As soul searching in Britain continues over Boris Johnson’s alleged proximity to a slice of cake, a different sort of rule-breaking has apparently been going on in Slovakia. The country’s former leader Robert Fico has been charged by police with leading an organised crime gang from his prime ministerial office.
The Slovak police’s ‘Twilight’ operation, investigating corruption at the highest level of politics, saw Fico’s former interior minister Robert Kaliňák taken into custody last week over fears that he would intimidate witnesses. Fico himself is likely to be arrested as soon as his parliamentary immunity is waived.
The allegations against the former prime minister and his right-hand man are shocking. It's claimed that they used their power to discredit opponents, operating a mafia state that stretched into the police and tax office and in which oligarchy thrived.
Fico's reign came crashing down in 2018 after the murder of a journalist investigating links between his government and the 'Ndrangheta mafia group. Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were both shot dead after the journalist linked an assistant of Fico (formerly a Miss Universe contestant) with an Italian cocaine smuggler. Kuciak suggested the Calabria-based organised crime syndicate was involved in a conspiracy to steal EU money from Slovakia.
The precise links between the 'Ndrangheta's operations and Slovak politicians remain murky, but it's claimed members of Fico's administration facilitated the fraudulent distribution of EU money in exchange for hefty mediation fees. Meanwhile Slovak businessman Marian Kočner, who claimed to have received a promise of 'holy peace' from Fico in criminal investigations, has been accused of ordering the hit on Kuciak. The businessman, who in 2019 was listed on the global Magnitsky sanctions list for 'serious human rights abuses', was found not guilty of the charges in 2020 but is now being retried. The political turmoil caused by Kuciak's murder led Fico to resign as prime minister and he is now leader of the opposition.
The charge sheet against him is long, but that doesn't mean his impending arrest is universally welcomed. Fico is known for a Trump-like persona and open disdain for mainstream media, earning him passionate support in Slovakia’s rural areas. Yet the Twilight investigation suggests that behind Fico’s brusque exterior lurks a manipulative criminal whose misuse of power puts Central Europe’s other so-called ‘rule of law’ miscreants firmly in the shade.
One of the targets of Fico’s alleged smear campaign was ex-president Andrej Kiska. Three witnesses have said that in late 2017, the leaders of the Slovak government discussed Kiska’s tax returns with the chief of police. Fico was apparently determined to find evidence that Kiska’s presidential campaign in 2014 was funded illegally.
Other alleged targets of Fico’s corrupt campaign are now in the highest positions of government, including Igor Matovič, who led the coalition which defeated Fico’s party in 2020 elections. This leaves the investigation open to doubt: Matovič is minister of finance. How could Fico have run a criminal operation of smears and string-pulling if one of his alleged victims is now running the country? Those inclined towards Fico can claim that what he is being accused of is, in fact, what’s being done to him.
Fico has already latched on to this argument, decrying the police’s latest steps as ‘the end of democracy.’ He has said ‘the list of victims is evidence that this is political revenge’ and accused the government of resorting to ‘the dirtiest fascist tactics… of which the Nazis of the 1930s would not be ashamed.’
His claim will go down well with the many Slovaks who share his distrust of mainstream pro-western media. Slovakia is deeply divided between town and country, and while metropolitan urbanites from the capital Bratislava find their political hero in female president Zuzana Čaputová, Fico is a talisman for those sceptical of Slovakia’s integration into the western international order.
War in Ukraine has brought this distrust of the West to the fore. While the government has been bullish in opposing Russian aggression, polling suggests a third of Slovaks believe the war was provoked by the West. Dive into Slovakia’s ‘alternative’ Facebook news scene and you find a myriad of bizarre theories about the war, often linking Slovak ultra-nationalism with hazy notions of Greater Russia. Slovakia also emerged as one of the European countries most sceptical about Covid vaccines. Fico positioned himself as the figurehead of the anti-vax and anti-lockdown movement and was famously arrested in late 2021 for organising an illegal anti-lockdown rally. He told his supporters that Covid vaccines are 'chemistry that just make money for pharmaceutical companies.'
No surprises, then, that he has portrayed the charges now brought against him as yet another conspiracy; railing against the investigation, he claimed to be surprised not to have been accused of physical violence or rape as well.
While a failure to convict would be catastrophic for Slovakia’s anti-corruption office, success might be even worse. Many of Fico’s supporters will believe his version of events all the more if he is handed a jail sentence. When former Interior Minister Kaliňák was taken into custody last week, he grinned like a Cheshire cat while brandishing his handcuffs in front of reporters.
Fico has long implored his supporters to distrust the authorities. Now those authorities are coming for him. Who they choose to trust may prove to be the great Slovak dividing line in the coming years.