Bratislava, Slovakia – As well as the Covid-19 virus, Slovakia must also battle the cancer of corruption that has infected public life for decades.
Slovakia’s new government was sworn in last month and plunged straight into a global public health crisis. There will be much for the government to do to combat the spread of Covid-19 and minimise the damage to the population and the economy. But sadly for them, this is far from being the only thing on their “To Do” list as soon as taking office.
Fighting corruption in Slovakia: Delivering on campaign promises
While handling the coronavirus crisis, the new government must not forget the promises it made in getting elected. The winning party OĽANO ran on an anti-corruption ticket. Indeed, all members of the newly-formed coalition made fighting corruption a key pledge in their election manifestos and none would be in government now if they hadn’t convinced the people that they could deliver serious successes in the fight against graft.
So why was corruption the number one factor in the Slovak election? It is true that the majority of Slovaks see their system as utterly corrupt: a 2019 Focus poll showed that more than two thirds of Slovaks have little or no trust in the police and the courts.
In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitive Index, Slovakia ranks a creditable 42nd out of 141 countries. However, in judicial matters the number is far lower, placing 112th for the reliability of its police service, 114th for judicial independence and a shameful 130th for the efficiency of the legal framework in settling disputes.
This all has a wearing effect on the public, but the reason Slovaks voted so overwhelmingly for change can be traced back to the murder of young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Corruption has been endemic in Slovak public life for many years, but this was the act that made the public cry “Enough!”.
When enough is enough
Kuciak’s murder was a contract killing intended to silence his investigation into the misuse of European Union funds. The trail he was following involved government ministers, dubious businessmen and the Italian crime organisation the ’Ndrangheta. However, if silence was the aim, the outcome was the complete opposite.
Slovaks took to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since the Velvet Revolution. The youth-led movement “For A Decent Slovakia” galvanised the public to demand change and accountability.
Businessman Marian Kočner is currently on trial for ordering Kuciak’s murder, alongside the hitmen who carried out the killing. One has already confessed and has been co-operating with the police. It was Kočner’s political connections that so enraged people and a slew of resignations followed his arrest. Among those to go were prominent government ministers, several high court judges, a former prosecutor general and even the Prime Minister Robert Fico.
The scandal destroyed the political credibility of the ruling Smer party, who had been in power, with a small interruption, for 14 years. They were mired in sleaze and the public was determined to punish them via the ballot box. First, their presidential candidate Maroš Šefčovič was comfortably beaten by Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist, and then the party lost all but the core of their support in the 2020 election, with an anti-graft coalition led by OĽANO’s Igor Matovič sweeping to power.
A deep lack of trust in Slovakia’s judicial system
But the demise of Smer is not the end of the fallout from the Kuciak murder. The last two years has seen a steady stream of revelations that show how corruption thrives in Slovakia. And it has done so in the very areas the public should be able to look to for protection: the government, the police and the judiciary.
The police investigating Kočner came into possession of a phone he had previously owned. They were able to de-encrypt the messages on the Threema app, an encrypting message service similar to WhatsApp, that Kočner used. The thousands of messages revealed a web of corruption around Kočner going back many years and involving officials at the very top of the judicial system.
Through Kočner’s contacts in government and the legal system, justice in Slovakia was essentially for sale to the highest bidder. The messages showed how Kočner was able to get ‘friendly’ judges appointed and buy judgements, both for himself and for his clients.
The corruption revealed in the Threema messages is shocking, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg. With so much corruption barely below the surface, why has it not been tackled before?
Slovakia does not lack legislation to combat corruption. Indeed, it might even be said that it is a pioneer in government transparency. Every public contract, even for one euro, each judicial verdict and company financial information, all needs to be published online. Very few countries in the world have such transparency.
A change from within
What Slovakia has lacked, however, is the political will to pursue well-connected wrongdoers. There is huge impunity for top officials, with generally only the small fry targeted. Transparency International record corruption cases and issue a report every three years. The 2016 report showed only 150 corruption cases per year, but over half were for bribes of 100 euros or less. The 2019 report shows the needle moving in the right direction, but only slightly. The number of corruption cases actually decreased to 60 a year, perhaps because of an increasing public reluctance to report. But there has been a slight shift towards bigger cases (those over €1,000). A major player like Kočner still remains an outlier, however.
That the recent revelations damage the already threadbare reputation of the judiciary is beyond question. Many honest judges and legal professionals have now also cried enough and are not waiting for government intervention to sort out the problem. Supreme Court judge Elena Berhotyová has banded together with colleagues to form the “For Open Justice’ initiative, an independent and informal group of like-minded judges pressuring the Judicial Council from within to finally get to grips with the issue.
Berhotyová also chairs the recently formed Special Commission, in charge of investigating the judges who had been in contact with Kočner. “We wanted to distance ourselves from judges abusing their functions, and wanted to send a clear message to the public – that we were able to start the process of judicial cleansing. This is important for the public trust we want”, she told me. “Trust is the most precious thing a judge has”.
An unprecedented anti-corruption raid in Slovakia
It seems that the increased public scrutiny is having an effect. In the early hours of March 11 police arrested thirteen judges, one former judge and four others as part of Operation Storm, an anti-corruption initiative of the National Crime Agency (NAKA) investigating Kočner’s connections.
Police are understood to be collaborating with Vladimír Sklenka, the Bratislava I District Court judge whose phones were seized in October. The police found 9,000 messages between Kočner and Sklenka, a former policeman and bodyguard who rose rapidly through the legal ranks.
The judges were charged with corruption, interference with the independence of courts and obstruction of justice. Kočner has also been charged with bribing the judges.
However, the thirteen judges could only be remanded in custody with the approval of the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court’s decision to release eight of the judges has angered many, even though the charges against them remain.
The decision has been appealed by prosecutors, and Transparency International has lodged a complaint. Robert Vaško, a legal expert from Transparency, told me last week that “the problem is not necessarily that the judges were released, but that the Constitutional Court did not explain the reasons. We have called on them to substantiate their reasons, to reassure the public that they are not covering for the corrupt judges”.
The cases against these judges are just beginning, as is the fight against corruption generally. And it seems it will be a long one.
Going after the big fish
Elena Berhotyová is convinced that constitutional change may be required, for example to allow for greater security checks on judges or the creation of a Supreme Administrative Court – “it seems that it was possible to buy justice in Slovakia and that I regard as the worst sin of the judge. This is a peak of injustice”. There is still a lot of work to be done, and given that the new government has enough seats to form a constitutional majority, the kind of change proposed by ‘For Open Justice’ now appears within reach.
Robert Vaško on the other hand feels that the current laws and regulations are sufficient: “We think that the problem is the people [in the judiciary]. They need to be dealt with one by one. Kočner is not a big fish. He’s a mobster, but in my view a big fish is a high-profile public figure, a judge, a prosecutor or similar. High profile public figures should serve as role models. It’s an issue of political culture and the culture of each individual”.
Whichever approach Igor Matovič and his new government take, it’s clear that the moment is now, whatever other challenges the government is facing. Slovakia has an historic opportunity to shake off the corruption that has been dragging it down for too many years.
Written by Brendan Oswald
Brendan Oswald is a freelance journalist based in Slovakia. He worked for the British Council for twenty years in several countries, including three years (2012-2015) as a director in Ukraine. Check out his articles right here!