Teenagers are leading the charge against corruption in Slovakia

Civic Action24 May 2017Jaroslav Mihálik

A Facebook campaign has started one of the largest anticorruption protests in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. On 18 April, only two weeks after the campaign started, some 10,000 people took to the streets of Bratislava to express their support for the protest. According to the organizers – 18-year old secondary school students – the reason for the protest is simple: the many corruption scandals in Slovakia, supplemented by the large-scale problems in healthcare and education. Inspired by the success of protests in Romania, these young people have stepped up to do something about it.

Several important features characterize this protest and the young protestors. First, young people in Slovakia are disengaged from formal political activities and their trust in political institutions and politicians is low. This trend is true for the whole population, but especially for young people, as shown by several international and national research studies. The unresponsiveness of politicians to their concerns and the lack of change in the face of the many corruption scandals has caused young Slovakians to lose interest in politics. This may also be one of the reasons why young Slovakians move abroad. Second, the demonstration was organized by young people for young people, without connection to any existing political actors, including the opposition. Third, the rise of civic protests in Slovakia can be symbolically traced back to the Velvet Revolution – when Czechoslovakian students mobilized to oppose the communist regime, demanding systematic change and a voice in the future of the country. As is happening with the current protests, at that time the elites of the repressive regime initially ignored the demands of the protestors and pushed back. This symbolic link to the past seems to be significant to the students organizing the protest, as they refer to it frequently in interviews.

In official statements, the organizers of the protests have declared their opposition to the large-scale corruption scandals in Slovakia, which tend to remain unresolved. By way of peaceful demonstration they seek to oppose corruption, which has many negative consequences for society. The lack of accountability of politicians is one of the main sources of the growing right-wing extremism in Slovakia, as evidenced by the success of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (which is accused of having links to neo-Nazi groups) in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

The protestors have formulated a number of concrete demands:

  • The resolution of earlier scandals related to corruption (Gorila and Bašternák)
  • To appeal the Minister of Interior and the Head of the Police for their failure to address such corruption scandals
  • The resignation of the special prosecutor
  • Cancellation of the amnesty of former Prime Minister Mečiar’s secret service chief and 12 others involved in the kidnapping of the then President’s son\

The students gave the Robert Fico-led government 14 days to meet their demands. But the political response was rather cool. While the Prime Minister says that he respects the right of people to demonstrate, he has remained relatively unconcerned about the requests to appeal to the Minister of Interior and to demand the special prosecutor’s resignation. The Prime Minister defends their positions and claims that the demonstration is simply another attempt by the opposition to weaken the strong position of his social-democratic SMER-SD party.

This attempt to reframe the demonstrations as partisan and linked to the political opposition shows the unwillingness of the political elites in Slovakia to address corruption. In a similar vein, it was suggested by some that the protests were linked to right-wing extremists, as they fell on the same day as an assembly to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the execution of Jozef Tiso, who led the Slovak Nazi state during World War II. However, according to the protest leaders, this was merely a coincidence, as the protest was timed to allow young people to return from the Easter holidays to join the demonstration. The official support from several mainstream celebrities who made speeches at the protest also reflects this.

When the government failed to agree to the protesters demands, the demonstrators planned another, larger demonstration with regional representation in other cities. The students have already started a new online petition, aiming to reach 100,000 signatures, which would mean that the national parliament must officially deal with this public request. Scheduled for 5 June, the initiative has received strong support from university students and other young people. Secondary school and college students have united, as in 1989, to strengthen their position, without political patronage. It is symbolic that the college students of the Faculty of Law took the lead in supporting the anticorruption movement. The Prime Minister as well as the Minister of Interior are alumni of this faculty and the students say that they are ashamed of the graduates of their faculty, who are the main faces of corruption in Slovakia.

A positive resolution of these protests has the potential to empower a whole new generation. Young people in Slovakia have shown awareness of their democratic rights and resolved to demand the accountability of those in power. Although elites may see them as politically naïve and easy to overwhelm and oppose, history has shown that this may not be the case. With 10,000 people marching, this peaceful protest has mobilized enough people to remind us of Slovakia’s past, in which the people were able to resist a totalitarian state and push the government to effectively deal with its most discredited cadres. Politicians should fear the streets as political elites did back then. As long as the protestors are able to keep the politicians on the defence, there is a chance that they will triumph, as they did in 1989.