Slovak minister quits as PM fights to save government after protests

Mass street protests over the murder of a Panama Papers journalist has put Slovakia's government into crisis, the latest European country to face such a threat after years of stability.
The Most-Hid (Bridge) group, a junior government party, had demanded the resignation of Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak (above) following mass street protests after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance.
The Most-Hid (Bridge) group, a junior government party, had demanded the resignation of Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak (above) following mass street protests after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRATISLAVA (REUTERS) - Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak said on Monday (March 12) he would resign, bowing to the demands of a junior coalition partner, as Prime Minister Robert Fico fights to save his government after mass protests following a journalist's murder.

Fico is seeking to keep his three-party coalition together after the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak shook the nation, stoked public anger over corruption and saw the biggest street protests in decades on Friday.

Junior government party, the Most-Hid (Bridge) group, had demanded the prime minister dismiss Kalinak, a founding member of Fico's Smer party, by Monday.

Critics say Kalinak, who oversaw the police as interior minister, could not guarantee an independent investigation into the killing of Kuciak and his fiancee in late February.

Most-Hid's leadership will meet on Monday to decide its next move. The party welcomed Kalinak's resignation although its leader, Bela Bugar, declined to comment when asked whether it would be enough to remain in the coalition.

"The national council always decides... In such cases it has the final word," Bugar told reporters.

Failure to keep Most-Hid's support could spell the end of Fico's government. The leader of the third coalition member, the Slovak National Party (SNS), said his party would want an early election if the coalition loses its majority in parliament.

"We are ready for a government reconstruction," SNS chief Andrej Danko said.

Fico's coalition holds 78 of the 150 seats in parliament. Even if Fico can keep it together, opposition parties are readying a no-confidence motion. They need 76 votes to topple the government.

Kalinak's exit is a blow to Fico, Slovakia's longest-serving prime minister in power for 10 of the past 12 years.

"It's important for stability to be maintained, therefore I decided to resign the post of deputy prime minister and interior minister," Kalinak said.

"I think I will do more for the investigators not to be disturbed in their work if I resign," he said.

Echoing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fico has accused foreign forces of trying to destabilise Slovakia and has questioned the president's meetings with financier George Soros in New York last year.

Slovakia has prospered in the past decade, joining the euro zone and posting one of the fastest growth rates in Europe, but many see Fico as having failed to fight graft and cronyism.

In the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989, an estimated 50,000 people rallied in the capital Bratislava on Friday and thousands more in other cities, demanding the resignations and a thorough investigation of Kuciak's death.

Kuciak focussed on tax fraud involving politically connected businessmen. Before he was shot dead, he had been investigating Italian businessmen in Slovakia with suspected mafia links. One of the Italians Kuciak wrote about had co-owned firms with two Slovaks who went on to work in Fico's office.

Both have resigned but deny links to the murder. Their Italian former business partner denies connections to the mafia. No one has been charged over the killings.

In the past, Kuciak had also written about a real estate developer investigated for tax fraud who had business ties to Kalinak. Both have denied wrongdoing.