28th Feb 2024

Rule-of-law rallies in Slovakia test Fico's new regime

  • Opposition parties are planning to continue with marches organised in the capital and other regions (Photo: Progressive Slovakia)
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After fewer than 100 days in power, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico is facing protests over attempts to halt prosecutions of his allies, under a bill set to also delay the iconic case of murdered journalist Ján Kuciak.

The public outcry follows last week's green light to abolish the special prosecutor's office — the institution dedicated to prosecuting serious and high-level organised crime.

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  • The appeal procedure in the 2018 murder case of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova could be further delayed (Photo: Peter Tkac)

During the previous centre-right administration, the special prosecutors started to supervise cases involving prominent members and nominees of Fico's Smer-SDparty.

Several have already been found guilty by the courts, but Fico says most cases were politically motivated.

"An institution that violates human rights cannot have a place in the Slovak criminal justice system," he said, adding that the sole aim of police investigations before the September 2023 elections was to "destroy the then opposition."

The proposal, approved by the government last week, came in a package of amendments to the criminal code that is supposed to pass in a fast-track parliamentary procedure in the coming days, winding up the special prosecutor's office by mid-January 2024.

And Erik Láštic, a politics professor at the Bratislava-based Comenius University, for one, said the speedy decision looks like political expedience rather than objective urgency.

"It suggests that these initiatives are more about delivering on promises to their [Smer-SD] interest groups and sponsors, rather than responding to some immediate crisis or needs," he told EUobserver.

Fico's opponents point out that the re-distribution of the thick dossiers currently being overseen by the special prosecution among the regional prosecutors, who will need to study them anew, will prolong the whole process.

One example cited is the appeal procedure in the 2018 murder case of Slovak investigative journalist Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, which could be further dragged out.

Proposed new rules on shortening the statute-of-limitation periods for some crimes could also lead to the time-lapse of high-profile cases.

"It's a gross arrogance of power," said Maria Kolikova, an ex-minister of justice and MP from the opposition SaS party.

"They can ignore the opposition in parliament and abandon discussions with us but they won't be able to overlook thousands of people in the street rejecting their rule of law dissolution," she posted on social media.

Following last week's protest in Bratislava, opposition parties are planning to continue with marches in the capital and other regional centres on Tuesday (12 December).

No surprises

Meanwhile, Smer-SD's first actions after re-gaining power should not come as a surprise to anyone given their pre-election campaign, said Michal Cirner, from the Institute of Political Sciences at the University of Prešov in Slovakia.

"Words became actions immediately after the formation of the new coalition government along with the Voice-SD and Slovak National Party," Cirner told EUobserver.

He added that revenge seems to be the main leitmotiv behind the decisions to get rid of institutions and concrete actors involved in investigations.

"It looks like the effort to return before 2018 when mass protests demanded an end to mafia or hijacked state," he said.

Dozens of personalities from cultural, academic and other professional backgrounds have also sent an open letter to the European Commission, urging the EU executive "not to succumb to Fico´s misleading argumentation in favour of proposals" which will enhance "political control over investigative bodies."

One early sign of the ruling coalition's strategy came with the decision, by interior minister

Matúš Šutaj-Eštok of the Voice-SD party, to reassign or dismiss the police officers previously inspecting the most sensitive cases — right after Šutaj-Eštok took up the post in October.

Fico's controversial bill includes proposals that the special prosecutor, Daniel Lipšic, has described as aiming to "drastically reduce the penalties for corruption offences."

"If the bill is approved, several prominent cases whose prosecution is in the public interest will have to be suspended," Lipšic said on Monday. "If the bill is adopted, the perpetrators will simply get impunity," he added.

And the European Public Prosecutor's Office in Brussels has raised concerns over the bill's potential impact on the investigation of fraud related to EU-funded projects.

"Based on our preliminary analysis, we are concerned that some of the proposed amendments to the Slovak criminal code would no longer ensure that offences against the EU budget are punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions in Slovakia," the EU office said.

On the path to Orbánism?

Many political commentators speak of Fico's similarities with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán´s "illiberal" rule.

But for Láštic, the situation is different due to the nature of the ruling coalition and Fico's need to make compromises to keep his slim majority in parliament.

"Another difference is the robustness of civil society and traditional media in Slovakia [compared to Hungary]. These institutions played a significant role in maintaining democratic norms and act as a counterbalance to governmental power," said Láštic.

The EU's experiences with Hungary and Poland have also been instructive, he added.

"The EU, having observed the erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law in these countries, is arguably more vigilant and prepared to respond to similar occurrences in other member states," Láštic said.

"This increased readiness to safeguard core values of liberal democracy within the EU adds an external layer of accountability that was less pronounced in the early stages of Hungary's and Poland's political shifts," he added.

Poland voted out its right-wing government in October, prompting a collective sigh of relief in the EU mainstream.

But for Cirner, the new Orbán-Fico tandem in the EU Council could prove toxic on Ukraine.

"Both politicians are just reacting to pro-Russian sentiment in part of their societies and they will continue trying to keep their support by dominating the media. It is not a pleasant perspective but hopefully, the EU's influence will prevent further damage," Cirner said.

Author bio

Lucia Virostkova is a freelance journalist and assistant professor at the department of journalism of Comenius University in Bratislava. She has worked for the public TV and radio and published with several Slovak newspapers.


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