Robert Fico, Slovakia’s man who lives for vengeance

Tomáš Madleňák (ICJK) for Follow The Money 2024-05-09
Tomáš Madleňák (ICJK) for Follow The Money 2024-05-09

For many years, few people paid much attention to Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico – until the murder of a journalist led to his downfall and revealed the morass of corruption inside his administration. Now, after making a comeback by spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories and pro-Russian narratives, he appears to be going after his perceived enemies: independent media, political opposition, and upright law enforcement.

In a scene more reminiscent of a Guy Ritchie movie than an official press conference, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico stood in front of the table staring down at the huge pile of cash. In all, the notes weighed some 30 kilograms.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in front of me lies one million euros,” Fico said to the cameras. “This reward is intended for a person who gathers the courage and – if he has information – goes to the police or, in another way, reports that he knows something about this crime.”

Only two days earlier, 27-year-old investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancéé, Martina Kušnírová, had been found shot dead in their home. Kuciak’s body lay on the stairs, a bullet in his heart; Kušnírová was found in the kitchen, her laptop still open to websites showing wedding dresses.

Kuciak had earned a reputation for investigating the illicit financial dealings of the oligarchs and tycoons who had flourished under Fico. His fearless reporting on these untouchables – known as “our people” in Slovakia – was what led to their deaths.

Thousands of people poured onto the streets of cities around the country to demand justice for the killings, in the largest protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Much of the anger was directed at Fico and his government’s failure to tackle graft and cronyism.

Fico’s ill-judged offer of a million-euro reward for information – netizens swiftly compared the press conference to a scene from the Netflix series Narcos – only fuelled public outrage. Less than three weeks later, in March 2018, he was forced to resign.

Official investigations in the following years uncovered a morass of corruption inside Fico’s administration. More than 130 officials and businessmen with alleged ties to the prime minister have been accused of corruption and influence peddling, and dozens have been convicted so far.

Fico himself was charged with running an organised crime group within the government that allegedly manipulated public contracts and illegally obtained information that he could use against his political rivals.

Yet even this has not been enough to keep Fico down. Last year he was reelected as prime minister for the fourth time, making him the longest-serving politician in Slovakia’s history.

In the past, he was repeatedly successful because of personal charisma, populist promises, and the image of a competent and determined politician who offered stability in contrast to the center-right parties standing as opposition to him. Multiple of his electoral victories came after snap elections that were called due to center-right coalitions breaking apart.

But to win this time, he had to pull out all the stops. And now, it looks like Brussels is in his sights.

The growth

Fico was first elected in 1992 as an MP for the former Communist Party of Slovakia. Seven years later, he started Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD), which positioned itself as a “third way” between the autocrats of 1990s and the reformists on the right.

The following years brought hardship as Bratislava enacted reforms required to join the European Union and NATO, cutting the country’s debt, liberalising the economy, and strengthening the rule of law. But these bore fruit when Slovakia joined the bloc in 2004, sending GDP surging, attracting foreign investment, and bringing an influx of EU funds.

Still, the population became tired of reform, and it was against this backdrop that the reformist government fell apart and Smer-SD won snap elections in 2006, giving Fico control of the country in a coalition with two controversial smaller parties.

Fico's Nationalist Bedfellows [EXPAND]

In 2006, Fico’s Smer-SD party took power for the first time in a coalition with the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) led by Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia’s strongman leader during the 1990s.

This choice of partners brought criticism from the European socialists, who saw the HZDS and SNS as extremist, nationalist, and undemocratic movements. The Party of European Socialists (PES) suspended Smer-SD’s membership, saying that “SNS in its current form is not acceptable to us as a

But according to leaked wiretaps, Fico was already making plans before he took office.

The wiretaps, recorded by Slovakia’s secret service in 2005 and 2006, included details of confidential meetings between a controversial tycoon and several politicians. Fico was recorded discussing various powerful businessmen whom he described as secret “sponsors” of Smer-SD – and their many business dealings with the state.

Though Fico and others named in the transcripts tried to downplay the leak, the so-called Case Gorilla became the biggest political scandal in Slovakia’s history to date when a summary of the recordings was made public in late 2011. Fresh revelations from the case have continued over the following decade.

News of the leaks broke out during the run-up to the snap election of 2012. Smer-SD had won the vote two years earlier, but failed to form a coalition, and the centre-right government that took their place soon collapsed. Despite the scandal, Smer-SD won an absolute majority in parliament. Four years later, the party won the general election once again and formed a coalition government with the Slovak-Hungarian party Most-Híd, and the nationalistic SNS.

But while Fico had survived one scandal, the fallout from the murders of Kuciak and  Kušnírová would prove his (temporary) downfall.

The fall

Their killings, on 21 February 2018, shook the foundations of the Slovak Republic. Police announced that Kuciak’s investigations were most likely the motive for the murders, the first time a journalist had been assassinated for their work in the country’s history.

A week later,  tens of thousands of people gathered in Bratislava and 27 other cities and towns around the country to demand Fico’s resignation. As public anger built, the crowds swelled, and by early March more than 60,000 people turned out in Bratislava alone, more than the protests that toppled Czechoslovakia’s communist dictatorship in 1989.

Protesters hold signs during an anti-government demonstration demanding a change in government in Bratislava, Slovakia, 16.03.2018. Photo: Ventura / Shutterstock

Much of the anger was directed against Fico himself. The prime minister had long had a hostile relationship with the media, which had exposed myriad scandals inside his party over the years. On one occasion Fico publicly branded reporters “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”.

Karolína Farská, one of the protest organisers who today coordinates a platform for the safety of journalists, said Fico fostered a culture of impunity that meant those close to the government felt above the law.

“For years, [the government] created the environment of ‘our people’ – an environment in which when someone orders the murder of a journalist, he does not expect that there will be a problem,” she said.

Fico tried to fight back, even starting conspiracy theories suggesting that the protests were orchestrated by the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

But the pressure was too great. On 15 March, Fico resigned as prime minister. For years to come, he would describe the events of that spring as a coup d’état. Even after handing in his resignation, he remained defiant.

“You can relax. I’m not going anywhere. I intend to be an active head of my party,” Fico told the president as he handed in his resignation.

Smer-SD stayed in power for the next two years but suffered heavy losses in the 2020 election. Centre-right parties, led by the populist Ordinary People and Independent Personalities movement (OĽaNO), took power, declaring they would “untie” the hands of the police to go after the untouchables that had flourished under Fico.

In 2020, many believed that Fico was done.

The twilight

Soon after the election, the fallout began. Over the following months and years, Slovak law enforcement made a wave of arrests targeting those previously considered “our people”.

More than 130 people – including judges, police officers, secret service agents, tax administration officials, prosecutors, and powerful business tycoons – have come under investigation for crimes related to corruption. To date, more than 40 of them have been found guilty.

In April 2022, Fico was charged with abuse of public office and leading an organised crime group that allegedly included the former president of the police force, Tibor Gašpar, and his relative, oligarch Norbert Bödör.

According to investigators, the men used their power to appoint loyal officials in the state administration and law enforcement while Fico was prime minister. They then allegedly used the network to enrich themselves by manipulating public contracts, taking bribes to stop law enforcement investigations and threatening smaller businessmen with tax or police probes.

Meanwhile, the investigators charged, Fico used the organisation to illegally unearth the secrets of his political opponents, which he would weaponise against them.

All three men rejected the findings of the investigation, which Fico described as a “witch hunt”.

But the operation – codenamed Súmrak, or Twilight – hit a roadblock when it came to taking Fico to court. Because he was still a sitting MP at the time, investigators needed Slovakia’s parliament to revoke Fico’s immunity before he could be taken into pre-trial detention.

The ruling centre-right coalition, led by the anti-establishment party OĽaNO, was already plagued by infighting when the matter was put to a vote in May 2022. Even though they had won the previous election with promises to root out corruption from Fico’s era, several MPs in the coalition abstained and the vote failed, plunging the government further into crisis.

That November, the prosecutor general – an OĽaNO appointee – scrapped the charges against Fico and his alleged accomplices. A month later, the government lost a vote of no confidence in parliament, and a snap election was called for September 2023.

The rebirth

While the “anti-Smer” government was consumed by infighting, Fico used his years in the cold to regain popularity. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, it proved the perfect vehicle for the former prime minister to stoke anger against those who had ousted him.

Defying lockdown restrictions, Smer-SD organised street protests against the government. In public comments, Fico slammed compulsory vaccination as a “disgusting fascist idea” and claimed the common flu was more dangerous than COVID-19.

Again and again, he appeared on disinformation channels that spread COVID conspiracies and Russian propaganda. He even gave an “interview” to notorious Slovak white supremacist and antisemite Danny Kollar, who has three international warrants for his arrest for doxxing and far-right extremism.

Fico himself increasingly employed more radical vocabulary, targeting liberals, progressives, refugees, “gender ideology” and the LGBT community. It didn’t take long before Czech media dubbed the onetime left-wing politician a “populist extremist”.  

Fico was also helped by one of his closest allies, Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orbán. An investigation by media outlet VSquare found Orbán’s key campaign operatives had secretly advised Fico on his political strategy in the run-up to the 2023 elections, in which Smer-SD campaigned against illegal immigration.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 22, 2024. Photo: Johanna Geron / Reuters / Forum

Meanwhile, ads created by the Hungarian government, railing against migration that targeted Slovakia and several other countries, were viewed some 1.8 million times on YouTube. According to Hungarian investigative portal Direkt36, they could have reached between 29 per cent and 33 per cent of the Slovak population with those ads.

It worked.

In 2023, Smer-SD won the Slovak elections again, forming a new coalition led by Fico that includes once again the nationalist SNS and Hlas-SD – a party that originally split from Smer after the 2020 election defeat. It remains in power today.

The vengeance

In 2021, a fresh wiretapping scandal engulfed Fico’s allies. Among the recordings of powerful men planning how to deflect criminal investigations and vowing reprisals against enemies, one of Fico’s statements stood out: he is always “saving ten percent of [his] energy for vengeance”, he told a group of politicians and lawyers during a confidential meeting.

His plans soon became apparent after his new government took office on 25 October 2023.

Two days later, the new minister of interior suspended the police investigators from the elite National Crime Agency unit, which had investigated many of the politically charged cases surrounding Fico and people close to him.

Fico’s government also abolished the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which had been home to many of the prosecutors who had supervised those cases. The two prosecutors who were overseeing the investigation into Kuciak and Kušnírová’s murders were reassigned to other departments in March 2024, and resigned the following month.

Despite huge protests in several Slovak cities, the parliament also passed the new criminal code, which greatly reduced punishments for economic crimes and corruption, and shrank the statute of limitations for bringing charges. (The reform – which would greatly benefit those under investigation for corruption from Fico’s previous term – is currently suspended by the Constitutional Court.)

Then there was the media.

Fico stopped any communication with several big media outlets in the country, branding them “enemy media” and threatening to bar their reporters from entering the Government Office.

The most influential tabloid was bought by a financial group considered close to Smer-SD days just days after the election. And the owners of Slovakia’s largest private TV station, Markíza, are reportedly now pushing the journalists not to report too critically on the new government because of their business interests in the public sector.

The government, meanwhile, is preparing a new law that would abolish the public broadcaster and reestablish it in a way that politicians would have much more control over its output.

The blame

For many years, Brussels turned a blind eye to Fico’s increasingly fiery rhetoric. Despite his populist, anti-immigration stance he was still considered a pro-EU and pro-NATO partner on the international scene.

Under his leadership, Slovakia joined the Schengen Area (2007), and the eurozone (2009). When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, it was Fico’s government that established a reverse flow of natural gas to help its eastern neighbour.

Unlike his ally, Orbán, Fico has never blocked any of the bloc’s resolutions – including those condemning Russia – and has voted in line with the rest of the leaders.

The article was originally published on ftm.eu 

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Tomáš Madleňák

Tomáš Madleňák is a Slovak journalist who has worked for the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak since 2020. He is based in Bratislava.