The events of the year now drawing to an end prompted Slovaks to often ponder the question as to whether 2018 was a historic moment, just like most of the years ending with 8 in the past.
“It was a year of protests and changes,” Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, told The Slovak Spectator.
These are the main events that triggered the changes:
Journalist and fiancée murdered
On Monday, February 26, the public learned about the unprecedented murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. From the very start, the police linked the murder to Kuciak's work. The murder provoked a public outcry.
“I hope that I will never experience such a year again,” Jakub Filo, deputy editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, told The Slovak Spectator, adding that 2018 was the most dramatic year for the journalistic profession in Slovakia.
As such, 2018 will enter Slovak history just like 1989, when Communism collapsed, and 1998, when the authoritarian-leaning leader Vladimír Mečiar was ousted from government, Filo said.
“Hopefully, we will be able to say that Slovakia became a better country, despite the tragedy,” he opined.
Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of the Denník N daily, speaks of 2018 as an extremely hard year all society, but especially for journalists.
“Someone murdered our colleague and it changed everything,” Kostolný told The Slovak Spectator, adding that journalists need to reconsider whether it makes sense to continue in their work and if fear will not stop journalists from doing their job.
When he looks back, Kostolný is convinced journalists did their job well: they brought reports about dozens of new cases and stories, and they kept asking questions.
“I am convinced that it makes sense to continue,” he said, adding that it seems the critical public can appreciate it after the events of this year.
In the wake of the murder, major newsrooms in Slovakia put together a team to share information and continue the unfinished work of Ján Kuciak. Investigative reporting focused again and journalists released several major stories, including the role of Slovak government in the abduction of a Vietnamese citizen from Germany (Denník N) and the story of former SIS agent Ľuboš Kosík (Sme). SNS leader Andrej Danko also faced media pressure after he reacted to journalists questions about his rigorous thesis by hiding it from the public.
Civil society revived
A public gathering to commemorate Kuciak and Kušnírová and calling for the investigation of their violent deaths was organised on Facebook in various cities all around Slovakia within a few hours from the discovery of their bodies. A series of marches followed throughout March and April, co-organised by young people who previously organised anti-corruption marches in Bratislava.
In the wake of the murder and the subsequent scandals of the Robert Fico government, as well as links to the Italian mafia that came to light thanks to the unfinished work of Ján Kuciak, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Slovakia. The biggest gathering in Bratislava, in mid-March, reportedly exceeded the size of the demonstrations that took place in the Slovak capital during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, with an estimated 70,000 people in attendance.
The For a Decent Slovakia civic initiative that formed behind the protests is calling for a permanent change in the country, its organisers stated.
Ján Orlovský, from the Bratislava branch of the Open Society Foundation, sees the development after the murder as good news that Slovak society has not descended into complete apathy and the people in power cannot rest assured that they can get away with everything.
“I am happy to witness the advent of a new generation of engaged citizens,” Orlovský told The Slovak Spectator, but noted that the activism is a double-edged sword: civil society is becoming more active, but so is the part of society that “feels human and civil rights in Slovakia do not belong to all citizens as our Constitution says”.
While the For a Decent Slovakia initiative remained the most significant one, several others emerged. University students formed the Nie Je Nám to Jedno (We Do Care) initiative. The initiative played an important role, especially after the new government was formed and For a Decent Slovakia organisers cancelled the planned protests to give the new ruling politicians a chance. People were disappointed by the decision, but thousands of them joined the students and marched in the streets again.
Another initiative, Chceme Veriť (We Want to Believe), connected the established non-governmental organisations Fair-Play Alliance, Via Iuris, Slovak Governance Institute, Human Rights League, Open Society Foundation, Pontis Foundation and Stop Corruption foundation.
They demand that the new government implement specific measures to ensure trustworthy leadership among the police and prosecutors, independence of police from political influences, opening the Prosecutor’s Office to public control and a trustworthy Constitutional Court.
Significant cultural personalities created the initiative Kultúrny Reparát (Culture Resit) when Marek Maďarič, former culture minister, stepped down from his post and Ľubica Laššáková was appointed the new minister.
Protests in the streets led to changes in the government. After the resignation of Maďarič, Robert Kaliňák resigned as interior minister, and, eventually, Robert Fico resigned as prime minister, too.
Peter Pellegrini, who until then served as deputy PM, became prime minister.
Health minister Tomáš Drucker (Smer nominee) replaced Kaliňák as interior minister in the new cabinet, but left just a few weeks later, to be replaced by Denisa Saková.
Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská left the cabinet and was replaced by her colleague from Most-Híd, Gábor Gál.
Police corps president Tibor Gašpar also stepped down.
“Ministers who were causing the most problems from people’s viewpoint left,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator, referring to Fico and Kaliňák.
The personnel reshuffles in the government, however, did not bring about significant changes in the ruling style, Mesežnikov said, mentioning the late-November arrest of Greenpeace activists and the police investigation of the For a Decent Slovakia protest organisers.
Pavol Baboš, political analyst from Comenius University, considers the end of Robert Fico and Robert Kaliňák as the most significant event of 2018. He mentioned the changes that started in the police corps after Kaliňák left.
“The changes turned Kaliňák into a toxic politician without a future and sent Fico onto the same trajectory,” Baboš told The Slovak Spectator, adding that Fico is trying to remain a relevant politician, but if he wants to win the elections, he would probably have the hardest task out of all democratic candidates.
Mesežnikov opined that even though there are several politicians on the scene who are taking unbelievable steps and saying unbelievable things, Robert Fico turned himself into the most negative personality in the political spectrum. As a long-term prime minister and head of the strongest political party in Slovakia, he can cause great damage while playing dangerous games with conspiracy-theory narratives.
“He acts like a suspicious, xenophobic, unsuccessful politician full of complexes,” Mesežnikov noted.
As a positive example of a public figure, he mentioned President Kiska, who found himself in a very complicated situation but thanks to his principled attitude, helped changes to happen.
“Kiska played an important part, as was expected from him, and he did not hesitate in key moments,” Mesežnikov explained.
Baboš mentioned Béla Bugár (Most-Híd) as an example of a negative and positive person at the same time. Positive because he is ascribed the biggest credit for the fact that Robert Fico is not prime minister anymore. Negative because he makes concessions to Andrej Danko and his Slovak National Party (SNS) in geopolitics and political culture.
The power of civil society translated into the results of the municipal elections in early November. For a Decent Slovakia decided to support some non-partisan candidates in the elections, despite their declaration that they would not go into politics. They earned criticism from both the coalition and opposition for their support.
The initiative supported Matúš Vallo running for the post in the Bratislava race, Marek Hattas in Nitra, and Peter Fiabáne in Žilina. All three became mayors in their cities.
Non-partisan candidates strengthened their positions. It demonstrated the negative attitudes toward the current government. The protests have also shown that the opposition is likely to have a minor advantage in parliamentary elections, according to Mesežnikov.
“We are witnessing the developing shifts on the political scene and the municipal election should be viewed in this context as well,” the analyst explained.
Baboš described the results of the municipal elections as a continued trend from the past few years, when Smer started losing regional capitals. After the regional governors, they now also lost mayors.
Kočner arrested, Bašternák pleads guilty
2018 was surprising in both negative and positive ways, Baboš noted. One year ago, Slovaks would not have imagined that a journalist could be murdered, but neither did they expect that Marian Kočner would be imprisoned and Bašternák a self-confessed fraudster. The two men were symbols of the arrogant and the untouchable. Kočner often featured in Kuciak’s stories.
These steps may decrease scepticism, even though Mesežnikov believes that these are only small steps and Slovakia will not see the biggest transformations until the government changes.
Baboš recognises two strong opposite tendencies. It seems like there are two groups of people fighting each other in police, justice system and state administration.
“One cares about building the trust and working for the good of the country, while the second one makes incomprehensible decisions,” he said referring to the imprisonment of Greenpeace activists.
“With regard to people’s trust in the state in the long run, the important thing is which of the two groups wins the fight,” Baboš summed up.