his was just another name.

The 59-year-old former government official, who denies all wrongdoing, was the latest target in the biggest sweep against graft and organized crime since the nation ceded from Czechoslovakia almost three decades ago. The net already included former police chiefs, prosecutors, the heads of tax administration and tax investigations, the country’s second-richest man, an ex-deputy justice minister and dozens of police officers and judges.

To many outsiders, Slovakia is a model eastern member of the European Union. Successive governments have remained loyal allies of Berlin and Brussels while the economy blossomed on the back of car manufacturing and EU investment. But for decades, the former communist nation has struggled with a dark side that is now being exposed like rarely before.

Organized Crime Sweep Rattles Slovakia’s Elite

The purge is driven by Igor Matovic, a former newspaper publisher who took over as prime minister in March last year. Facing criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations, Matovic has bet his premiership on what he calls the “scalps” the authorities have rounded up in recent months as his party declines in the polls.

“It speaks of an existence of a criminal system that captured key parts of police, prosecution and the judiciary,” said Daniel Lipsic, who was appointed special prosecutor last week after his predecessor was charged with being a member of an organized crime group. “State institutions such as police and the judiciary have failed because they were working for the other side.”

Some opponents call his effort to weed out graft a witch-hunt, yet Matovic, 47, says a reckoning was long overdue. While the car bombs and gunfights between rival gangs have subsided since the lawless 1990s, scandals pointing to widespread graft have rattled nearly every Slovak administration since then.

Public anger against former Prime Minister Robert Fico, the nation’s longest serving leader, exploded in 2018 after the gunning down of Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist who wrote about links between crime and politics. Anti-government demonstrations eventually toppled Fico. The assassin and two other people were convicted of murder last year.

Organized Crime Sweep Rattles Slovakia’s Elite

Until now, there was little political appetite to follow Romania, which instigated the region’s most prominent anti-corruption drive to date with convictions including a former ruling party leader and former prime minister.

Less than two months after his surprise election victory, Matovic marked his “first scalp” in a Facebook posting with the arrest of Kajetan Kicura, the head of the state strategic commodities reserves. Charged with corruption, Kicura is in custody awaiting trial and denies all wrongdoing.

More recently, the net closed in on special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik after almost 17 years in the job. Kovacik, who resigned in November, also denies any wrongdoing. Milan Lucansky, the former national police chief, died in an apparent jail-house suicide on Dec. 30. He was found hanged in his cell while awaiting trial for bribery.

Then there’s Monika Jankovska, a former deputy justice minister who was charged with corruption and obstructing justice in the case of businessman Marian Kocner, who was acquitted of ordering Kuciak’s murder. She has pleaded guilty to some of the charges and denied others, her lawyer, Peter Erdos, has said without elaborating.

Jankovska survived an overdose of prescription medicine in late January that Erdos called “an act of despair” in an interview with TV Markiza on Feb. 2. “She doesn’t see that there can be a fair trial,” he said.

The risk is that the sweep doesn’t lead to a fundamental overhaul of Slovakia’s law enforcement and courts. With only a quarter of Slovaks trusting the judiciary, more still needs to be done to restore public faith, according to Eva Kovacechova, a lawyer at rule-of-law advocacy Via Iuris.

“Many judges haven’t embraced the changes,” she said. “If a critical mass of them doesn’t rise up, we will remain neck-deep in this problem.”

Indeed, prosecutors have so far failed to link the vast array of charges specifically to former top politicians and there have been no big-name convictions. Fico condemned the arrests and said they’re based on co-operative witnesses denouncing former partners-in-crime. “People are sent to jail without a reason,” he said. “This all only serves political purposes.”

In one major case, prosecutors allege that Norbert Bodor, an ally of Fico, presided over a secret group of senior law enforcement officials, using bribes to decide which cases should be handled and which dismissed.

Bodor denies all wrongdoing. He saw his request for bail rejected by the court, which called the alleged operation “a mega-machine for corruption and money laundering.”

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