When crusading lawyer Zuzana Caputova last week became the first woman elected president of Slovakia, one of her first gestures was both poignant and pointedly symbolic.
She made a pilgrimage to a makeshift shrine memorializing journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, who were killed nearly 14 months ago in what authorities have alleged was a brazen hit ordered by one of the Central European country’s richest businessmen.
Caputova’s March 30 election victory was widely viewed as having been spurred not only by public anger over the young couple’s deaths, but also by the pervasive corruption that Kuciak had worked so doggedly to document.
In a corner of Europe that has lurched toward right-wing populism in recent years, corruption often goes hand in hand with authoritarianism, with strongman-style leaders doling out lucrative deals to retain the loyalty of wealthy patrons.
A victory like Caputova’s is being read by many analysts and regional observers as a rebuke to the toxic symbiotic relationship between politically powerful figures and the oligarchy that both benefits from and bestows that power.
“The vote really was a protest against corruption, and so it was a great moment for the country,” said Jan Orlovsky, a former Slovak diplomat who now directs the country’s branch of the Open Society Foundation.
But he and others caution that the deck is stacked against reformers like Caputova, whose newly won presidency is a largely symbolic post.
In a polarized political environment characterized by corrosive public mistrust of institutions, Slovak parliamentary elections – likely to be held soon but not yet scheduled – could help bolster the populist ruling party or usher in extremist elements that have been on the rise throughout the region, analysts say.
Corruption is a vividly colored thread running through the political fabric not only in Slovakia, but also in nearby countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Moldova.
“There is, across the region, an affinity between nationalist-populist politicians – or illiberal authoritarians – and corruption,” said Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“And once in power, leaders use corruption to concentrate that power and stack the system against those who would challenge them,” Carpenter said.
He cited use of tactics such as packing the judiciary, heavily influencing law enforcement appointments and buying up media outlets.
The same phenomenon is present in places like as Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party this week seemingly lost its grip on municipal governments in two principal cities: the capital, Ankara, and the commercial capital, Istanbul.
If upheld in a recount, that setback could threaten the impunity of some Erdogan associates who have been wildly enriched by his 15 years in power – and whose support in turn has helped an increasingly imperial president usurp more and more institutional powers.
Corruption accusations also threaten right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is entangled in several interlinking graft scandals and heads into next week’s elections knowing that he will probably soon be indicted.
Under legal and political pressure, Netanyahu has resorted to various illiberal measures, including allying himself politically with an overtly racist anti-Arab faction.
Autocratic leaders such as Erdogan, Netanyahu and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have been warmly embraced by President Donald Trump, whose own tangled web of financial interests is coming under congressional scrutiny, two years into his tenure in the White House.
The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova in February 2018 represented to some observers the deadly dangers to those who seek to hold the powerful accountable, even within the European Union, whose core principles include a robust commitment to the rule of law.
The two were gunned down at a village home they shared, four months after the similarly brutal death of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She was killed by a car bomb after a series of blistering reports centering on corruption.
In Slovakia, the killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova set off street protests whose scope had not been seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution in which Czechoslovakia shook off decades of communist rule. In a self-determined split, the country separated in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
During last year’s protests, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign. His departure was hastened by reports that a senior aide had been a business partner of an alleged member of the Italian mob.
Caputova, an environmental activist who had never before sought elective office, cited the Kuciak and Kusnirova killings as among the major reasons she decided to run for president on a broadly liberal agenda that included support for gay rights.
Slovak prosecutors last month announced the indictment of Marian Kocner, an already jailed business figure whom Kuciak had previously investigated over a series of shadowy financial crimes. Kocner was charged with ordering the killings.
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