'Little Slavic tiger' Slovakia marred by murder, organized crime, street protests and intrigue

Professional hitmen, deadly bullets to the head, mayhem, enormous crowds marching in anger, a government in meltdown, and behind it all, apparently, the ‘Ndrangheta, the ferocious Calabrian mafia. But this is not Italy. This is little Slovakia, a country of just 5.4 million nestled in central Europe, sharing borders with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Austria.

The murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, has galvanized the public and forced the PM out of office

Massive street protests in Slovakia over the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kusnirova forced former Prime Minister Robert Fico out of office. The protesters are demanding an independent investigation into the murders and new, trustworthy government that will not include people suspected of corruption (Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE)

Professional hitmen, deadly bullets to the head, mayhem, enormous crowds marching in anger, a government in meltdown, and behind it all, apparently, the 'Ndrangheta, the ferocious Calabrian mafia.

But this is not Italy. This is little Slovakia, a country of just 5.4 million nestled in central Europe, sharing borders with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Austria.

Once it was part of Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovakia was part of the communist empire. The empire crumbled, and  Slovakia became independent on Jan. 1, 1993. It joined the European Union in 2004.

'Little Slavic tiger'

Life improved. Prime Minister Robert Fico took to calling his country "a little Slavic tiger." It is now a tiger in the mire, covered with the mud of murder and corruption.

Fico, it turns out, was at the heart of the problem. Or, more precisely, it was his decision to hire Maria Troskova as his government assistant in 2015 that set the sad and sordid story in motion. She came recommended by the secretary of a government security council for whom she had worked briefly.

Fico announced his resignation earlier this week, following Kuciak's assassination in February. The journalist was investigating corruption. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)

Troskova was 27 and had once been a contestant in the Miss Universe contest. She had no obvious qualifications to be a prime ministerial assistant and Fico refused to offer any details about her duties. She did, however, have connections.

She had once worked as an assistant to a former politician, Pavol Rusko, who owned a television station. He was recently arrested for allegedly hiring an assassin to kill his business partner in the 1990s.

She also knew Antonino Vadala, an Italian businessman who owned a network of agricultural companies in Slovakia. In fact she had been his business partner.

The hunt leads to murder

That partnership set a Slovak journalist, Jan Kuciak, on an investigative hunt. He discovered that Vadala was well known to the Italian police. They had identified him as a member of 'Ndrangheta, an organized crime group, and a likely drug "broker" for its international trade. 

Vadala was also caught on wiretaps discussing where to hide a drug trafficker and murderer who was later caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Kuciak was working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a multi-country co-operative. But before he could publish his findings, he and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were found in their house on Feb. 25. He was shot in the chest and she in the head, authorities said. The killers appeared to be professionals. 

Kuciak and his fiancee were due to be married in May. They were both found shot in the head. (Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters)

The country was stunned. For those old enough to remember, it brought back memories of the blood-spattered 1990s under the authoritarian but corrupt government of Vladimir Meciar.

"In those days there were cadavers in the streets. Car bombs were exploding every week," Slovak philosopher Fedor Blascak, told the Czech paper Lidové Noviny. "People are terrified of returning to that brutal and stupid time."

Prime Minister reacts

The day after the murders, to head off criticism, Fico went on national television and offered a €1 million reward (about $1.6 million) for information about those who ordered the killings.  He had the bills right there for good measure, piled on a table.

Fico quickly announced a reward for information on the murders but the publicity stunt backfired. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)

As theatre, it backfired. "Usually it's the Russian mafia that puts on that kind of show," Arpad Soltesz, a Slovak journalist, told Le Monde. "Not the head of a government in the European Union. That level of cynicism enraged everyone."

That rage filled the streets. On March 2, the day of the funerals of Kuciak and his fiancee, what is believed to be the largest crowd since the fall of communism filled the streets. People demanded a government cleanout.

The implosion began within days. Troskova stepped aside. Two ministers and the security council secretary resigned.

But Fico clung on. He attacked Slovakia's ceremonial president, Andrej Kiska, who had called for early elections, and suggested Kiska was part of a vague international conspiracy because he had met the billionaire financier George Soros in New York. 

Soros is the founder of the Open Society Foundation to promote democracy in countries emerging from autocracy. Fico called him "a man of doubtful reputation."

Fico ousted

It didn't work. Fico was forced from office earlier this week but clung to his post as leader of his party, insisting he would continue to play an active political role. The following day, tens of thousands of people again filled the streets demanding new elections.

On March 2, the day of the funerals of Kuciak and his fiancee, what is believed to be the largest crowd since the fall of communism marched through the streets of as people demanded a new government. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)

And the 'Ndrangheta? As many Slovaks feared, the murder investigation seemed to be going nowhere. A delegation of European MPs called for Europol to step in to take it over.

Whether the murderers and their bosses will ever be caught is somewhat secondary to the main problem, according Roberto Saviano. He is the author of Gomorrah, an investigative book on the 'Ndrangheta. Since its publication in 2006 he has been in hiding, under Italian police protection.

Organized crime's long history

Saviano underlines in an article published on May 2 in the Italian daily La Repubblica that the Calabrian mafia have long had tight links with Slovakia going back to communist times. The 'Ndrangheta particularly liked a cheaper, more lethal version of the Kalashnikov submachine gun invented in Czechoslovakia. With the breakup of the country ,'Ndrangheta men bought thousands of these weapons from military depots and made a tidy profit selling them.

This was one of the weapons used by the killers in the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 12 people in January 2015 in Paris.

What the mafias couldn't do under communism in Slovakia was buy property. That changed in the 1990s and they quickly moved in.

The bodies of Kuciak and his fiancee were discovered on Feb. 26, 2018. (Aktuality.sk via Associated Press)

Saviano says that Slovakia, and several of its neighbours, are transit countries for 'Ndrangheta heroin coming from Afghanistan.

Bribes, payoffs and friends with jobs in high places kept the system out of the public eye. When journalists started getting too close, other means were called for.

"They are sending a message," Saviano said. "You are all in our sights. We can wipe out people like you."

It seems unlikely that a change of ministers, or even a change of government, can root that out.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova were both shot in the head. In fact, he was shot in the chest and she in the head, authorities said.
    Mar 19, 2018 12:24 PM ET