Stronger than evil

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Photo by Peter Tkac | Demonstration in Bratislava, March 2nd 2018 | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

“This murder has opened many issues not taken care of for a long time. We should never forget Jan Kuciak’s death. It’s a tragic mark in the history of Slovakia. But it has a potential to change something in the country.”

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Patryk Szczepaniak: Jan Kuciak, an investigative reporter and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were murdered a month ago. What has been happening to the Slovak society since then?

Michal Hvorecký*Last Friday we had the biggest demonstration in Bratislava until now. 65.000 people took to the streets. Demonstrations are getting bigger. And they have started to be more successful. From the East, in the city of Bardejov close to the Polish border, all the way to the West with the Czech border. 30 cities in Slovakia demonstrated with us.

Who are the protesters?

Main organizers are only nineteen-year-olds. Young people, students, teachers, workers are active. People in their 20s, 30s who are learning what democracy is. It’s unusual here that demonstrations are happening all across the country. It’s a mixed population. One of my friends lives in a little town in the middle of the country called Žiar nad Hronom. It’s a rather right-wing and nationalistic area. Still, they had organized events for 200 people. Amazing for such a small town.

Artists are active, too. Especially actors. Some of them are well known from television. Similar scenario happened during Velvet Revolution in 1989. Actors were the ones who started it and helped to spread the message across the country.

How do people organize themselves?

Headquarters of the protests are in Bratislava. There is also an initiative Reakciaumelcov.sk „Reaction of artists” which creates visual materials, logos, Facebook banners. They send it to everybody in need. They have a transparent bank account – everybody can see the names of the donators and amount of money donated. My wife and I, we also sent money to support the organization. On Friday I was astonished. They had huge projection screens for everybody to heard and see the speeches. 65 thousand people – it’s mass. You need good visuals and sound system. There is a lot of hard work behind it.

What’s different about last Friday’s protest?

We’re experiencing a creation of a new generation of civic society in Slovakia. It’s fascinating. No-one would have said three weeks ago that the prime minister Robert Fico and the interior minister Robert Kaliňák, would step down after 12 years in power (both held those posts in 2006-2010 and 2012-2018 – VSquare). They’re both out of politics for good. Hopefully.

What are the demands of the people?

People demand elections earlier than in two years. Although the prime minister resigned, they kept all officials in their positions. Fico nominated his deputy in the party, Peter Pellegrini as a successor. Corrupted interior minister Robert Kaliňák had to step down a few days ago, too. Government just wants somehow to uphold until 2020 elections. People don’t accept it. Especially, when the ministry of interior stays in Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party’s hands. This means no chance for anti-corruption agenda and there will be another scandal sooner or later. On Tuesday President Andrej Kiska refused the first nomination for the new government.

Have there been any changes after the first protest?

The first protest was to commemorate the death of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova. The second one started to be more political. Last Friday we had a clearly political demonstration against corruption and injustice. People crave for more lawful and democratic state. People want a change in politics.

Photo by Peter Tkac | Demonstration in Bratislava, March 2nd 2018 | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

If you have earlier elections, will it change anything?

Maybe they will be held in summer or September or October. But I’m really skeptical about the results.

Why?

There are two parties rising in the polls. The first one is the People’s Party – Our Slovakia, ran by Marian Kotleba. It is a neo-Nazi based party and the most right-wing one in the Slovakian parliament. The second one, Sme rodina – We Are Family, is also populistic conservative right-wing. Both parties’ leaders are xenophobic, chauvinistic and anti-immigrant.

These two parties are now adopting voters of the ruling SMER party. SMER has a huge electorate, up to 25% of the society. 10% of SMER voters actually like them because they are conservative, more right-wing and populistic. Those people won’t switch to more democratic and pro-EU party. They are switching to more radical ones.

Does the opposition participate in the protests? 

Opposition is out of it. There has not been even one member of the opposition on the stage so far.

Why?

People don’t want them. Politics is too corrupted. On the stage we had activists, people from NGOs and artists, but until now no politicians.

People don’t want the opposition on the stage?

There is such mistrust in politics… People don’t want politicians on the stage. They don’t want them to speak there. But at the end, we have to elect somebody. We are a parliamentary democracy.

Actually, I’d wish to have some politicians on the stage. People are afraid that it could be corruptive for the whole movement. But on Sunday, there was a TV discussion with Kotleba. He said: „Guys, I have a solution for the crisis. I am the solution for the crisis”. He claims he is the one against the rotten system. „I’m the savior”, he pointed. This is not what we want.

photo courtesy of Tomas Halasz

I saw some photos and videos of the Friday protest. It seems that people really demand new elections now.

Yes. On one hand, it was clear on Friday that people want to go to vote. People want to vote SMER out. Which is their right and it’s ok.

But on the other hand?

Who will come next? That is the question for today. If I could have a wish, I would suggest a government of technocrats until the Election Day. We should have someone trustworthy, independent and maybe non-partisan ministers of interior and justice. We need leadership able to win the confidence of people back.

Is it likely to happen?

If we take nominations only from SMER, people will not accept it. For sure people will continue to protest.

Any other scenarios available?

I wish that young people, who organize the demonstrations, could create election lists for upcoming elections. There is a potential. The problem is time. If we have early elections, they will have no time for a real campaign. You need at least 5% of votes to be elected. I don’t think that it would be possible for them. They’d have to start with an extremely strong offensive now, with coalitions and support from celebrities. Easter and summer holidays are coming. It (momentum – VSqure) would vanish.

Marian Kotleba and Boris Kollar have 10% of electorate each and it’s rising. They both hold stable positions. Now they’re using frustration and emotions of the people to gain popular vote. We need new parties. We need leaders. Otherwise, the potential of the protests will disappear and we will have right and conservative switch in Slovakia.

Why did it take a death of a young journalist to wake up and shake the society?

It’s not only the murderer of the journalist. It all started seven years ago with the Gorilla case –  a scandal with recordings of meetings between politicians and oligarchs being published. They were discussing who would be elected and who would earn bigger or smaller money. A lot of frustration started at that time. Unfortunately, Robert Fico won elections thanks to this case. From that moment people started to realize that behind a successful country, there is huge corruption.

Last year we had another oligarch scandal. It was connected to the prime minister and interior minister. (Robert Kaliňák was tied to a real estate developer under investigation for potential tax fraud. Kaliniak refused to resign from the office – Vsquare). Anti-corruption demonstrations started to be organized by teenagers. Same people who organize current demonstrations. Anti-corruption movement was rather small then. Around three to five thousand people usually gathered to protest. They soon ran out of energy. People were tired, because of lack of change.

Has this murder become a sparkle of change?

Yes, absolutely. It was a sparkle which has changed the society very radically. At the beginning people were deeply shocked. Slovakia is a secure country. Or was. Poland has much more right-wing-based violence, much more physical attacks on migrants. We don’t have it in Slovakia. We felt safe here. It shocked the society. People demand to know who murdered Ján and Martina. The protests started with this message.

This murders have opened many issues not taken care of for a long time. And simply the government was too arrogant and authoritarian. After migration crisis, SMER became more radical. It transferred from social democrat to nationalism, chauvinism, spreading hatred. This party radicalized itself and lost touch with reality.

What is the perception of journalists in Slovakia?

Image of journalism in Slovakia isn’t positive. Journalists were mostly hated by Fico and also other politicians. Fico called them „anti-Slovak prostitutes” „idiots” and else. Now, it doesn’t matter what politicans will say. Value of free journalism and freedom of speech is more appreciated. People really have started to care about it. They’ve been reminded that this is the fundament of democracy.

What was the reaction of journalists and other media in Slovakia? 

We have unusual solidarity among journalist. Aktuality.sk decided to publish the last story of Jan Kuciak everywhere where it was wanted. It wasn’t about clicks or money. They wanted to raise awareness about Kuciak’s work. We, journalists and authors, are united as never before. Media outlets like „SME”, „Dennik N” and „Aktuality.sk” are fighting together to continue the work of Jan Kuciak. They all say, „we will continue investigative journalism”.

What does it mean to be European in Slovakia right now?

Slovakia was the most enthusiastic country when it joined the European Union. We were always outside of Europe. Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were already clear about joining EU. We weren’t. We were a black hole in the 90s. We were postponing the accession talks for a long time. When we finally entered EU, it was euphoria. We lost it on the way. Nevertheless, people admit that we are unable to independently deal with corruption in Slovakia. We need European help and investigation. It is good that we’re not left alone. Hashtag #AllForJan surprised people. It’s an internationally-recognized story. Media came here from all around the world. Slovak people are fascinated when somebody wants to know more about them. We are a small country, small nation, mostly unknown and often mistaken with Slovenia.

„Láska je silnejšia ako zlomoc” – somebody anonymously painted it on the doors of Jan’s and Martina’s house. Is it an echo of hope for a good change? 

It means, „love is stronger than evil”. There are many more signs like this. Yesterday I saw a huge billboard on aktuality.sk headquarters saying: „You cannot kill the truth. We will continue Kuciak’s work” and #AllForJan. A strong message. We should never forget his death. It’s a tragic mark in the history of Slovakia. But it has a potential to change in the country.

 Born 1976, Michal Hvorecky is the author of nine books of fiction translated into ten languages. He was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He works at the Goethe Institute and is a contributor on culture and politics to various daily papers and magazines in Slovakia, Austria and Germany. He lives with his family in Bratislava. Photo courtesy of Jozef Jakubčo.