Young, Idealistic but Determined, Slovaks Lead Anticorruption Crusade

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The pair of budding corruption fighters paused outside Slovakia’s presidential palace, trying to decide how long to give the government to capitulate to their demands. They wanted the resignations of the interior minister and the national police chief, as well as full and transparent investigations of a parade of recent corruption scandals. And that was just a start — the demonstration they had organized on Facebook was only a few hours away.

“What do you think, seven days?” asked David Straka, considering the memorandum he had put together with his partner, Karolina Farska.

She wasn’t sure. “We forgot to put in a deadline,” she said sheepishly, her face framed by a flowery headband. “This is the first time we’ve done anything like this.”

The oversight could be forgiven. They were, after all, just 18.

Corruption has been a stubborn problem in many of the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Things have grown so bad that some analysts now speak in terms of “state capture” — where all major state institutions are effectively in the hands of corrupt politicians and untouchable oligarchs. The problem is entering an even more critical stage, as authoritarian-minded leaders leverage the rise of nationalism and populism to consolidate power.

For young people like Mr. Straka and Ms. Farska, the fight against corruption is about nothing less than taking their country back for the next generation. Their battle is infused with a healthy dose of youthful idealism, but their anticorruption campaign has caught on, as have like-minded movements across the region.

The pair have become local media darlings, using Facebook to organize an anticorruption march in mid-April that drew as many as 10,000 people.

Immediately after the high schoolers dropped off their single-page manifesto at the government’s official complaints office on the day of the march, they made their way through the baroque city center of Bratislava to a square where a few hundred people had already started gathering.

“The state should respect our parents and not steal from them and lie,” Mr. Straka explained without breaking step, as glowering clouds loomed over nearby Bratislava Castle and a steady sprinkle of icy droplets fell from the slate sky.

“I hope this doesn’t keep people away,” Mr. Straka said.

Ms. Farska was equally earnest, for good reason, she said.

“We are at the point in our lives when we are deciding what we want to do,” she explained. “Stay here in our own country with our families, or go abroad where we could have a good life without so much corruption.”

The quandary faces hundreds of thousands across the region, especially young people, who are turning disillusionment into determined action in countries like Poland, Macedonia, Serbia and others.

For nearly a full month in February, Romanians took to the streets to protest proposed laws that they felt would enable government corruption. A month later, protests against corruption that featured large numbers of young people erupted across Russia, too.

In Hungary, a group of people in their 20s formed a new political movement that forced the government to abandon its bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. The protesters were fearful the event would provide a fertile ground for corruption.

Corruption is not the only target of the demonstrations. The protests are also driven by anger over fresh initiatives aimed at entrenching governing parties, serving the interests of oligarchs, weakening the rule of law, hobbling nongovernmental organizations and co-opting independent news media.

“Fighting corruption is really hard,” said Igor Matovic, a member of Slovakia’s Parliament whose small party was formed seven years ago to combat corruption. “They have all the power. They have all the money. But I will tell you one thing they fear, and that is students in the streets.”

That is something Mr. Straka and Ms. Farska understand. Their movement already has its own pop anthem: “The Deed Did Not Happen.”

The satirical title of the song, first performed by a band named Frendi, is taken from the verdict that ends many corruption investigations. “The deed did not happen, so it’s hard to prosecute the highest people,” the song begins.

Though Ms. Farska and Mr. Straska both come from Dubnica nad Vahom, a small town about 90 miles north of the capital with a population of 24,500, they attend different high schools: Ms. Farska goes to a school in their hometown, and Mr. Straka is in a special two-year program in Bratislava for gifted students.

“Then, by chance, we met up again about a year ago,” Ms. Farska said. “It turned out we had a lot in common.”

Their idea of trying to organize a young people’s protest movement against corruption came about slowly.

“When we came up with this idea, we thought we’d get maybe 200 people, including our friends and family,” Mr. Straka said. “You know, people who just want to show support so the whole thing didn’t become a big fail.”

But the idea took off. “In politics, there is no place for people who want to change things, only for those who want to steal,” Ms. Farska said.

The current government of Slovakia, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, assumed power in 2012 largely on the heels of a huge government scandal.

The so-called Gorilla scandal, named after the code name given to a secret dossier, involved government officials, oligarchs and others caught on tape discussing kickbacks and other corrupt activities.

But the parade of scandals has not stopped.

Even before the Gorilla scandal, during Mr. Fico’s first stint as prime minister in 2008, a lucrative contract to construct a toll system for the country’s highways slipped into controversy when it went to the highest bidder, a company whose true ownership was unclear, after the government declared three other bidders ineligible.

In 2012, shortly after Mr. Fico returned to power, a government-backed hospital was found to have paid over a half-million dollars more than a hospital in the neighboring Czech Republic did for a CT scan machine. And just last year, a close associate of the prime minister was named in a tax fraud scandal.

There are nightly protests outside the fashionable building on Castle Hill where the prime minister lives in an apartment for what opponents say is far below market price. His landlord is Ladislav Basternak, the same associate who benefited in the tax fraud case.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fico has tried to co-opt the corruption issue. With right-wing extremist parties gaining support, the prime minister has tried to portray his government as a champion in the fight against graft — going so far as to invite leaders of anticorruption organizations like Transparency International to meet with him for the first time.

“I want to assure all the citizens that the government of Slovakia views corruption as a serious, long-term problem and is taking concrete steps to limit and destroy it,” Mr. Fico said in a statement.

Ms. Farska and Mr. Straka are not persuaded. Neither, it seemed, were the thousands who ultimately showed up for their march on this recent day, despite the spitting rain.

People spilled out of trams, filling the square and its adjacent promenade. A couple of men in gorilla suits and long white beards — to indicate how long the Gorilla scandal has gone on — whooped and hopped and waved to the dumbstruck tourists.

“Stop corruption!” they chanted. “We are not oblivious!”

The rain intensified as the marchers made their way through the city’s narrow streets to SNP Square — named for the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis and the site of the main anti-Communist protests during the 1989 Velvet Revolution — where a stage was wrapped in waterproof plastic.

Mr. Straka and Ms. Farska took the stage to raucous cheers.

“If this country is worth anything, these people must resign,” Mr. Straka said, waving a copy of the group’s demands. “The law is the same for everyone; otherwise, it makes no sense.”

Mr. Fico and most of his top ministers praised the democratic spirit of the students without addressing their demands. “It’s good when young people take an active interest in what is happening in their country,” the prime minister said in a statement after the rally.

Mr. Straka said they were still trying to figure out what to do if the government rejected their demands.

“People say we are naïve, and I guess we are naïve,” Ms. Farska said. “But we are learning, and we are not alone.”