In Slovakia, children of the Velvet Revolution lead fight to be 'normal'

A youth-fueled movement has already brought down Slovakia's prime minister. But the tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets aren't stopping until they see evidence that the changes in Bratislava are not just cosmetic.

Sara Miller LLana/The Christian Science Monitor
Marian Kulich hands around a petition for a referendum on fresh elections during a vigil for a murdered journalist in Bratislava, Slovakia, March 23, 2018. Some 25,000 protesters gathered in downtown Bratislava on Friday for a candlelight vigil, the fourth mass gathering in a row.

Marian Kulich is one of tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Slovakia in the biggest show of people power since the Velvet Revolution. What began as an outcry over a young journalist’s murder has in the past month morphed into a mass general movement to end cronyism in this post-communist state.

The call “For A Decent Slovakia,” as the protests have been dubbed, has already taken down three-term Prime Minister Robert Fico and his administration. But Mr. Kulich is determined not to stop there. A change at the top of government is not the time for people to let down their guards, he says. 

On Friday afternoon he joined 25,000 protesters in a candlelight vigil in downtown Bratislava, the fourth mass gathering in a row, in a display of discontent that could be a turning point for the region.

“I have to be here, I can’t stop,” he says, as he passes around a petition for the president to hold a referendum on fresh elections. “When I look at what is happening in this region, I feel very worried about the future.”

As Russia exerts its power and influence over the West, and the European Union struggles to overcome populism and anger at the political establishment, it’s the newest, post-Soviet members that have posed some of the most complex challenges to Brussels in recent years.

Some nations have rolled back democratic checks or allowed unchecked corruption; others have cozied up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The allegations of state capture in Slovakia by the Smer party seemed the lesser challenge – until the February murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak, who had been digging into state corruption and mafia ties, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. For many here the murder, still unsolved, proves how “pathological” corruption has become, says Jozef Bátora, a political science professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, and the reaction to it shows an overwhelming desire for normalcy.

“We have been part of the EU for more than ten years now, it has been almost 30 years since the Velvet Revolution,” Mr. Bátora says. “It is time to be a normal society.”

A new generation of revolutionaries

Young people have taken a leading role in the movement, in large part because they can identify with the victims. Buttons worn on lapels in Bratislava feature a snapshot of the couple. Mr. Kuciak is in a tie, but his baby face reveals his age: he was just 27.

On Friday night students called for an impromptu vigil, in a sign of resistance that they refuse to stand down after a larger nationwide protest was canceled.

“We want a transparent government that we can trust,” says 19-year-old high schooler Bronislava Garčárová. She says she sees her role as a continuation of her parents’ fight against communism and says she is restless for a higher quality of life.

“We young people want to stay in Slovakia but we can’t, we have to go abroad to have a better life,” says Ms. Garcarova. She is planning on studying theater and language at a university in the Czech Republic.

Sara Miller LLana/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters spontaneously marched to Parliament in Bratislava, Slovakia, jangling their keys like this woman here, and calling the ruling party Smer the 'mafia,' March, 23, 2018. Young people have taken a leading role in a movement sparked by the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who had been digging into state corruption and mafia ties, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova.

The disillusionment among young people has boosted the far right in Slovakia as EU enthusiasm has waned. Analysts have worried that the generation, far removed from the struggles against communism and fascism, has failed to learn from the past.

But the protests seem to have underlined how and what youth stand to lose by veering too far from EU norms and standards, says Tomáš Valášek, the Slovak director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “They are 18, or 19, and are saying, ‘I live in an open, borderless Europe, and I can see societies much better managed than ours,’ ” he says. “Yet people are no less hardworking than anyone else out there. They are asking, ‘Why should I not see the benefits of my tax money?’ ”

'Strange things are happening'

In spirit and ethos, the movement “For a Decent Slovakia” has drawn some comparisons to the pro-EU protests in Kiev’s Maidan, except that Slovaks are fighting for accountability inside the bloc, while Ukrainians were fighting to move closer to it.

Still, belonging to the EU, to the dismay of many in the region, has not guaranteed accountability of the democratic process, says Kulich. He hasn’t taken his pin of Kuciak and Ms. Kusnirova off since they were manufactured, days after the couple’s bodies were found in their house Feb. 25.

Kulich was a teenager during the Velvet Revolution. In the 1990s he protested with the nation against authoritative Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, whose rule prompted then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call Slovakia a “black hole in the heart of Europe.” He says the fight for democracy is not yet won.

He travels around Eastern Europe for his job in IT, and worries about Mr. Putin’s reach in the post-Soviet sphere, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s concentration of power, the illiberal turn in Poland, and society’s resignation about corruption.

Mr. Fico, who had refused at first to step down, at one point alleged that Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros may have been involved in fueling the protests. Mr. Soros has been the target of populist leaders across Europe.

“Strange things are happening in this region,” Kulich says. “In the Velvet Revolution we thought we were fighting for the end of communism, but we can see how all of the problems today are still rooted in that era.”

There is some concern that Slovakia’s protests could amount to nothing more than a wintry month of discontent that brought down the prime minister but not the system, like in Romania, and that there are few political alternatives.

The canceled march Friday, after peak momentum the week before, divided protesters. “For a Decent Slovakia” organizers say they wanted to stand behind the “normal” constitutional process triggered by Fico’s resignation, and not turn into a generalized voice of anti-establishment sentiment. Instead they want to give the new government under Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini the space to meet expectations.

The newly sworn cabinet won a vote of confidence from Parliament on Monday, but many fear Fico still wields the power, and that the new government is not equipped to lead a fair and competent investigation into Kuciak’s murder. They continue their demand for fresh elections. “Right now the government is winning,” worries Peter Majerčák, a medical school student and Uber driver in Bratislava. “It’s a cosmetic change but not a change in mentality.”

On Friday evening, candles flickered in an icy wind as the silent vigil ended with the singing of the Slovak national anthem. But then protesters spontaneously marched to the doors of parliament, where the mood turned rowdier. “Mafia,” they yelled. “To jail!”

This shows, to many, that this movement won’t be ending soon. Grigorij Mesežnikov, the head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs, says the mood has changed. “We are following you,” he says the protesters are saying. “It is not like it was before. This seems, at this point in time, as a tipping point in the sense that people are no longer accepting the systematic nature of the corrupt regime.”

Hints of that sentiment are everywhere. At the protest, one sign read, “I am still angry.” Perhaps best capturing the mood is a sign taped up outside a storefront. “I don’t not care.” Or as Kulich puts it: “We just want to be normal people, with normal troubles.”

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