Thomas Nicholson: Why Slovakia’s corruption scandal is good for democracy

Presseurop Notebook

He is the man who shook Slovakia. For years, Thomas Nicholson, a Canadian investigative journalist living in Slovakia, tried to publish the “Gorilla” file about corrupted politicsin the country. No one would pay attention to it, until the beginning of this year when the documents he had received from a secret service agent surfaced on the Internet. The file had a major impact on the March 10 general elections. “Politicians will have more and more difficulties to continue practice corruption”, says Nicholson, when we met in a Bratislava café on the wake on the election.

Some people say that “Gorilla” pushed more people into social-democratic leader Robert Fico's arms. What's your opinion on Fico coming back to power?

I am surprised by how little effect the Gorilla file has had on these elections. The expectation was lower ballot participation because people would lose faith in democracy; the right wing would be absolutely destroyed, because this corruption scandal primarily affects them. They were in power when it happened, but in fact we have had the highest turnout since 2002 (60%). The right was punished but they got a second chance.

There are many positive things about these elections. First of all, the Nationalists did not get back into Parliament. And finally we have Fico as a single party government that will have no excuses, no Nationalists or Populists to blame for corruption or for his failure. It's a good recipe for a better government than the last time he was in power [2006-2010].

I think all in all, these elections, even though they were bad news for the Right, are about as good as what we could have hoped for. People were tired of instability, stupid arguing and inability to make compromises. Gorilla has not much to do with it in the end. People were tired of instability. Fico himself is not an angel but compared to the right wing he represents stability and that was what people were looking for.

Fico is apparently mentioned in the Gorilla document. Do you think the investigations will continue during the second Fico government?

Fico is not directly threatened by Gorilla, but his party is. Obviously his secretary was in the incriminated flat [in which politicians were meeting members of the Penta financial group and which was wire-tapped by the secret service. The transcripts form the material of the Gorilla file], he accepted money from the Penta financial group to finance his party Smer. Whether he will support or not the investigation, that is very difficult to say. There is lot of public anger about this file, and this anger goes all across the political spectrum. If he wanted to gain political points he would appear to support the investigation. But we know how politics works. He can easily stop it. This file was buried in 2006 by Josef Magala, the head of the Slovak secret service SIS, when police got it under Fico they absolutely failed. So he is not probably going to be enthusiastic about the investigation.

Do you believe that thanks to the revelation of such a scandal Slovakia will become a more democratic country?

I do. It might sound naive, but I have concrete reasons to think that. I don't think it's possible anymore for any financial group to do business with the government or politicians, in the future these connections will be very politically fraught with danger for any politicians to have.

As a result of this Gorilla investigation there will be a lot of initiatives that have started focusing on transparency and clarity in politics. I am a good example. I will probably leave journalism to set up a website which will be a database of connections between politics, financial groups and organised crime. It will be publicly available to voters, especially when the next election comes around. All kinds of these initiatives will come up in next four years.

The public has been empowered by knowing how corruption works, it's a knowledge about oligarchy, politicians, political nominees, how they work. Important is that people know about these connections. You have no governmental groups providing this kind of information. All that changes the environment that we had before. Politicians will have more and more difficulties to continue to practice corruption.

Your book about Gorilla has been banned by a tribunal in Bratislava. But you’ve started publishing some fragments of it anyway in the newspapers. The Penta group, which is considered as a financial shark swimming in the Central European waters, has pressed charges against you. Do you think you can win against them?

The suit against me is 500 pages long. But at the same time they have no foundation to stand on. These people, when they can't buy someone or scare someone, they run out of ideas because they don't know anything else. Besides the individual discomfort of being threatened by these people, I don't need money, I don't need fame, anything really. And I don't have anything to lose. As Janis Joplin said a long time ago: freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. I don't really care about their lawsuit. I have the publishing house Petit Press, who represent me. Whether the court will be for me or against me doesn't make much difference, because Penta lost in the Court of public opinion and I don't think anybody is afraid of them anymore. So whatever they win in terms of financial squeeze of my double-mortgage house, they are welcomed to it.

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