The single shot was fired on Monday night [of 8 November 2010] in the small village of Limbach in the Lesser Carpathians foothills, a stone’s throw from Bratislava. On Tuesday morning its echo reverberated through the country since the bullet went through the heart of Ernest Valko, a lawyer whose reputation and firm were modelled on famous American attorneys. He was assassinated in his own house in a posh suburb whose residents include the ice hockey player Miroslav Šatan and Slovakia’s President Ivan Gašparovič.
Apart from the grief over the loss of a man who was prominent in the social and political circles of Slovakia’s Right, the horrified question immediately arose as to whether this murder was not a terrifying external sign of the dark undercurrents that have driven Slovak politics and business for some twenty years now. If this were the case, it would put an end to the illusion that the country has finally broken with the legacy of the bloody nineties when heads of mafia bosses severed by bombs were rolling down pavements and businessmen were mowed down by automatic rifle bullets.
Few people doubt that this assassination had to do with money – Valko’s law firm specialized in major business cases, which often involved millions. However, the key will be to discover whether there was a political backdrop to this murder or not. Based on the scant information released by the police it is not possible to infer conclusively whether it was a cold-bloodied hit carried out by a professional killer or a rash reaction by an enraged party in a lawsuit. Analysts have pointed out that hired hitmen don’t usually use revolvers (as was apparently the case here) and that they usually make sure their victim dies by firing several shots (the police has emphatically denied press rumours of a second shot to the head). On the other hand, the house allegedly smelled of acetone, which apparently professional assassins use to destroy any scent traces.
However, there are certainly striking indications that the lawyer’s death might be connected – albeit indirectly – to politics. Ernest Valko has been the state’s representative of choice in large lawsuits under all previous centre-right governments who tried to protect companies with government shares from high stake financial demands by various shady groups of entrepreneurs. Governments under Vladimír Mečiar and later Robert Fico, by contrast, were suspiciously neutral if not close to these groups. Two best-known corruption affairs of this kind involved the gas company SPP (and the infamous I.O.U.s of the former minister Jan Ducký, who was assassinated in 1999) and the Tipos lottery. In both cases, the new government that replaced Fico’s government this June had hired (or was planning to hire) Valko’s firm. Two weeks ago Valko himself joined the SPP supervisory board.
The suspicion that entrepreneurial circles cosy with the previous government have responded to an impending loss of influence and access to big money by murder, however wild, is hard to suppress since the ferocious battle for economic dominance of the country between two political camps is visible even to the naked eye. In that case, however, the murder of a prominent lawyer would be not just a horrific warning to opponents but would amount to a declaration of open war, which would place Slovakia outside of the European norm.
There is another reason why this murder has hit an extremely sensitive spot in society. Valko was one of the faces of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, becoming the first Chairman of the then still federal Czechoslovakia’s Constitutional Court, a man who had consistently declared his allegiance to the Right, which for the past twenty years has claimed to be the rightful heir of November 1989 in Slovakia. That is why it was obvious that the police investigation against him under Fico – he even spent a few days in detention – was politically motivated (the charges were later dropped and the case quietly closed). This makes it even more tempting to perceive his death as a ritual murder plotted by dark forces, a kind of incarnation of evil of the old regime in new disguise.
The only thing that could halt the spreading uncertainty and fear, which have become quite palpable, would be a thorough investigation of the murder and its motives. However, the record of Slovakia’s police instead raises the concern that this case might grow into a permanent social trauma, as happened with the political murder of Robert Remiáš, who witnessed the secret services abduction of the President’s son under Mečiar’s government, which has not been resolved to this day.
Ernest Valko had two public faces. He was a highly successful commercial lawyer with a wide range of clients – from the state through private companies to friends from the days of the Velvet Revolution (whom he usually represented without a fee). However, he was also a leading legal theorist and proponent of the rule of law and justice, author of several key pieces of legislation. Valko’s death can thus become a ominous metaphor with a wide social impact: the man who embodied the striving for the rule of law has become the victim of those who wish to destroy it even at the cost of human lives.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This commentary appearedin the weekly Respekt.
We are grateful to Martin M. Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.