- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Thousands took to the streets of Bratislava to protest corruption and call for the resignation of Slovakia’s interior minister, a close ally of the prime minister, Robert Fico. The march was planned not by opposition politicians, but by secondary-school students.
A pair of 18-year-olds, Karolína Farská and Dávid Straka, decided to organize the protests after being inspired by anti-corruption protests in Romania earlier this year. And organize they did: on Tuesday evening local time, roughly 5,000 turned out on the streets in Bratislava for one of the largest demonstrations since Fico came to power in 2012. The primary target was Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, who has resisted resignation despite business ties to a real estate developer under investigation for potential tax fraud.
Corruption is a persistent problem not only in Slovakia, but across Central Eastern Europe, according to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report. And Transparency International ranks Slovakia 54th out of 176 countries on corruption.
The issue seems to be gaining traction among voters and politicians. Slovak President Andrej Kiska, a political rival of Fico’s, publicly supported the protesters. “If we remain silent, nothing will change, therefore I challenge people to speak if they see something happening that isn’t right,” he said. Fico himself, in the past few weeks, was talking about fighting corruption, as Slovak journalist Andrej Matisak explained to Foreign Policy. “It was never a topic for Fico. But this is a big topic for the Slovak society,” Matisak said.
Still, there’s the ingrained perception that, though corruption is a problem, no one is able to catch the “big fishes”, Matisak said. “Sadly, it seems people are right about this.” And so it’s evidently fallen to very young people to do something about it. “Nie je nám to jedno,” they chanted at their march. “We still care.”
“This is the first generation that became politically conscious as EU citizens,” Zselyke Csaky’s Freedom House said. She noted that young people played a role in anti-corruption protests in Hungary and Romania too. “After several years of silence and many choosing the ‘exit option’ — resulting in increasing rates of emigration — the new generation is now making its voices heard,” Csaky said.
And will the government listen? Perhaps not. Kalinak isn’t expected to resign, though such scandals could undermine Fico’s government in the lead up to November’s regional elections. Protests could continue. The government could put additional anti-corruption measures in place, adding to its banning of companies with “unclear ownership” from doing business with the Slovak state. Fico issued a statement saying his government takes corruption seriously and will continue to do so.
Perhaps even a small change in behavior of “big fishes” could be considered a success, Matisak mused. Even just one that made them feel “they are not totally untouchable.”
Photo credit: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images