They Spent Months Protesting Corruption. Now What?

Young people in Central and Eastern Europe took to the streets in a quixotic fight. Will they now face a winter of despair?

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — This week, for the third time, thousands of high school and university students swarmed the streets of Bratislava, the capital and largest city of Slovakia (it is still quite small). They were, once again, protesting corruption. They were, once again, calling for the resignation of the interior minister, reputed to have ties to shady businessmen, as well as a top cop and a top prosecutor. They were, once again, bound to be disappointed. Everybody is still in office and going nowhere fast.

Which raises a question: After a season of fervent, heartfelt protests that have pounded the cobblestones from Bratislava to Bucharest, giving a sclerotic system a good shake — what now? How can the resistance find something to stand for? What happens to anti-corruption protesters after the anti-corruption protests wither away?

A few weeks before the latest demonstration, I met with a pair of Slovak protesters in Urban House, a hip, spacious coffee shop and bar in Bratislava’s Old Town, which looks not unlike the main square through which Belle traipsed while singing about how there must be more than this provincial life. David Straka, a high school senior who picked a spot in the back corner of the bar on a raised platform, was one of the masterminds behind the anti-corruption protests, and he had the good sense at that point in the day to order tea (I did, too). His friend, Sam Klacman, was able to show off his Texas-polished English and his intimate knowledge of how to use Urban House tea strainers without making a terrible mess (though he ordered an espresso).

They’re part of the cohort of young, urban, restless activists who have riled up the status quo and antagonized plenty of older Slovaks. Part of the first generation born and raised inside the European Union, Straka, Klacman, and their peers have a different set of expectations about what their government is meant to be. But across Central and Eastern Europe, those expectations are now slamming into reality, sometimes with bitter aftershocks.

The first Slovak protest, back in April, started organically, they said. Straka and his friend Karolina Farska decided they wanted to do something to try to hold their government accountable. They didn’t expect thousands to clamor to join, or for news of the protest to spread on social media. But it did.

And the Slovak government did begin to speak of the importance of fighting corruption. But Interior Minister Robert Kalinak didn’t step down.

And so, in early June, the teens went back to the Slovak streets again.

And Kalinak still didn’t step down, and so they went back out again, this time collecting signatures for a petition for parliament, too.

Some were impressed that teenagers — and they are truly teenagers, clad in skinny jeans, Straka sometimes laughing nervously, Klacman turning from the interview to check his phone — were the power behind the protests. Others were scornful, especially those with memories of harder times in decades past.

“What they usually say is we are young, we know nothing about life. We’ve never experienced anything,” Klacman said.

“The main argument is not that we are young, but it builds on that — it’s that we are manipulated,” Straka said across the table. He asked me to guess who is supposed to be doing the manipulating; the answer, as it so often is in this part of the world, is George Soros and the United States (for the record, I guessed correctly).

“And of course, the political opposition,” Klacman added.

Their youthful enthusiasm is endearing. But some also think it dangerous. Peter Kunder, director of Alliance Fair-play, an anti-corruption NGO in Bratislava, agreed that “it is nice that young people are protesting.” But he worried that they are raising expectations that are only going to be dashed — adding more disillusion to a system already rife with it.

“We don’t see how that frustration can be released. They are protesting for things that are impossible to achieve. There’s no way out,” he said. People who do not work day after day fighting corruption do not necessarily realize how terribly slowly things actually change. That, Kunder worried, could push more people to abandon their faith in democracy and turn to extremist politics, as is happening all over Europe.

“The students still believe that what they are asking for is going to happen,” Kunder said.“The government will not do that.”

Indeed, the government hasn’t gotten rid of Kalinak, an ally of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. And, lip service aside, the official fight against corruption has been half-hearted. Were Straka and Klacman and their peers disappointed they didn’t get what they wanted? And now what will they do?

“At first, I felt discouraged, because I expected more, you know? As a young person,” Straka said, laughing at himself. NGOs, at least, tell him they are now in a better position to negotiate new laws, even if the real rub with corruption is enforcement of existing laws. (Slovakia already has relatively robust anti-corruption legislation.) “So there are some smaller things, which are good. But the main things haven’t actually happened.”

“We cannot be satisfied with these things, and we have to keep going,” Klacman said.

They just don’t know exactly how. They hope to get 100,000 signatures for their petition to force a discussion in parliament (they had 72,000 when we met, though some didn’t fill out their addresses correctly). They weren’t sure if this third protest would turn out to be their last protest, or who would take over their work, or even if it was the sort of torch that even could be passed on.

What about running for office themselves?

Klacman said he would only want to get involved at politics at the local level, not in the national jungle. “Not ‘up there,’ but helping the community.”

Straka doesn’t think he wants to get into politics. But it’s too early for him, or any of his cohort, to decide such a thing just yet.

“We’re still too young,” he said.

Emily Tamkin reported from Romania and Slovakia on a transatlantic media fellowship with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Photo credit: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. (@emilyctamkin)