Slovak Protests Highlight Civil Rights Concerns

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Widespread protests in Slovakia aimed at exposing corruption and calling for decency in the country’s politics represent progress for a country that relatively recently overthrew its communist rule, one of its top defense officials says, expressing optimism at its ability to counter the kind of nationalism sweeping across Europe.

Thousands of activists gathered in cities across the country on Friday on the anniversary of the beginning of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the weeks of non-violent protests that led to the dissolution of the one-party communist government of the former Czechoslovakia. Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully separated at the beginning of 1993 in what was called the “Velvet Divorce.”

Demonstrators last week centered their anger on the February killing of journalist Jan Kuciak, who was working on a series of stories about fraud among businessmen with political connections. The slaying of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, triggered the largest streets protests in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution. Police announced in late September the arrests of suspects in the killing of the couple.

Public concern remains that the Slovak government is turning toward the kind of nationalistic crackdowns seen in neighboring countries, like Hungary under the direction of President Viktor Orban.

[ MORE: Hungarians enter an age of anger.]

Kuciak’s killing “was a huge shock for society, and personally for me, too,” Robert Ondrejcsak, state secretary for the Slovak ministry of defense, said on the sidelines of a security conference here. “I think it’s great that people are standing for their values.”

The murder led to a what Ondrejcsak calls a “quasi-collapse” of the government, including the March resignations by the interior minister and the prime minister, Robert Fico, who remains chairman of the ruling Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) political party. Fico enraged protesters last week when he released a video describing some members of the media as ” clowns” and added, “We will win the general elections again and I hope it hits … you really hard.”

Ondrejcsak pushed back on claims of any government involvement in the journalist’s killing, pointing instead to the mafia and organized crime networks that Kuciak had been investigating before his death.

“The most important lesson for me is we need to stand for basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of media,” Ondrejcsak says. “We need to protect those freedoms as much as we can.”

[ MORE: These countries are viewed as the most powerful.]

The secretary added that his focus remains on countering nationalist ideology, which has spread throughout Europe, and finding ways to identify and respond to Russian-backed misinformation campaigns.

More from U.S. News

Slovak Journalist’s Death Underscores Growing Threat to European Press

In Central Europe, a Nationalist Turn to the Right

Memories of a Dissolved Czechoslovakia Stir Ambivalence

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