Slovakia, a member of the European Union, said Wednesday it had decided to expel 35 Russian diplomats based on information provided by intelligence services.
The move comes a day after fellow EU countries Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Czech Republic all announced the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats suspected of spying, in coordinated action taken in the shadow of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
Other countries, including the United States and Poland, had earlier also expelled Russian diplomats.
Slovakia will “reduce the staff of the Russian embassy in Bratislava by 35,” foreign ministry spokesman Juraj Tomaga told AFP.
“We regret that following the previous expulsions of Russian diplomats in the last couple of years, the Russian diplomatic mission has not shown any interest in operating correctly in Slovakia,” he added.
Slovakia had already expelled three Russian diplomats for espionage earlier this month.
A long-awaited trial of Slovak businessman Marian Kocner, suspected of ordering the 2018 assassination of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, will go ahead next month, a court ruled Thursday, rejecting the defence’s call for a postponement.
Relatives of the victims — Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova — were present for the pre-trial hearing, coming face-to-face with the millionaire property developer for the first time.
Kocner, 56, wore a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he arrived at the Special Criminal Court, watched by riot police.
Three of his four co-defendants, Alena Zsuzsova, Tomas Szabo and Miroslav Marcek, also appeared in the court in Pezinok, a town some 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the capital Bratislava.
Zoltan A., who allegedly acted as an intermediary, has made a plea bargain pending court approval and was not present. He may be tried separately.
Journalist Kuciak had been investigating Kocner’s business activities when he and Kusnirova were gunned down at home near Bratislava in a gangland-style hit in February 2018.
The double homicide triggered mass anti-government protests that forced then-premier Robert Fico to resign and paved the way for the election of liberal anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova as president in March.
Prosecutors have charged Kocner with ordering Kuciak’s killing.
Kocner’s lawyer, Marek Para, claimed he had not received the complete file to prepare the defence case and asked that the trial be postponed.
But the Slovak court concluded that “the accused and other parties in the case have been informed correctly and in enough time to read the results of the inquiry carefully,” judge Ruzena Sabova said, ordering the trial to begin on January 13, 2020.
– ‘No emotion on their faces’ –
“I didn’t see any emotion on their faces,” Kusnirova’s mother told reporters afterward of the accused. “They didn’t want me to look into their eyes. When they did look at me, their expression was blank.”
According to the 93-page indictment, which was leaked to local media, Kocner failed to find “any dirt” on the journalist to discredit him, which led the accused “to decide to get rid of Jan Kuciak physically and thus prevent further disclosure of his (Kocner’s) activities”.
If convicted, Kocner faces a minimum of 25 years in jail but could be imprisoned for life, Jana Tokolyova, a spokeswoman for the special prosecutor’s office, told AFP earlier.
Kocner, who is also under investigation for his role in several cases of suspected fraud, has a reputation for hostility towards journalists.
In 2017, he told a news conference that he planned to create a website to publish details on journalists’ private lives, according to the SME daily.
He threatened Kuciak and his family during a recorded telephone conversation, the audio of which was released by the journalist’s online employer, aktuality.sk.
Investigators have revealed that Kocner exchanged thousands of messages with senior government officials from the ruling Smer-SD party.
The former prime minister and Smer chairman Robert Fico blamed the opposition and the media for linking his party to Kocner, telling reporters that their coverage against the party was “turning into a kind of jihad”.
Fico remains the party leader and is widely seen as still pulling the strings.
Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Babos told AFP that “Robert Fico is definitely losing coalition potential” in the lead-up to a February general election.
“I cannot imagine political parties entering into a coalition with Smer-SD,” Babos said.
Support for Smer-SD has dropped to a historic low of around 20 percent, but it is still poised to win the poll.
At least 13 people died and 20 were injured when a bus crashed into a truck in western Slovakia on Wednesday, the fire service told AFP.
“I can confirm the death of 13 people and 20 injuries in an accident near Nitrianske Hrnciarovce where a bus and a truck collided,” said Zuzana Farkasova, spokeswoman for Slovak firefighters and rescuers.
Rescuers said on their Facebook page they expected the number of casualties to increase.
Former lifeguard Kieffer Moore scored on his international debut as Wales drew 1-1 with Slovakia on Thursday as Ryan Giggs’ side stayed afloat in Euro 2020 qualifying.
Moore headed home in the 25th minute in Trnava before Slovakia deservedly levelled early in the second period through Juraj Kucka.
The result left Wales with seven points in Group E, six behind leaders Croatia and three back from Slovakia but they do have the luxury of a game in hand and a better head-to-head record over the Slovaks.
Moore, a towering 6ft 5in (1.96m) centre-forward who plays his club football with Wigan in the English secod tier, opened the scoring in the 25th minute.
The 27-year-old rose unmarked just outside the six-yard box to head in from a pinpoint cross from Manchester United’s Daniel James out on the left.
James had been picked out by a raking crossfield pass from Gareth Bale.
Just moments earlier, Bale, who came into the game with fresh doubts over his future at Real Madrid, had headed against the crossbar.
Bale has a liking for Slovakia. His first international goal goal came at home to the same opponents in 2006.
He had also been on target against them during a 2-1 win at Euro 2016.
For Moore, it was an international debut to remember. Just six years ago, he was playing non-league football and working as a lifeguard to make ends meet.
Wales thought they should have had a penalty as the opening period closed but defender Norbert Gyomber’s clumsy sliding challenge on Jonny Williams was deemed legitimate by the referee.
Slovakia had some of the best opportunities in the early exchanges.
Robert Mak cleverly created space in the penalty area but teenage defender Ethan Ampadu blocked the drive.
Mak again had a sight of goal as half-time approached before full-back Connor Roberts came to the rescue.
The home side did eventually pull level eight minutes into the second half.
Wales only half-cleared a cross and with time to set himself midfielder Kucka unleashed a fierce left-foot volley from 20 yards which left goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey floundering.
Slovakia continued to pile on the pressure with Mak again denied by a block before Hennessey needed to dive at full stretch to push away a drive from the impressive Parma star Kucka.
As time ticked away, Gyomber was red-carded for a lunge on Moore before Bale, already on a yellow card, ended the game shaking off a knock picked up in a crude, late challenge on Milan Skriniar.
England’s national team manager, Sam Allardyce, says Wayne Rooney is the right choice to lead the team.
Coach Allardyce said that the Manchester United skipper was hugely respected by his peers and has enjoyed the responsibility as captain.
“You would hope the captain would make a decision on the pitch if he felt it needed to (be made).
“For me, that’s the captain’s role. It’s a big responsibility at club level and even more so at international level. First and foremost lead by example.
“It’s all about the personality. Can you handle the responsibility of being captain? I think he has enjoyed the responsibility. Some players don’t want that responsibility,” BBC quoted the 61-year-old as saying.
Rooney is England’s record goal scorer and took on the armband from Steven Gerrard last year.
The England squad is preparing for Sunday’s opening 2018 World Cup qualifier in Slovakia.
Slovakia will assume the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on Friday, as the bloc faces unprecedented pressure following the UK’s decision to leave it.
This is the first presidential stint for Slovakia, which joined the EU in 2004.
Earlier, Prime Minister Robert Fico said the EU will have to “redefine” unsuccessful policies, particularly on immigration.
But analysts say the Slovak agenda, which also includes reforming the European Union’s single market, will be eclipsed by the fallout from Brexit.
Slovakia and the other so-called Visegrad states – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – are calling for more powers to be returned to EU capitals and a reduction in the role of the executive European Commission in Brussels.