A Double Murder Mystery and Slovakia's Most Prominent Villain
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because justice can be an elusive thing.
By Dariusz Kalan
When Marián Kočner, a flashy tycoon with ties to Slovakia’s governing party and a reputation as a ruthless information broker, was arrested last summer on forgery charges, it seemed like a mere speed bump. Kočner had been in jail before, and a forgery case could simply leave the 55-year-old with the image of a businessman playing hardball.
A murder case, though, changes everything.
In October, Kočner was accused of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, who were shot to death in their home. Kočner is seen as pushing Slovakia to the darkest place it’s ever been, his face stylized as Batman’s enemy, the Joker, on the cover of a popular political weekly.
The killings a year ago sparked protests and triggered a political crisis in Slovakia, a small, mountainous country of 5.5 million that’s hardly ever been shaken by instability. The accusation against Kočner, however, was leveled by one of the suspects, not by the police, who are still investigating the case. Now behind bars, Kočner agreed to be interviewed but failed to reply to written questions.
There’re still plenty of question marks. But Kocner had opportunity and motive.
Marek Vagovic, investigative journalist
What is sure is that Kuciak had long been covering Kočner’s alleged tax frauds. A few months before the murder, he received a phone call from Kočner, who informed the journalist he would show “special interest” in his parents, siblings and in Kuciak himself. To make matters worse, the police have determined that the murders were orchestrated by Alena Zsuzsová, who is alleged to have paid the hit men. She worked for Kočner as an interpreter and, reportedly, he is her daughter’s godfather.
“There’re still plenty of question marks,” says Marek Vagovič, Slovakia’s leading investigative journalist and mentor to Kuciak. “But Kočner had opportunity and motive. Ján was breathing down his neck and Kočner could have felt that the noose starts getting tighter.”
Kočner’s prominence makes him a juicy target. A small-town boy turned millionaire, he has long been a tabloid darling. Kočner’s harsh language, highly publicized marriage to a blond beauty and taste for shiny jackets and luxury sports cars helped make him a celebrity — along with his reputation as an influential power broker who danced on the edge of the law.
Kočner grew up in Ružomberok, in northern Slovakia, the son of a primary school teacher and a laborer. He got a journalism degree at Bratislava’s Comenius University before making his fortune during the wild privatization in the 1990s and, later, through alleged tax frauds. Suspected by Slovakia’s officials of having ties to local organized crime, Kočner’s name came up in connection with two scandals that hit the country in the first years of its independence. He was involved in stripping $2 million to $3 million from the Technopol export company, for which he served a short jail sentence, and in an attempted hostile takeover of Markiza TV. The takeover was unsuccessful, but it brought Kočner a million-dollar deal. (His forgery arrest was related to the Markiza affair.)
According to Adam Valček, a journalist at SME newspaper who is writing a book about Kočner, his assets are valued at $20 million to $30 million. “It doesn’t make him an oligarch in a traditional sense,” Valček says. “He didn’t shape events with economic muscles, but with information he has possessed.”
Talk permeates Bratislava about Kočner‘s dossier of compromising materials on his enemies. Valček understands it all too well. When preparing an article, he sent questions to Kočner and in reply received a package of questions concerning Valček’s private life, things only close friends knew about. The investigation into Kuciak’s murder shed light on Kočner’s methods: He hired spies to follow and gather information about several individuals, including Kuciak, Vagovič and Valček.
Kočner was never a member of Parliament or the government, running only once, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Bratislava in 2006. For decades, though, he gained a reputation as a well-connected éminence grise, someone whose influence was both frightening and tempting. When Richard Sulík, an ambitious yet green economist, wanted to get into politics, he went to Kočner. “He talked with everyone and everyone talked with him; he knew everything. At that point, I needed a sort of a guide,” says Sulík, a leader of the Freedom and Solidarity, the main opposition party.
In 2010, Sulík and Kočner met dozens of times. One breakfast meeting that took place at Kočner’s house was secretly recorded by the host and later released to the public. The recorded conversation, during which the two men discussed candidates for general prosecutor and a potential change of prime minister, rocked Sulík’s career for a while. “The Kočner with whom I spoke was just a controversial businessman, not a potential mastermind of a murder,” Sulík says. Despite the grudge Sulík holds, he calls Kočner an “encyclopedia” and a man of a certain charm.
Over the years Kočner has managed to cultivate respect across the ideological spectrum. A member of Sulík’s party bought an apartment in Kočner’s hotel in Donovaly, while leaders of three other parties contacted him on different occasions. But his real juice was inside the ruling government.
He has been friends with members of the ruling Direction-Social Democracy party (SMER-SD) for more than 30 years. It was SMER-SD that helped Kočner escape justice for his involvement in the Technopol affair. He was pardoned, in controversial circumstances, in 1997; two years ago, the SMER-SD-dominated Parliament annulled almost all controversial amnesties from that period — except Kočner’s. He was even a neighbor of Robert Fico, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and 2012 to 2018 and is still a leader of the party, in the luxurious Bonaparte apartment complex.
“He isn’t our man,” says Miroslav Číž, member of Parliament and co-founder of SMER-SD. “He was part of a social landscape in Bratislava, that’s all.” While party members had their suspicions about Kočner’s shady dealings, “what were we supposed to do?” Číž asks. “We had no tools to influence the police and prosecutor’s office, which are independent.”
Kočner himself started to influence them. He was on good terms with an old army friend, Dobroslav Trnka, a former general prosecutor whom Kočner could have corrupted, according to police sources who heard one of the secret recordings found in Kočner’s house. Kočner also worked closely with two police investigators from the city of Banská Bystrica who investigated several cases involving Kočner but never brought charges. The two investigators left the force in October.
As he sits in a cell in Leopoldov, Kočner’s world, it seems, is crumbling — including his family relationships. “I’m not in touch with him,” Ivan Kočner, Marián’s brother, writes to me via Facebook. “We have no common interests whatsoever. I want to protect my own family, and the last few years have been hard for us.” Not as hard as the next few will be for Slovakia’s most prominent villain.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the SMER-SD party originally pardoned Kočner in 1997 for his involvement in the Technopol affair. The pardon was granted by the president at the time.
- Dariusz Kalan, OZY Author Contact Dariusz Kalan