Slovak interior minister quits after journalist murder


Bratislava (AFP)

Slovak Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak announced his resignation Monday following tensions sparked by the murder of an investigative journalist probing links between the government and the mafia.

"I think to fulfil my mandate I have to do everything to preserve stability in Slovakia," Kalinak told reporters. "For this reason I have decided to resign as deputy prime minister and interior minister."

Last month's murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee prompted huge protests against the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico, with tens of thousands of Slovaks turning out for rallies in Bratislava on Friday.

Fico's Smer-SD party, to which Kalinak also belongs, came under fire from small coalition partner Most-Hid, which threatened to quit if the minister stayed, questioning the impartiality of the investigations under Kalinak's lead.

The bodies of Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, both 27, were found on February 25 at their home near Bratislava. The couple, who were to have married in May, had both been shot dead.

Police have said Kuciak's death was "most likely" related to his investigation resulting in an article on ties between Slovakia's top politicians and Italy's notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia, which his employer posthumously published.

The murder and the article sparked a wave of anti-government sentiment in the EU and NATO member of 5.4 million people.

On Friday, some 40,000 people gathered in Bratislava to protest against Fico and his government, making it Slovakia's biggest protest since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled Communism in former Czechoslovakia.

Thousands of others also rallied in other cities across Slovakia, with parallel demonstrations also taking place in Prague and Berlin.

- Not enough? -

Kalinak said he would stay on to complete unspecified tasks before formally stepping down, without giving a date.

On March 1, Slovak police detained seven Italians named by Kuciak in his story but released 48 hours later.

The Most-Hid party was expected to meet later on Monday to decide whether Kalinak's step was enough to keep it in the coalition which also comprises the rightwing Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS).

Pavol Babos, a Bratislava-based political analyst, said the question of who would replace Kalinak was key.

"If another minister designated by Smer-SD party continues as interior minister, it might not be enough for Most-Hid to ensure the impartial investigation of the double murder," he told AFP.

Fico's alleged link to the mafia was his close aide Maria Troskova, a former model and Miss Universe contestant who used to be close to businessman Antonino Vadala, one of the detained Italians.

Troskova and another Fico aide have both stepped down for the duration of the investigation.

- Political crisis -

Fico met Most-Hid leader Bela Bugar at the weekend, but they declined to speak about their talks.

Slovak President Andrej Kiska, who has called for sweeping government changes or even snap elections in the wake of the Kuciak murder, was also in talks with party leaders in a bid to put an end to the political crisis.

Fico initially blasted the president's call as "an attempt to totally destabilise our country," but he backed down last week.

"We will offer solutions that will enable Most-Hid to continue in the government. I perceive the reality and I am ready for talks," Fico said last week.

If Most-Hid leaves the three-party coalition, the most likely outcome is a minority government led by Fico -- or early elections.