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1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites): Eurasia Review: ‘Mafia State’ Slovakia Struggles To Root Out Corruption – Analysis


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Slovaks know only too well how corruption undermines the rule of law — but fixing the problem is another matter.

By Miroslava Germanova*

n the months
leading up to his arrest for suspected forgery and tax crimes, Slovak
entrepreneur Marian Kocner sent associates a string of text messages
about police investigations and court cases focused on his property and
media businesses.

Kocner
was notorious for alleged ties to organised crime and would later be
charged with ordering the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak,
who had been probing his business dealings.

According
to leaked texts from his phone published recently by local media,
Kocner discussed “managing” his legal troubles through contacts in the
police and prosecution. Other texts refer to “advising” government
politicians.

For
many Slovaks, the texts are a reminder of the sheer depth of corruption
in a country still reeling from the shooting of 27-year-old Kuciak and
his fiancée in Bratislava in February 2018.

They
see the texts as proof that Kocner, who was already in custody when he
was charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder, thought he was above the law,
though he denies any wrongdoing.

“Slovakia
has been a mafia state where people like Kocner dictated the most
important decisions in the country,” leaders of For a Decent Slovakia, a
protest movement, said in a statement this month.

“A
system like this cannot be built in a day. It has been created by the
12-year-long government of [former Prime Minister] Robert Fico and his
minions, a government with no respect for law and for basic democratic
principles.”

After Kuciak’s
murder, For a Decent Slovakia organised mass demonstrations that forced
Fico’s resignation as prime minister, although he is still leader of
the ruling SMER-SD party.

And
earlier this year, voters elected anti-corruption lawyer Zuzana
Caputova as president in a clear rejection of business as usual.

“After Jan Kuciak’s murder, something essential changed,” said Matus Kostolny, editor-in-chief of the Dennik N daily, one of the outlets publishing the leaked texts. “The shock was so great that it really shook the system.”

Slovaks
will head to the polls before March 2020 for parliamentary elections —
the first since Kuciak’s murder — and opposition parties say fighting
corruption will be their priority.

But
transparency experts say Slovakia has a long way to go in unravelling
ties between politicians, state institutions, oligarchs and organised
criminals. 

The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, GRECO, last week urged Slovakia to take decisive action to crack down on graft among government ministers and other top officials, as well as in the police.

Enough is enough

Public anger over corruption has been brewing for about a decade.

Protesters
first took to the streets in 2012 after leaked secret service wiretaps
revealed politicians and oligarchs discussing kickbacks for business
favours. The investigation into the case continues and nobody has been
arrested.

In 2016,
demonstrators demanded a proper probe into the shady dealings of
Ladislav Basternak, a businessman with links to Kocner and several top
SMER-SD politicians including Fico.

Fico
lives in a luxury apartment building owned by Basternak, who was
sentenced to five years in prison last year for millions of euros of tax
fraud. Kocner owned the apartment next door to Fico until he sold it in
September 2017.

The sale
of the apartment was just one line of enquiry in a series of articles by
Kuciak on Kocner. After asking him about it, Kuciak received a
threatening call from Kocner. He reported it to the police but they
dismissed his complaint, it later emerged.

Kuciak’s murder several months later sparked Slovakia’s biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.

Hundreds
of thousands demanded not only Fico’s resignation but that of Interior
Minister Robert Kalinak, Police President Tibor Gaspar and the head of
the special prosecutor’s office, Dusan Kovacik.

“The
public realised just how big a problem corruption really was,” said
Michal Pisko, project coordinator of Transparency International
Slovakia.

According to a
February 2018 survey of public opinion by the European Commission, 85
per cent of Slovaks thought corruption was widespread in the country and
nearly half felt it had got worse over the past three years.

The
demonstrators mostly got their way. After Fico’s resignation, Kalinak
and other ministers left the cabinet and the police got a new president.
The special prosecutor kept his job, though long-stalled investigations
have been reopened, and some solved.

Meanwhile,
police have charged three men and a woman with the murder of Kuciak and
his partner, as well as with planning three more killings — of two
prosecutors and a former minister, all known adversaries of Kocner.

A matter of trust

Such high-profile arrests belie a dearth of prosecutions for corruption generally.

“There
is no top-level corruption in Slovakia,” Interior Minister Kalinak
famously said in 2017. And if prosecution statistics alone are the
measure, he was technically correct.

In contrast to the Czech Republic or Romania, no top official has ever been brought to book for corruption in Slovakia.

Last year, 47 people were charged with corruption crimes, and around a quarter of the cases involved bribes of under 20 euros.

Yet
according to the European Anti-Fraud Office, Slovakia is a leader in
misusing or stealing EU funds. A single case of customs fraud uncovered
last year was worth a whopping 300 million euros.

In
recent years, corruption cases of all sizes have surfaced in nearly
every sector: education, science, healthcare, agriculture, security, the
military, social care, culture and the environment.

Significantly, most only came to light thanks to investigative journalists, anti-corruption NGOs or opposition politicians.

“Neither
the big corruption nor the big fish are ever penalised here, which
creates a lot of frustration,“ said Pisko from Transparency
International.

Experts say such frustration can fuel right-wing extremism. 

“Nearly
a quarter of people in this country look to extremists and fascists who
claim that ‘order’ will fix it all,” said Kostolny from Dennik N.

“In
the past century, we’ve had two totalitarian regimes here and both were
full of corruption. Order is not a solution to corruption. Transparency
is.”

In
presidential elections in March, more than 10 per cent of voters backed
Marian Kotleba, leader of a party widely considered to be neo-fascist,
while more than 14 per cent supported right-wing populist Stefan
Harabin.

Perhaps ironically, Slovakia is in some ways considered a pioneer of transparency within the EU.  

Since 2011, public institutions, cities and towns have been required to publish all contracts and tenders in a public register. 

“When
we give open sources to the people, civic engagement is much higher,”
Pisko said. “It’s impossible to say how much it has impacted on
corruption, but it’s definitely meant that politicians don’t dare do as
much.”

According to opinion polls by the European Commission, trust in public institutions is improving.

In the spring of 2018, only 38 per cent of Slovaks trusted the police and 21 per cent trusted the government.

Last
autumn, after the arrests of Kocner, Basternak and Kuciak’s alleged
killers, trust in police rose to 45 per cent while faith in the
government hit 32 per cent.

As elections loom early next year, For a Decent Slovakia is gearing up for a big anti-corruption protest in September.

And
independent media in Slovakia, energised in the aftermath of Kuciak’s
killing, say they will keep up the pressure for public accountability.

“I think we’ve never been this close to change,” Kostolny said. 

Eurasia Review

1. US Security from Michael_Novakhov (88 sites)