BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Slovaks rallied on Friday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government following the murder of a journalist that has shocked the central European nation and stoked anger over sleaze in public life.
Investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who was shot dead at home with his fiancee last month, had covered fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen. His last unfinished story looked at Italian businessmen with suspected mafia links operating in Slovakia.
One of the businessmen, who denies having ties to the Italian mafia, had dealings in the past with two people who went on to work in Fico’s office. They have both resigned but deny any connection with the murder.
Nobody has been charged with the murders.
Kuciak’s journalism and then his murder have rekindled public frustration with the government’s failure to tackle graft and cronyism in Slovakia nearly three decades after the fall of communism and 14 years after it joined the European Union.
Fico has led the country of 5.4 million for 10 of the last 12 years and the economy has flourished, but the protesters in the capital Bratislava on Friday - estimated at up to 50,000 by the public broadcaster - chanted “Enough of Fico” and jangled keys just as they did in 1989 anti-communist rallies.
Organisers demanded a thorough investigation of Kuciak’s death and a “new trustworthy government”.
“Politicians in power have lost our trust,” said protester Maria Kuliovska, a 30-year-old mother on maternity leave. “We don’t trust them to guarantee an independent investigation. They have failed to investigate all previous scandals.”
Thousands marched in other Slovak cities, while hundreds of people gathered in cities in Europe and elsewhere.
President Andrej Kiska, a political rival of Fico, has said Slovakia is suffering a crisis of trust and has called for a revamp of the three-party coalition or an early election.
Kiska, Fico and parliamentary speaker Andrej Danko - the country’s three highest officials - failed in talks on Friday to agree a planned written declaration to help defuse tensions.
After their meeting, flanked by the president and prime minister, Danko read a brief statement: “We want society to remain peaceful and calm and (Slovakia’s) top three officials will do their best to prevent the events of recent days from being politically exploited.”
Slovak media called Friday’s protest the biggest since 1989. Some universities let students out early. One of the country’s largest banks, Slovenska Sporitelna of the Austrian group Erste Bank, said it would allow its employees to leave work early to take part.
Police and state officials, including Fico, had warned of potential violence at demonstrations, though there were no reports of disruption.
Fico has accused foreign forces of trying to destabilise Slovakia and has questioned the president’s meetings with financier George Soros in New York last year without any foreign ministry official present.
The attack on the Hungarian-born billionaire echoes those of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has accused Soros of interfering in Hungarian politics.
Fico said he would meet his two coalition partners at the weekend to seek a deal to keep the government in place. He has resisted a call from the Most-Hid party to sack Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, his close ally.
Some analysts say Fico’s coalition could break up, though he might be able to continue leading a minority government with the backing of a far-right party in parliament.
Martin Slosiarik, an analyst at Focus polling agency, said Fico had never faced a crisis on this scale.
“Kuciak’s last story has had a serious impact on people’s trust in the system of government, and the murder of two young people has added a strong moral aspect,” he said.
Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; additional reporting and writing by Jason Hovet; editing by Gareth Jones