Slovakia's government has moved a step closer to breaking point amid allegations of high-level corruption following the double murder of a young investigative journalist and his partner.
The central European nation has been embroiled in political turmoil since late last month, when Jan Kuciak — a journalist specializing in exposing corruption — and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were killed in an attack at their home>.
"Political tension has been brewing for quite some time but it is clear the trigger to this boiling over was the murder of Kuciak and his fiancee," Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC in a phone interview.
Early elections proposed to defuse political turmoil
The killings sparked massive anti-government protests in Slovakia's capital city of Bratislava last week, with tens of thousands of Slovak citizens turning out for the rallies. The demonstrations were thought to be the country's largest street protests since the end of communist rule almost 30 years ago.
Joe Klamar | AFP | Getty Images
Interior Minister Robert Kalinak quit his post at the start of the week, bowing to pressure from the Most-Hid party, a coalition partner of Fico's Smer party. The Most-Hid party also said "only early elections" could defuse the deepening political crisis.
Shortly afterward, the ongoing political fallout from the murder of a journalist and his partner claimed its latest scalp as long-time Prime Minister Robert Fico announced his resignation on Thursday.
The country's premier had previously said he would only be prepared to resign if the president accepted the current coalition could not continue for the rest of its term. However, during a ceremony in Bratislava on Thursday evening, Fico said he would step down in order to prevent further chaos.
The move is not thought to satisfy the tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who are due to hold further rallies on Friday.
Italian mafia allegations show 'deeper seated frustration'
Kuciak had been investigating ties between government officials and the Italian mafia before he was murdered.
He claimed Italian businessmen — who were connected to the Calabrian organized crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta and had settled in the eastern region of the country — had siphoned off funds from the European Union (EU) for years.
Slovakian police have said the double murder was "most likely" linked to Kuciak's investigation of ties between high-level lawmakers and Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia.
Europol, the EU agency which seeks to combat cross-border crime, has reportedly sent experts to Slovakia to assist with forensics. The FBI, as well as Italian and Czech police, are also helping the Slovakian authorities.
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People hold a candle-lit vigil in front of the Consulate General of the Slovak Republic in Krakow, in memory of the journalist Jan Kuciak and and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, who were shot dead last Sunday.
"This was one of the main linking factors to deeper seated frustration regarding EU corruption," Pepijn Bergsen, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a phone interview.
Shortly before Fico offered to resign on Wednesday, the European Parliament published a report on Slovakia's ongoing political crisis to express concern "over the involvement of the mafia and the presence of organized crime in the country."
Further to this, while the European Parliament's report does not draw any specific conclusions, it does outline the widespread perception among many journalists in Slovakia that corruption allegations are often not followed up. Meanwhile, EU money is often viewed as "a means to reward people close to the ruling party," the report said.
While EU officials have not directly been accused of corruption, Kuciak had been investigating whether Slovak lawmakers and organized crime gangs in the country had been embezzling EU aid funds.
'Political corruption back with a vengeance'
Slovakia has been a member of the EU for 15 years and, under Fico's leadership, the former communist state has been guided towards the European mainstream.
In recent years especially, Brussels has viewed Bratislava as a "valuable regional ally," Teneo Intelligence's Dhand said. This is because, in contrast to its counterparts in Warsaw and Budapest, Slovakia has not been seen to directly criticize the EU over issues such as immigration.
VLADIMIR SIMICEK | AFP | Getty Images
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico looks on during a press conference in Bratislava on March 14, 2018. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico announced Wednesday, March 14, 2018, his resignation, demanded by the opposition, following the assassination in February of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak.
Hungary and Poland have publicly clashed with Brussels with concerns regarding immigration and the rule of law. Slovakia's apparent effort to break ranks with other so-called Visegrad Group countries was seen as crucial in preventing regional contempt towards the EU.
Dhand said new elections in Slovakia now appeared "likely," and warned an upcoming vote could be regarded as a referendum on the country's Western alliance.
"Political corruption is back with a vengeance and it is widely thought that EU money is feeding this. I am afraid that soon there will be no case to answer because the money is just too much and so it is too tempting," she added.