When crusading lawyer Zuzana Caputova swept to a historic victory last week, becoming the first woman elected president of Slovakia, one of her first gestures was both poignant and pointedly symbolic.
She made a pilgrimage to a makeshift shrine memorializing journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, who were killed nearly 14 months ago in what authorities have alleged was a brazen hit ordered by one of the Central European country’s richest businessmen.
Caputova’s high-profile election win March 30 was widely viewed as having been spurred not only by scalding public anger over the young couple’s deaths, but also by the pervasive corruption that Kuciak had worked so doggedly to document.
In a corner of Europe that has seen a lurch toward right-wing populism in recent years, corruption often goes hand in hand with authoritarianism, with strongman-style leaders doling out lucrative deals to retain the loyalty of wealthy patrons.
A victory like Caputova’s is being read by many analysts and regional observers as a rebuke to the toxic symbiotic relationship between politically powerful figures and the oligarchy that both benefits from and bestows that power.
“The vote really was a protest against corruption, and so it was a great moment for the country,” said Jan Orlovsky, a former Slovak diplomat who now directs the country’s branch of the Open Society Foundation.
But he and others caution that the deck is stacked against reformist figures such as Caputova, 45, whose newly won presidency is a largely symbolic post.
In a polarized political environment characterized by corrosive public mistrust of institutions, Slovak parliamentary elections — likely to be held soon but not yet scheduled — could help bolster the populist ruling party or usher in extremist elements that have been on the rise throughout the region, analysts say.
Corruption is a vividly colored thread running through the political fabric not only in Slovakia, but also in nearby countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Moldova.
“There is, across the region, an affinity between nationalist-populist politicians — or illiberal authoritarians — and corruption,” said Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“And once in power, leaders use corruption to concentrate that power and stack the system against those who would challenge them,” Carpenter said. He cited use of tactics such as packing the judiciary, heavily influencing law enforcement appointments and buying up media outlets.
The same phenomenon can be seen in places such as Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party this week seemingly lost its grip on municipal governments in two principal cities: the capital, Ankara, and the commercial capital, Istanbul.
If upheld in a recount, that setback could threaten the impunity of some Erdogan associates who have been wildly enriched by his 15 years in power — and whose support in turn has helped an increasingly imperial president usurp more and more institutional powers.
Corruption accusations also pose a threat to right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is entangled in several interlinking graft scandals and heads into next week’s elections under imminently expected indictment.
Under legal and political pressure, Netanyahu has resorted to various illiberal measures, including allying himself politically with an overtly racist anti-Arab faction.
Autocratic leaders such as Erdogan, Netanyahu and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have been warmly embraced by President Trump, whose own tangled web of financial interests is coming under congressional scrutiny, two years into his tenure in the White House.
The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova in February 2018 represented to some observers the deadly dangers to those who seek to hold the powerful accountable, even within the European Union, whose core principles include a robust commitment to the rule of law.
The two were gunned down at a village home they shared, four months after the similarly brutal death of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. She was killed by a car bomb after a series of blistering reports centering on corruption.
In Slovakia, the killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova set off massive street protests, the scope of which had not been seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution in which then-Czechoslovakia shook off decades of communist rule. In a self-determined split, the country separated in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“People were genuinely shocked and outraged by the murders — really, it was a turning point,” said Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch.
Amid last year’s surge of protests, Slovakia’s then-Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to step down. His departure was hastened by reports that a senior aide had been a business partner of an alleged member of the Italian mob.
Caputova, an environmental activist who had never before sought elective office, cited the Kuciak and Kusnirova slayings as among the major reasons she decided to run for president on a broadly liberal agenda that included support for gay rights.
Slovak prosecutors last month announced the indictment of Marian Kocner, an already jailed business figure whom Kuciak had previously investigated over a series of shadowy financial crimes. Kocner was charged with ordering the killings.
After Kuciak’s killing, other journalists did what they could to pick up where their slain colleague left off.
“Our newsroom was in such a state of shock and mourning,” said Peter Habara, an editor at Aktuality.sk, the website where Kuciak worked. “And all the things he was pursuing — there were some matters that only he knew the full extent.”
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium in Central Europe and elsewhere, has also propelled the story forward, probing links between Kocner and organized crime and senior government officials.
Habara, interviewed in his home in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, shortly before the Feb. 21 anniversary of Kuciak’s death, said the satisfaction of carrying on Kuciak’s work tempered the sorrow — but only a bit.
“We all thought then we would be going soon to a wedding,” he said. “Instead, we went to a funeral.”
Caputova, who takes office June 15, suggested in her victory speech that she would strive for an inclusive approach, pledging to refrain from “aggressive language” toward political foes.
But she left no doubt of her intention to combat corruption and undemocratic practices.
“It is possible not to succumb to populism,” she said. “To tell the truth.”