WASHINGTON - Slovakia's top diplomat says last year's murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée has changed the Central European country and possibly altered how citizens will vote in upcoming parliamentary elections.
"I must say that this killing has changed my country and that this is a different Slovakia after the murder," Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák told VOA's Russian Service on Tuesday. "And those who ordered the killing, which are not the same (as those) who committed this horrible crime, achieved an exact opposite of what they wanted to achieve."
Lajčák's comments came one day after Slovak authorities brought charges against high-profile businessperson Marian Kocner and three others in the February 2018 shooting deaths of reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirov.
"Our people are now demanding full transparency, zero corruption, zero tolerance for misusing the judiciary and police," said Lajčák. "There is no doubt that this will play a very important role also in upcoming parliamentary elections that are scheduled for February next year."
Their killings, which police described as an expert-caliber assassination, sparked nationwide anti-corruption protests that ended the longtime rule of ex-prime minister Robert Fico and other high-level officials.
Although Fico's ruling three-party coalition survived March 2019 elections, they've seen dwindling public support over resentment that legislators and police failed to respond quickly to exposés by Kuciak and other journalists linking a powerful Italian organized crime group to Slovak government officials.
According to court documents, Kuciak received death threats directly from Kocner, whose business dealings were at the center of Kuciak's published reports.
Kuciak and Kusnirova were gunned down in their home outside the capital, Bratislava, in what prosecutors have called a contract hit by Kocner, who denies the charges.
Critics of the ruling coalition have also faulted police for failing to take death threats against Kuciak more seriously. Revelations of links between Kocner and security officials exposed during the case have led to more resignations in recent weeks.
Speaking with VOA, Lajčák nonetheless credited security officials for working doggedly to seek justice for Kuciak and Kusnirov, who were both 27.
"It's extremely important to know that justice will be served, because I cannot imagine the feeling if we (hadn't) been able to identify the killers," Lajčák said.
"It's an element of justice, but it's also a very important signal, I would say, of a political and moral nature," he added, alluding to the fact that completion of the investigative phase of the case has been viewed as a litmus test for Slovak police and judicial independence.
But the case could still have a major political impact in a general election in February, with polls showing a slide in support for the ruling Smer Party, and politicians from other parties also playing down their ties to Kocner.
Kocner, who studied journalism in college, was once himself a reporter in Soviet-era Slovakia before gravitating toward the seedy underworld of black market enterprise that flourished after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Kocner would sometimes invite reporters to attend press conferences he staged to discuss his real estate and development projects in what critics called a ruse to court or, if needed, intimidate reporters.
Kocner and two alleged accomplices have pleaded not guilty in the murder, while a fourth suspect confessed involvement in the shooting. A fifth man confessed to the killing and has made a plea deal with prosecutors to act as a witness in the trial of the other four.
All suspects could face life in prison on six charges, including premeditated murder.
This story originated in VOA's Russian Service. Some information is from Reuters.