BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia’s national police chief has agreed to step down by the end of May, Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini said on Tuesday, yielding to public pressure for his dismissal in the wake of the murder of a journalist that has rocked the country for weeks.
Tens of thousands of Slovaks have been protesting since the February murder of Jan Kuciak, who investigated corruption and links between politicians and businessmen, and his fiancée. The protesters have been demanding guarantees of an independent investigation of the case.
The demonstrations - the biggest in decades in the EU member country - led long-term prime minister Robert Fico to resign along with his cabinet last month. Police President Tibor Gaspar was another top official on the protesters’ list.
“I see the police president as a competent professional ... But I see he was the target of enormous political pressure, even attacks on all the police force,” said new Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.
“We agreed that in order to calm the tensions and free the police from media pressure, he will resign by the end of May.”
Pellegrini is a member of Fico’s Smer party, which has been losing voter support in recent weeks, although the next election is not due for two years.
The new cabinet is made up of the same three parties as the previous administration.
Fico still leads the party, giving him a behind-the-scenes position of informal power similar to that which Law and Justice Party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski holds in Poland.
In power for 10 of the last 12 years, Fico has avoided disputes with Brussels over the rule of law unlike neighbouring Poland and Hungary. He has positioned Slovakia as a ‘pro-European island’ among euro-sceptics.
Protesters say Fico’s cabinets failed to fight sleaze in politics, however, and they fear that the government reshuffle has not gone far enough.
While they also sought the departure of the police chief, Pellegrini said Gaspar’s departure would have little effect.
“Gaspar’s resignation will not have any impact on the investigation of (Kuciak’s) murder as the police chief has not had any influence on the investigation so far,” Pellegrini said.
Nobody has been charged in connection with the murder, which the prosecutor overseeing the case said was likely a contract killing.
Kuciak’s last story, published posthumously, investigated links between Italian businessmen in Slovakia, one of whom has since been charged in cases involving drug trafficking in Italy and abuse of EU subsidies in Slovakia, and two Slovaks who later went on to work in Fico’s government office. All have denied any wrongdoing.
Some of Kuciak’s reporting also dealt with deals between the government and Slovakia’s biggest privately owned security firm, whose owner is related to Gaspar. The police chief has denied wrongdoing or any conflict of interest.
Gaspar’s previous reluctance to quit forced Interior Minister Tomas Drucker to announce his own resignation on Monday, just three weeks after taking the job. Drucker said he did not have grounds to fire Gaspar and could not square such a move with the public pressure for him to go.
Pellegrini said he hoped to find “within days” a replacement for Drucker who will in turn pick a caretaker police chief.
President Andrej Kiska, a long-time adversary of Fico, said Gaspar’s departure was the least the government could do to ease the situation.
“A new minister has to strengthen the guarantees of an independent and impartial investigation of the murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, as well as numerous (other) unsolved scandals.”
Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by William Maclean and Hugh Lawson