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“Living in Slovakia is like being in a spy movie. Fico’s attempted assassination has only intensified this feeling.”

The Slovak underworld had undergone an era change, but the legacy of the bloody '90s still lives on today – according to crime journalist Dávid Barak, with whom we sought to answer why there are this many political assassinations in Slovakia, and why public life is sometimes so violent in Hungary’s northern neighbour.

Last week’s attack on Robert Fico once again proved that assassinations, murders and attempted murders against political and public figures are much more frequent in Slovakia than in other EU countries. Our earlier article covers these violent acts in detail, including the 1995 case when President Michal Kováč’s son was kidnapped with the cooperation of the secret service, and the subsequent explosion that killed Róbert Remiás, one of those involved in the investigation. The story also covers how a few years later, Vladimír Mečiar’s former economic minister was killed in front of his own home. However, it is not only the ‘90s we can mention such sad cases from. We could also recall the 2018 Kuciak murder or the 2022 Bratislava tragedy, originally targeting then-Prime Minister Eduard Heger and ending with the murder of two men.

STR / AFP Former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in Bratislava on April 4, 2004.

Regarding the topic, we issued our questions to crime investigative journalist Dávid Barak, the author of several books on Slovakia’s underworld – such as Buried Truth and Bad Blood, covering the particularly brutal story of the Dunajská Streda mafia. How should we interpret these different cases, do they share a common thread, or is it the differences we should focus on? – we asked the journalist.

According to Barak, one would do well to divide these violent cases into two parts. The first group includes cases from the ’90s, such as the infamous Kovác and Remiás cases. Although it happened later, he also lists here the mysterious death of František Gaulieder, who also had conflicts with Mečiar and former secret service head Ivan Lexa – Gaulieder was then hit by a train. The autopsy revealed tranquilisers in his system, while his family denied that the former parliamentary representative had been taking drugs. The late ’90s also saw the most notorious massacre by the Dunajská Streda mafia: 10 people were killed in Dunajská Streda’s Fontána bar.

These are the cases, this is the era, the first decade of independent Slovakia, when the Slovak secret service, the underworld and politics got deeply intertwined, almost inextricably so.

The other type includes massacres committed by lone wolf-type perpetrators. Unfortunately, Slovakia also provides several examples for this kind, too. For instance, the 2010 massacre of the Devínská Nová Ves housing estate, where a man with an automatic rifle killed eight people. A few years later, a local police officer killed three Roma residents in Hurbanovo. The 2022 Bratislava murder was also committed by a lone attacker. According to the latest information, the attack on Robert Fico also falls into this category. However, it is not excluded that we may learn something new about the latter case in the future.

When asked why Slovak public life has become such a theatre of violence, Dávid Barak cannot provide a single, all-encompassing explanation. “It is certain that the amnesty granted by Václav Havel – hailed by very favourable media coverage – led to the early release of many from Czech and Slovak prisons, providing significant human resources support to the Slovak underworld. However, it is worth noting that by 2016, most of the significant criminals from this era were either in pre-trial detention or had already been convicted.

The mid-2010s, when Lajos Sátor’s Dunajská Streda mafia was also taken down, marks a turning point in the history of Slovakia’s criminal underworld.

SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP Police stand next to a killed man on August 30, 2010, in the suburb of Devínská Nová Ves in Bratislava, where a man armed with a shotgun opened fire in the street, killing six people and injuring 19 others.

Barak adds that by then, the underworld leaders of the ’90s had been caught and deactivated, and the era of classic mafia methods and vanishing bodies was over. The perpetrators of the Kuciak murder did not come from this circle; an ex-policeman and an ex-soldier were responsible for the investigative journalist and his girlfriend’s deaths. However, the likely contractor, Marián Kočner, is a typical figure from the ’90s, who had laid the foundations for his billions during that time.

Barak also points out that despite the era shift within Slovak criminal circles, the legacy is still palpable today. “There are two relevant terms still in use today which have emerged over the past decades in Slovakia. One could be translated as the «stolen state»: this refers to various political actors using law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, or possibly the secret services for their own purposes. The other is «our man», denoting people in power who were untouchable by law enforcement agencies for a long time. From this perspective, the era of the Igor Matovič government was particularly turbulent, with many high-ranking officials, including former secret service agents and leaders of the police and the prosecution facing charges, being prosecuted, or even imprisoned. Thus, the court at least partially proved that the police had been operating as a criminal organization.”

Another legacy of the ’90s is that part of the Slovak secret service actually functions as an economic enterprise, using intelligence for business purposes.

The journalist highlights two disheartening aspects related to the assassination attempt on Fico. “The common perception in Slovakia now is that Fico’s security was catastrophically inadequate on Wednesday. It is indeed indefensible that a 71-year-old pensioner was able to fire on the prime minister five times at close range. One criticism that may arise is that not long before the incident, a civilian had become the head of security services responsible for Slovak public officials. However, anyone voicing the slightest criticism will be accused of wanting Fico’s death. The governing parties will use this argument to dismiss all criticism. This is terrible because no one wants the Prime Minister’s death, as what happened on Wednesday was an assassination attempt on democracy, just like the Kuciak-murders”. The murder of the investigative journalist and his girlfriend eventually led to Fico’s downfall as Prime Minister during his previous term.

VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP People place candles in front of the portraits of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in central Bratislava on February 27, 2018.

“Currently, there is deliberate disinformation stemming from the highest levels regarding the perpetrator, which is incredibly sad” says Barak. The disinformation campaign aims to portray perpetrator Juraj Cintula as a leftist, and to blame the incident on the independent press. “They want to fashion this into political capital in Slovakia, and even in Hungary. We know very little about the perpetrator. It is a fact that he had been monitored by the Czechoslovak secret service, and we also know that he had participated in several anti-government protests recently. However, his previously openly stated racist views and his appearance at an event of a pro-Russian neo-Nazi group suggest a case of ideological confusion. In any case, the short video in which an interrogator poses some very suggestive questions to the perpetrator after his capture, also raises concerns. It is unclear who did this and why.”

Barak believes that for us to understand the bigger picture, it is essential that Robert Fico speaks out. “Perhaps then we will find out what happened, or at least get closer to the truth.”

Regarding the general state of affairs in Slovakia, the recent assassination attempts, the Kuciak trial, and the corruption cases and investigations reaching the highest levels, Barak says:

Living in Slovakia feels a bit like being in a spy movie. The assassination attempt on Fico, with all the surrounding uncertainties and questions, has only intensified this feeling.

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