It starts on a cold Wednesday in winter 2018. At a little after 4:30 on February 21, two men in a Citroen Berlingo arrive in the small Slovak village of Vel’Ká Mača (around 40 miles from Bratislava). They wait until 6:30 before Tomas Szabo leaves driver Miroslav Marček and walks off into the night.
Like a grim scene from a Coen Brothers movie, the ill-starred Szabo arrives at the house of his target, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, and finds it empty.
Meanwhile, Kuciak, 27, a reporter with Bratislava – based news portal Aktuality.sk had arrived home by train from the capital and discovered his car had a flat battery. He called his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, also 27, to pick him up from the station.
Undeterred, Marček, a former soldier, and Szabo, a former police officer, remained patient. Szabo returns to the house two hours later. This time he finds Kuciak and his fiancée at home and shoots them both dead.
Ján Kuciak was the first journalist murdered in Slovakia since the country became independent on January 1, 1993, and it shocked the nation.
His recent work had focused on investigating tax fraud and the misappropriation of European funds, and he had also written about corruption at government levels.
The last piece published before his death was released on February 9, 2018, when he provided a detailed account of VAT tax fraud implicating well-known, wealthy and well-connected Slovak businessman Marián Kočner.
At the time of his death, Kuciak was working on a story that has been described as ‘sensational’. He had linked the Slovak government, led at the time by Prime Minister Robert Fico, to a group of Italian businessmen allegedly members of an organised crime syndicate.
One name that featured prominently in Kuciak’s investigation was Antonino Valdala believed to be a member of ‘Ndrangheta’, a well known mafia-style operation based in Calabria.
Editor-in-Chief of Aktuality.sk, Peter Bardy, fearing for Kuciak, texted his reporter a couple of days before his murder to ask him if he felt at risk or if he wanted a ‘safe house’.
Ironically, Kuciak said he didn’t feel under any threat.
The murders caused uproar and inspired the formation of ‘For A Decent Slovakia ‘. The Slovak people believed the murders were related to Kuciak’s work and linked to political corruption, and came out onto the streets in their thousands to protest.
“When we found out that Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were killed,” Eva Lavríková, spokeswoman of ‘For A Decent Slovakia’ told Inside Over. “Our first reaction was to show we don’t want to live in a country where something like this – to kill a journalist because of his work – is possible.”
The country descended into political chaos and on March 15, 2018, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Interior Minister Robert Kalinak resigned. A month later, in the wake of the Kuciak and Kusnirova killings and questions about the initial investigation, Czech-born, Tibor Gašpar, President of the Police of Slovakia also stepped down.
“Our initiative was… at first simply an organic, spontaneous reaction to current events,” Lavrikova remembered “Later on, when we saw how our politicians reacted, we realised that if we really want to live in a better, decent society, it’s a long-term commitment and we all need to do something. We aim to be an active society which can stand for democratic principles.”
Posthumously, Kuciak was changing Slovak history.
Perhaps stirred by protests and resignations, the police investigation into the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová led to four arrests in September 2018 and the story started to unravel.
Small-time pizzeria entrepreneur Zoltán Andruskó had been approached by Alena Zsuzsová, an Italian translator and go-between employee of Marian Kočner. Zsuzsová offered to pay Andruskó €50,000 and take care of Zoltan’s €20,000 of debt.
It was an offer the hapless Andruskó could not turn down. With little idea of how to assassinate anyone, he recruited Szabo and his cousin Marček to help him carry out the hit. The trail soon led back to Kočner who was arrested in March this year and charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder.
But, of course, and as ‘For A Decent Slovakia’ had recognised, this story goes right to the heart of government, and the fact that Kuciak had identified the presence of an Italian organised crime syndicate in Slovakia.
In August, 2019, Slovak newspapers started releasing the transcripts of hundreds of pages of texts leaked from the police investigation and related to Marián Kočner.
These texts link Kočner to Fico’s government. One message seems to show that the Slovak businessman is keen that the ruling party, Fico’s Smer-SD stay in power so that they all avoid: ‘ending up in jail’. Other messages reference meetings with ‘Squarehead’, Fico’s nickname.
A short time after the murders Kočner had texted of having breakfast in the Maldives with Bela Bugar, chairman of Most-Hid, Smer-SD’s coalition partners in government.
Both Fico and Bugar have tried to distance themselves from Kočner and his activities. Fico denies that any meetings, referred to in texts, ever took place, while Bugar now describes Kočner as ‘evil’.
Incredibly, and despite his fall from power Fico remains the leader of the ruling Smer-SD party. A situation that many see as draining the popularity of the party and leaving them vulnerable to defeat at the March 2020 elections, a mere six months away.
The former Prime Minister, however, is defiant, telling the people of Slovakia that: ‘he is not going away’.
Perhaps wary of new political factions like ‘For A Decent Slovakia’ and political parties like Progresivne Slovensko the government has pushed through a new law limiting the resources and private funding for parties. This will hit the new parties hardest and undermine their chances of unseating established groupings like Smer-SD.
Jan Kuciak’s work has taken Slovakia into a new politicised era. He was the inspiration underpinning ‘For A Decent Slovakia’ and like Fico, they have no intentions of ‘going away’ either.
“We were quite a random group of people from all around the country – every single one of us very different,” Eva explained the founding of ‘For A Decent Slovakia’. “But there is one important thing which all of us have in common: we do care about our country and our society.”