Corruption in Slovakia: Enemy of Democracy, Ally of Extremism


In a recent article in The Guardian Timothy Garton Ash argues that as it was premature to consider the fall of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, then triumph of liberal democracy, a beginning of development that would turn this triumph into normal state of society, it would be similarly premature to think today about the triumph of anti-liberal authoritarianism in the world. As a positive example, Garton Ash mentioned the fact that “leading the democratic fightback in Central Europe today is Slovakia, a country that was authoritarian laggard in the 1990s, and has more than its fair share of post-communist corruption in recent years." In this context, Garton Ash writes about the mass citizens‘ protests after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018 and recalls the "election this year of a liberal, pro-European president, Zuzana Čaputová."[1]

Zuzana Čaputová's example is truly encouraging and gives real democrats the hope that even in not very favorable conditions it is possible to obtain sufficient support from the population for a decent policy without inciting hatred towards others, without giving unreasonable promises, leading to unrealistic expectations of the people.

At the time when Garton Ash's article appeared, a massive stream of information was rolling from the Slovak media to citizens about the facts related to activities of the prosecuted businessman Marián Kočner. He was detained in 2018 and today is accused of organizing the murder of Ján Kuciak.

What did these facts prove? They confirmed that Kočner managed to create a network, a sort of rogue micro-empire, which included corrupt politicians, government officials, judges, prosecutors, policemen, notaries, bailiffs, lawyers, journalists, former secret service agents and eventually the assassins. The wide scope and precision with which Kočner created his micro-empire, and the incredible personal commitment with which he expanded and managed it, are breathtaking. Kočner watched the positions in the various judicial authorities and in the management of state institutions, through his contacts he not only obtained the necessary information, but also influenced the process of personal nominations and subsequently directed the activities of public officials, whom he helped to get into office.

Kočner has always been interested in "arranging" his own things, mostly in various financial machinations and frauds (either at the expense of other private entrepreneurs or the state). Of course, the main Kočner’s aim was a personal profit, an effort to get even more rich. However, Kočner’s actions in fact influenced the overall situation in the judicial system (police, courts, prosecutors) and, more broadly, in the system of constitutional institutions of the state, including the government, ministries and parliament. This was not just about Kočner’s business, but the functioning of the state as such. Carefully selected, prepared and motivated members of Kočner’s network behaved in other cases similarly as they did in cases directly related to Kočner — corrupt, factually illegal, and politically biased.

At some moment when the real extent of Kočner’s contacts and activities became evident, many people get horrified by the considerations that Kočner’s rogue micro-empire might not be the only one operating in Slovakia, that similar rogue entities (though perhaps less brutal and violent) may exist around other actors — individual entrepreneurs or financial and business groups, with the intention of "arranging things" for their own benefit. Many shocking revelations related to Kočner happened only due to the fact that within the investigation of Ján Kuciak’s murder ordered by Kočner the police and prosecutors managed to get to encrypted communications in his cell phone as well as to transcripts of the sound recordings made by Kočner himself.

Without this technical success of the investigative team, there would hardly happen the resignation of State Secretary of the Ministry of Justice and abduction of Vice-Speaker of Parliament, the forced suspension of the former Prosecutor General, the suspension (albeit temporary) of some prosecutors and judges, including the territorial courts’ chairmen. Almost all of these persons had strong political backing in the ruling party Smer-SD, whose chairman Robert Fico defended his party’s nominees until the last moment, challenging in every possible way the accuracy of evidences presented by the police, by prosecutors' offices and the media. Only when the specialized criminal court confirmed the authenticity of Kočner’s encrypted communication and found legal the way of obtaining it by the police in the ongoing investigatory process, Fico had to step back from his adamant position.

Nevertheless, only a part of Kočner's communication has been published so far, especially that related to the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová as well as related to his attempts to fraudulently (through fake bills) get the control over the private TV channel Markiza, one of the most influential media in the country. Since Kočner has appeared in many other business cases, we can only guess what all the tens of thousands of text messages between him and his “partners” conceal. Not to mention what could appear in the communication of other Slovak “oligarchs” who tried to create favorable conditions for their own businesses. For example, in the communication of such person as Jaroslav Haščák, the head of the financial group Penta, one of the main actors of Gorilla case (2006), which re-emerged in 2019 thanks to the publication of a sound records made by the secret service SIS.

It is quite possible that similarly as Haščák in Gorilla case or Kočner in his fraudulent "projects," other strong men of Slovak business, their political patrons and servants in the judiciary are "arranging their things."

The state of the rule of law in Slovakia in 2019 tells a lot about the wider context of the Slovak transformation path. On the one hand, Slovakia thanks to ousting of authoritarian populist Vladimír Mečiar from power has been considered as a success story of advocating and defending the liberal-democratic values, on the other hand, the illiberal regression of democracy manifested itself differently than in some other countries, where efforts to change the institutional foundations of the democratic regime came to the fore (for example, in Hungary or Poland). In Slovakia after 1998, it was less about open political authoritarianism, more about the systematic building of a clientelist-corruption system by national populists led by Smer-SD, which has been a three-time ruling party since 2006.

The peculiar ideological and personal characteristics of Slovak national populists, on the one hand, allowed Slovak society in the 21 st century to cope more easily with the danger of an open fall into the mud of authoritarianism (and fortunately, such a fall has so far been prevented), on the other hand, they have undermined the efforts of civic and democratic forces to neutralize the corruption that has nestled in the vital sectors of society, erodes the state from within, diminishes people's confidence in democracy, and chases extremist voices.

Unlike their Hungarian and Polish counterparts, Slovak national populists have no vision of the development of the state or society that they would like to implement in the long run. From time to time, they come up with some (mostly historical) narratives, which can serve as a litmus test of their way of thinking, but mainly these are caricature "visions." Although Slovak populists are often illiberal in the governance, they have not created any comprehensive illiberal concept that would modify itself into original "theoretical" form. It is no coincidence that the peak of their "conceptual" work is a simple replica or rather a self-recognized plagiarism: Andrej Danko, speaker of the Slovak Parliament and leader of the Slovak National Party, recently confessed that he was very impressed by Viktor Orbán’s vision of building the illiberal state and that he, Danko, would like to construct something like that in Slovakia if he would possess the same political power as Orbán in Hungary.

In reality, the concept of Slovak national populists are material goods. Their vision is to consume and distribute benefits, especially to themselves and their clients, and what remains – to those who are more likely to appreciate and to reward through support in elections

The absence of a coherent illiberal vision of the Slovak national-populist parties has saved the country from the open authoritarian excesses in the last decade, but the setting up of the ruling populists primarily to consumption of power and material benefits ultimately led Slovakia to the situation when clientelism and corruption began to devour the primary functions of the state, in particular the law enforcement system. And just on the wave of criticism of democracy as an allegedly "corrupt system" the right-wing extremist party ĽSNS is building its mobilization strategies.

It should be noticed, however, that Slovak fascists do not criticize the corrupt officials. They do the opposite — they attack civic activists and pro-democratic politicians who struggle against the mafia and blame them in anti-Slovak conspiracy, calling them the "foreign agents," the Soros allies. Fascists again show that they are on the side of actors of the largest corruption.

[1] revolutions-populists 

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).