Tom Nicholson is an investigative journalist and author who has covered Slovakia for the past 20 years.
Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak's last text was published on Wednesday at midnight by virtually all of the country's media portals. It was unfinished, but still shivered Slovakia's foundations by reportedly linking the Prime Minister's Office in Bratislava to Italy's 'Ndrangheta organized-crime group.
It was unfinished because the man who wrote it, a quietly industrious investigative reporter aged 27, had been murdered in his home with his fiancée less than a week before. Jan Kuciak was executed with a single bullet to his chest, Martina Kusnirova by a gunshot to her head. Slovak police said the crime was likely connected to Mr. Kuciak's work.
The news was stunning, because it was the first time a journalist has been killed in this former Communist country, which joined the European Union in 2004. But the pathos of the young couple's murders – their bodies lay undiscovered for days, until Martina's mother grew worried – has amplified public disgust with decades of high-level corruption, and sharpened a sense that Slovakia is at a crossroads between liberal democracy and thuggish state capture.
Mr. Kuciak's allegations in his article were damning. Antonino Vadala, a man who in 2003 was tried in Italy for shielding a 'Ndrangheta killer, and later acquitted for lack of evidence, had subsequently moved to Slovakia and founded dozens of companies active in solar power and agriculture. These companies over the years were awarded millions of euros in European Union funds, administered by nominees of the ruling Smer party of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
But this was not a story of mere entrepreneurial acumen. Mr. Kuciak described how Mr. Vadala had co-owned a company, GIA Management, with Maria Troskova, a former beauty-pageant winner who Mr. Fico had improbably recruited to the Prime Minister's Office in 2015 as a senior adviser. Another former co-owner of one of Mr. Vadala's companies, MP Viliam Jasan, had later joined the PMO as head of Mr. Fico's security council.
Mr. Vadala's Facebook posts over the years paid obsequious tribute to the ruling party and its senior figures; an image of Smer MP Robert Madej, flashing a thumbs-up in an enthusiastic embrace with Mr. Vadala, was widely circulated.
I didn't know Mr. Kuciak well, partly because of the difference in our ages – 24 years – and because he worked in a different newsroom, the Aktuality portal of the leading Slovak tabloid. But we covered a lot of the same stories, and he would always pass on gleanings from his own work that he thought might be relevant to what I was doing.
In fact, it was while I was slogging through one of my own journalistic fogs – fired from a newspaper and sued by a Slovak oligarch for publishing some intelligence findings – that he first wrote me, in 2012, with his customary grace and encouragement. "I'm about to graduate, and I just wanted to tell you that I got into journalism in the first place because I wanted to dedicate my life and my work to the kind of reporting you are doing," he confided. "It's important to me to know that this kind of work is still possible, and that it has such a deep social meaning."
It didn't take him long to turn his potential into achievement and recognition. His editor at Aktuality.sk, Marek Vagovic, remembers encountering Mr. Kuciak in 2014 at an investigative journalism course he was mentoring in Prague. "I was immediately impressed by Jan's grasp of online database resources and how to bring them to bear on the work, so during a break, I took him aside and offered him a job," he said.
After reporting on international tax-fraud scandals shielded by Slovak cabinet members, Mr. Kuciak eventually took on the Vadala file, which, along with others, I had also been fitfully and fruitlessly probing since 2015 without locating the smoking gun – the Italian court documents allegedly linking Mr. Vadala to 'Ndrangheta.
"He worked on the Vadala investigation for 18 months, and built co-operation with Italian journalists. We always expected there would be some pushback, but no one imagined it would come to this," Mr. Vagovic said. "I'll never forgive myself."
Slovakia is an old European nation, but at 25 years since independence from the Czechs, it is still a young country searching for stability in its weak institutions.
In the days following the murders, that fragility was dismayingly obvious. Ms. Troskova, the Prime Minister's adviser, resigned her still-mysterious function, as did Mr. Jasan, the PMO security boss. Culture Minister Marek Madaric, a founding member of Mr. Fico's Smer party, also quit, saying his conscience wouldn't allow him to continue.
Mr. Fico, meanwhile, announced a reward of a million euros for information leading to the arrest of the killers, and then staged a widely ridiculed news conference on Wednesday in which the reward money was crassly stacked on a table, and guarded by a machine-gun toting police officer wearing a balaclava.
On Wednesday night, up to a thousand people attending a remembrance for Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova assembled in front of the Government Office in Bratislava, leaving hundreds of lit candles behind them as they departed. An opposition politician who organized the vigil reported that government security demanded they remove the candles as a danger to public safety.
Oblivious to the truth: that what has been lit here goes far beyond candles.