Key events, but journalist murder shakes country
For Slovakia, the year 2018 provided several occasions for commemorating events with historical and political relevance: There was the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak independence, 70 years of the communist state and 50 years since the Prague Spring. Even more important for the young country might have been the 30th anniversary of the Candle Demonstration, which was the central event of popular protest against the communist regime and the beginning of its end, and the 25th anniversary of the separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic. Eventually, however, it was the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová that shook Slovakia in 2018.
Reporter was investigating corruption
Kuciak, a young journalist, was investigating connections between the mafia, oligarchs and top politicians, in particular members of governing parties. The murder itself, but also the fact that threats made to Kuciak before his murder and the reluctance demonstrated in the investigations afterwards have provided further evidence of the existence of intransparent and corrupt elite networks in the country. In addition, this highlighted the limits to media freedom in Slovakia, the lack of judiciary independence and the failure of the state to protect its citizens. In his state of the nation address in June 2018, President Andrej Kiska identified a crisis of trust in justice and the rule of law and interpreted the murder as a “materialization of the consequences of the tolerance of criminal behavior.”
Public responds with national protests
Kuciak and Kušnírová’s murder has had a deep impact on Slovak society. As a result, the country experienced the biggest national protests since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The “For a Decent Slovakia” movement associated with the hashtag #AllForJan played a key role in organizing and sustaining the protests. Dissatisfaction with the country’s trajectory was also felt in the municipal elections in November 2018. While the ruling Smer-SD remained the strongest party, its shares in mayoral and council seats dropped from 25% to 18% and 29% to 20% respectively. The clear winners of the elections were independent candidates, many of them activists from the “For a decent Slovakia” movement, which won 42% of all mayoral seats.
Prime minister resigns,
but coalition remains
but coalition remains
The consequences of this societal turmoil on government policy have been limited. After the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, several members of the government resigned or were pushed to resign, including finally Prime Minister Robert Fico, the key figure in Slovak politics since 2002. However, the governing coalition consisting of the left-populist Smer-SD, the Nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and Most-Híd, a centrist party representing the Hungarian minority, stuck together and rejected all calls for early elections. The new prime minister since March 22, the former Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, stressed the government’s commitment to the original 2016 manifesto of the coalition and refrained from initiating any changes in policy.
Economy strong, but reforms delayed
The good and better-than-expected performance of the Slovak economy has enabled the government to pass a balanced budget for 2019, one year earlier than foreseen in the government manifesto. At the same time, long-due reform projects in education and health care have been delayed or tackled in an erratic manner. The same applies to the improvement of the public transport infrastructure, as there have been constant delays in building highways and railways. The transformation of the Slovak Academy of Sciences from a budget-based to a more independent organization that was widely perceived as an important contribution to improving the R&D System, has stalled.
Prime Minister Fico pursued a rather confrontational approach toward the European Union in the context of the 2015 refugee crisis. In the period under review, however, Fico and his successor Pellegrini have clearly sought to re-position Slovakia in the core of the EU and have been keen on distancing themselves from part of the positions taken by Hungary and Poland. In 2018, Slovakia has also been actively involved in two major international initiatives. It participated in the voluntary national review of the SDGs and elevated them to a national priority. Moreover, as acting UN General Assembly president from September 2017 to September 2018, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák was intensively involved in the formulation of the UN’s Global Migration Compact. Eventually, however, the SNS, one of the junior coalition partners, prevented the Slovak signing of the Compact.