BRATISLAVA — Slovakia’s new prime minister, Robert Fico, presented a tax-and-spend program for approval by the country’s parliament on Tuesday as his government embarked on a four-year term. Pensioners, mortgage holders, and low-income groups were the principal targets of extra public money.
Nominations to the government, however, suggest the ruling coalition has another policy agenda, which includes protecting key allies from legal jeopardy and thumbing its nose at liberal democracy.
His cabinet features politicians previously charged with crimes, including Fico himself and former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, who now has the defense portfolio. Deputy Justice Minister Pavol Gašpar was also previously charged; cases against all three men were later dropped. But Pavol Gašpar’s father, Smer MP Tibor Gašpar, remains indicted as the alleged head of a criminal group that operated within the police — as is central bank governor Peter Kažimir, a former finance minister appointed by Smer.
“Some of these new nominations to the state administration appear to be motivated by political revenge, to ensure it never happens again that their people are convicted,” said Grigorij Mesežnikov, a political scientist and co-founder of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.
Slovak courts also continue to adjudicate nine sprawling organized crime cases stemming from Smer’s turbulent 2016-2020 term in office, involving at least four oligarchs alleged to have profited from state contracts; former top police brass and senior military intelligence officers; and MPs from all three parties in the new government.
Fico became the country’s prime minister for the fourth time last month after winning the September 30 election with his Smer (Direction) party, with campaign pledges to end military support for Ukraine and tackle illegal migration.
Fico was forced from office in 2018 by mass protests following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. Under the next government, courts convicted over 40 people connected to the Fico coalition, mostly for abuse of office and corruption, including judges, senior police and intelligence officers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and public servants.
But a small group of oligarchs, men believed to have financed and guided Smer behind the scenes, remains on trial as Fico returns to power. Among them is Jozef Brhel, a wealthy entrepreneur who served as deputy economy minister during the pro-Moscow government of PM Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s; Brhel was indicted on bribery charges in March. And there’s Norbert Bödör, a former world-class wrestler connected to Slovak security firm Bonul; Bödör has been indicted on corruption charges and for influencing police investigations.
Bödör’s legal defense team at one point included current Defense Minister Kaliňák. Bödör’s father, Miroslav, who died in September, was the brother-in-law of indicted Smer MP Gašpar, Slovakia’s longest-serving chief of national police.
“Smer is not a social democratic party — it’s not a political party at all,” Michal Vašečka, a political scientist from Bratislava Policy Institute, told POLITICO. “It was established in 1999 as a business project by oligarchs together with Robert Fico, and the only reason was to strengthen the position of those oligarchs. And, let’s make a long story short, to rob the country blind.”
He added: “So what they want to do is to return to business as usual.”
On taking office last month, new Interior Minister Matúš Šutaj Eštok moved swiftly to suspend Branko Kišš, the police corps vice president, along with several investigators who uncovered organized crime that thrived under previous Fico-led governments.
However, a local court ruled the removal of Kišš had been unlawful and on November 8 reinstated him. Kišš and the other suspended investigators have the status of informants, meaning they cannot lose their jobs without the approval of the Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers.
Šutaj Eštok was nominated to his post by the social-democratic Hlas (Voice) party, which split from Smer in 2020 following Kuciak’s murder, but is now part of the ruling coalition.
“Šutaj Eštok may be a Hlas guy, but he’s even more radical than Smer,” Mesežnikov told POLITICO. “He is taking a radical approach to personnel changes in what looks like a campaign of revenge.”
Opposition leader Michal Šimečka, head of the liberal party Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), announced they would initiate Šutaj Eštok’s recall once the new government received a vote of confidence in parliament.
Taking the mickey
Meanwhile, Slovaks who didn’t vote for Smer, Hlas or their junior coalition partner Slovenská národná strana (Slovak National Party, SNS) may have struggled to understand why the environment ministry, for example, is now led by deputy minister and SNS nominee Filip Kuffa, who proposed culling protected species like bears and reducing protection for national parks.
An online petition started in October by Ondrej Kameniar of the My sme les (We Are the Forest) NGO, and signed by more than 50,000 people, opposed Kuffa’s nomination as a politician “known for making aggressive statements toward the [environmental] protection community, as well as for spreading hoaxes and conspiracy theories.”
“Slovakia will have about 14 billion euros until 2030 for reducing national emissions and protecting the climate and the environment,” the petition continued. “These resources must be used sensibly … which requires people who can distinguish between facts and hoaxes.”
Kuffa — along with his father Štefan, Slovakia’s new deputy minister of culture — appeared in court in September to answer charges of uttering threats against a neighboring farmer near Michalovce in eastern Slovakia back in 2021.
“The media portray us as brawlers and criminals,” Filip Kuffa said in court. “I didn’t threaten anybody. No way.”
Both father and son were previously elected to parliament in 2020 for the far-right Ľudová strána Naše Slovensko (People’s Party Our Slovakia, ĽSNS). The General Prosecutor’s Office tried in 2017 to have the ĽSNS disbanded due to its “extremist political positions and fascist tendencies,” but the Supreme Court rejected the application.
Smer members pushed back against criticism of Fico’s new government.
MEP Monika Beňová, who last month renounced her membership of the Socialists & Democrats group after the Party of European Socialists decided to suspend Smer for joining forces with the right-nationalist SNS, said on Facebook: “I absolutely disagree with the views … about the violation of the rule of law in Slovakia after the new government took office. On the contrary, the principles of the rule of law have been demolished over the last 3.5 years [of the previous government].”
Meanwhile, MP Erik Kaliňák — son of Robert, and new head adviser to the government — told POLITICO: “I am very happy with all of the nominations, they perfectly mirror society’s demands that has elected this government.”
“I am not worried about the image of Slovakia. We are a sovereign government that will protect the interests of Slovakia.”
Smer and the office of the interior minister did not respond to a request for an interview.
Here are 5 controversial figures in the new Slovak government:
Deputy Justice Minister Pavol Gašpar: A lawyer representing Norbert Bödör, a Slovak oligarch close to the Smer party with influence over the police force, Gašpar was caught on video at a secret gathering at a hunting chalet, helping former Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák prepare answers for a coming police interrogation. Charged in 2022 with making a false statement, but the charges were dropped because the monitored conversations (i.e. between lawyer and client) were protected.
Culture Minister Martina Šimkovičová: Long-time TV presenter fired in 2015 for mocking refugees on social media: “They’re coming … get some accommodation ready for them, full board with spending money, make [your] daughters pretty so they’re not bored here.” Also disparaged homosexuality, remarking of Bratislava’s 2017 Pride parade that “latex and muzzles will get you no respect … your disgusting acts in public will only arouse outrage and negative emotions.”
Deputy Culture Minister Štefan Kuffa: Involved in a 2015 altercation with a 79-year-old female inhabitant of Pavľany village in eastern Slovakia, who objected to a cottage being built without a construction permit by Kuffa’s son, and heavy equipment being driven across her property. The old lady said Kuffa bumped into her, giving her bruises, so she slapped him in the face. Kuffa filed charges against the woman for assault on a public official.
Deputy PM and Environment Minister Tomáš Taraba: Owned multiple companies with Peter Košč, an unofficial adviser to multiple directors of the SIS secret service from 2006 to 2018; Košč is now on the run from an international arrest warrant for bribery. Like the Kuffas, Taraba was also elected to parliament in 2020 on the ticket of the radical ĽSNS party.
Deputy Environment Minister Filip Kuffa: Charged along with his father Štefan with uttering threats against neighboring farmer Radoslav Ksiažek in 2021. In July, initiated a special session of parliament to consider a cull of the country’s protected brown bears by hunters rather than by special environment ministry “intervention teams,” whose mission was to protect human safety “in the gentlest way possible toward the bears.”