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Anti-corruption in Slovakia: the role of civil society.

1. Introduction

The accession of Slovakia to the European Union (EU) on May 1st 2004 was meant to be "an irrevocable shift away from the bad habits of the past" (The Economist, 2009). After having turned from the "laggard" of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) into a leading reformer within only ten years, the accession to the EU should mark the final step in a series of important strides towards a full-fledged democracy with a clean, transparent and reform-oriented government. While Slovakia has undoubtedly become a consolidated, well-functioning democratic state, there are worrisome signs of a shift backwards to misgovernance, abuse of power and outright corruption which characterised the post-communist years of the 1990s.

The re-emergence of cronyism, favouritism and embezzlement of public money requires immediate and concerted efforts. But who can take on the role of the anticorruption crusader? The current government does not seem to consider the fight against corruption as a top priority and external pressure for reforms is largely absent. Conditionality for EU membership has lost its power to push for reforms and international donors seem to have slowly lost their interest in the region of Central and Eastern Europe after the 2004 EU enlargement. Given this situation it falls on civil society to step in and hold the government in check, monitor the activities of the political elite and advocate for measures to fight corruption. But is Slovakia's civil society able to take on this role? Does it have the potential and strength to demand accountability and transparency?

According to the publications of various international organisations, civil society plays a key role in fighting corruption (see e.g. OECD, 2003). This is all the more surprising given the lack of empirical studies on the relationship between civil society and anticorruption (Grimes, 2008, p. 3). Even though some studies have contributed to closing this gap (e.g. Tisne & Smilov, 2004), little is known about the impact of civil society action on the levels of corruption. The objective of this analysis is to further the understanding of civil society as an anti-corruption actor by looking at the case of Slovakia. Does the assumption of civil society as an important player in the fight against corruption hold true? If so, which strategies have been most successful and under what circumstances?

Apart from these more theoretical questions, there is an important practical dimension to the issue of civil society and anti-corruption. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and donors alike need guidance in searching for adequate anti-corruption strategies. CSOs are in constant search for the most effective approach to curb corruption. Donors need to decide on what organisation, and thus what approach, to fund. They have a strong interest in investing their limited financial resources most efficiently, or to put it more bluntly, they want to get the biggest bang for their buck. Therefore, this analysis seeks to come up with recommendations for the future role of Slovakia's civil society in anti-corruption. What has worked in the past and what lessons have been learnt? How should CSOs react and adapt to the new environment? For instance, should they seek cooperation or confrontation with the government? Donors need to ask themselves if their current funding strategy has the strongest possible impact. What projects and what organisations should donors support in the future?

2. Corruption And Anti-corruption In Post-communist Countries

While there are distinct differences in the extent and the specific forms of corruption across post-communist countries, they share a considerable set of similar features (Karklins, 2002, p. 22). This suggests that the current corruption is at least partly rooted in systemic features of the former communist regimes and/or in the transition from communism to democracy and a market economy (Howard, 2003).

Communism created a "politocracy" in which "power was the main instrument of allocating social rewards and where political office was closely intertwined with social status" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2006, p. 90). The system was characterised by monopolies of all kinds--political, economic and social. Discretion of public officials was high, oversight and accountability low, and transparency almost non-existent. Those characteristics were deeply entrenched in the communist administrative system and changing the attitudes of public officials and reforming institutions, structures and procedures requires time. Some of the corrupt networks established during communist rule have survived the transition and had a head start as a political actor because no other influential groups existed (Karklins, 2002, p. 28). Also, these networks have often remained in place because its members share a common history of corrupt activity which makes them vulnerable for mutual blackmail. In such a situation corruption tends to be self-perpetuating: "Fear of exposure of previous corrupt dealings leads to additional corrupt acts, through both blackmail and bribery, to prevent investigations" (Ibid., p. 30).

In addition to a commonly shared communist legacy, many post-communist states have undergone similar ways of transition towards a market-oriented democracy. The collapse of communism created a vacuum where new rules of the economy and the state had to be rewritten creating opportunities for corrupt actors to create rules and institutions for their own benefit (Vachudova, 2009, p. 44). Even when adequate and impartial laws and regulations were established, those actors could rely on political connections, dysfunctional state institutions and corrupt judiciaries to profit from corrupt acts and to prevent prosecution (Ibid.). In particular, the process of privatising state assets has offered great opportunities for corruption. Officials tasked with transferring public assets to private hands have instead concentrated on personal enrichment (Karklins, 2002, pp. 26-27). A study by the World Bank (2000) has found that privatisation programs in the post-communist countries have been fraught with corruption. Thus, even though privatisation can reduce corruption in the long term by making firms subject to market discipline, there are many ways of how corrupt interests can distort a fair and transparent privatisation process (see e.g. Rose-Ackerman, 1999, pp. 35-38).

Many studies have referred to an "anti-corruption movement" beginning in the 1990s comprising international organisations and transnational as well as national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Charron, 2009, p. 1). UNDP World Bank, OECD and others have undertaken immense analytical research and practical work to tackle the issue of corruption. Their efforts have resulted in a growing awareness of the nature and consequences of corruption among governments, civil society and the private sector (UNDP 2002, p. 4): "If until yesterday many people saw corruption as an inevitable evil, today corruption has become an intolerable evil" (Krastev, 1997, p. 1). A broad consensus was established that something had to be done, but there was no agreement on what has to be done (Schmidt, 2007, p. 210). In the mid-1990s, significant attention was shifted from anti-corruption to a wider reform of the state institutions under the heading of "good governance" (Charron, 2009, p. 7; Ledeneva, 2009, p. 67). Since then corruption has by many experts been considered a symptom rather than a disease (Krastev, 1997).

While the main focus of anti-corruption campaigns in the 1990s was on raising awareness for the detrimental effects of corruption (Michael, 2004), the late 1990s and early 2000s were characterised by disillusionment, scepticism and uncertainty about the success of anti-corruption. Practitioners and scholars alike became more sceptical with the euphoria surrounding anti-corruption, pointing to the "dark side" of both the anti-corruption industry and civil society involvement (Schmidt, 2007, p. 214). The limited effects of anti-corruption programs triggered a stock-taking of current activities and a rethinking about present strategies. In particular, civil society involvement in anti-corruption became a matter of controversy.

In the mid-2000s it was hoped that the EU accession would create strong incentives for the candidates in Central and Eastern Europe to tackle corruption more effectively. While in a number of cases significant improvements regarding anti-corruption measures could be observed, many of those countries that could initially reduce corruption seem to have backslided to the pre-accession situation in recent years (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2007).

2.1. Civil Society As An Anti-corruption Actor

The interest in civil society as an important agent for change was stimulated by the dissident movements in Eastern Europe in the 1980s (Carothers, 1999, p. 207). The struggle of Solidarity in Poland, the environmental protests of the Danube Circle in Hungary and the demonstrations against the political regimes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia had shown the power of civil society (Kopecky & Mudde, 2003, p. 1). The rise of these movements and their contribution to the demise of communism in 1989 made civil society become "an articulated political theory of opposition against totalitarianism in Eastern Europe" (Kopecky, 2005, p. 3). These developments were among the key reasons for civil society as an appealing idea of "a domain that is non-violent but powerful, non-partisan yet prodemocratic, and that emerges from the essence of particular societies yet is nonetheless universal" (Carothers, 1999, p. 207).

High hopes in civil society in the post-communist states were often followed by deep disappointment. When many anti-communist groups dissolved after the first democratic elections, most observers considered civil society to be in decline (Kopecky & Mudde, 2003, p. 1). Much of the literature that looks at associational life in post-communist Europe conveys not so bright a picture of civil society (Kopecky, 2005, p. 5). Even though civil society has flourished compared to the communist period, membership in voluntary organisations remains remarkably lower than in many regions of the world, including the established Western democracies, but also the post-authoritarian states of Latin America and Southern Europe (Howard, 2003, p. 6). UNDP (2002, p. 5) notes that societies in post-communist Europe "have weak traditions of self-organization and participation in governance processes" citing the examples of ineffective, donor-dependent NGOs with questionable representativeness and limited legitimacy. A number of studies have found striking similarities among post-communist countries with regard to a common mistrust not only towards political institutions but organisations of civil society as well (Kopecky, 2005, p. 5).

As an important change agent civil society has also been considered to be an effective anti-corruption actor tackling corruption through various mechanisms. Accordingly, civil society organisations can "build partnerships, provide links between public actors and the business community and between international actors and domestic contexts through information, mediation and education" (Schmidt, 2007, p. 211). In addition, they are believed to be able to put pressure on governments to fight corruption and to expose cases of corruption. Activities of CSOs include: raising public awareness on the negative effects of corruption trough information campaigns; carrying out diagnostic surveys on the prevalence of corruption and providing analyses and recommendations; conducting anti-corruption trainings, workshops and seminars; uncovering abuses and exposing corruption; providing expertise to and cooperating with government on designing and implementing anti-corruption strategies (see e.g. Hutchinson, 2005; OECD, 2003; Ralchev, 2004).

However, while certainly successful in placing anti-corruption high on the international agenda and raising awareness for the negative effects of corruption in many countries, even strong proponents of civil society have become cautious of the idea of civic involvement in anti-corruption (Schmidt, 2007, p. 216). Due to the lack of tangible success, there has been a growing "civil society fatigue" among Western donors in recent years (Vachudova, 2009, p. 60). The partial failure of civil society to successfully combat corruption is believed to have various reasons. First, the fight against corruption was new to many civil society organisations compared to other issues traditionally addressed by non-state actors. It might have simply overstrained their experience, technical capacities and financial resources (OECD, 2003, p. 22). Second, it is argued that civil society actors lack formal coercive and sanctioning power and therefore have limited capacity to affect government policies (Grimes, 2008, p. 3). A third argument questions the approach of many CSOs to undertake comprehensive public awareness campaigns aiming at motivating citizens to support the fight against corruption. Raising awareness about the levels of corruption and the negative consequences, so the argument goes, will not necessarily result in concrete changes (Hutchinson, 2005, p. 15).

Large bodies of research exist on both anti-corruption and civil society. However, there are only few studies on the relationship between the two, and even fewer that stretch beyond a single case (Grimes, 2008, p. 3). Although having received more attention in recent years, the role of civil society in anti-corruption remains a rarely researched topic (Schmidt, 2007, p. 223). While some scholars have argued that civil society has been "completely helpless in reducing corruption in the post-Communist countries" (Kitsing, 2003 in Schmidt, 2007, p. 216), others have contributed to a more refined picture of the role and functions of civil society in anti-corruption and provide recommendations for a more successful involvement of CSOs in anti-corruption strategies in the future. Based on twenty case studies of donor-supported projects in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Macedonia, Tisne and Smilov (2004), for instance, suggest moving away from the "fight against corruption per se" which has been characterised by public awareness raising and broad NGO coalitions. Amongst others, the authors recommend to mobilise "well-defined constituencies behind focused governance reforms that have a clear impact and benefits for those involved" (Ibid., p. 6). This and similar research has made an important step toward a better understanding of the complex and interdependent processes at work. However, further research is needed to be able to judge what strategies and approaches of civil society have been successful and which ones have the potential for replication in similar contexts.

3. Methodology

Corruption persists to be a major problem in the region of Central and Eastern Europe and it remains largely unclear how to fight this complex phenomenon. This analysis looks at the rather successful case of Slovakia in order to contribute to the search for a better understanding of civil society in anti-corruption. In addition, it aims at judging the potential of Slovakia's civil society for taking on the role of an important player in the future fight against corruption.

Answering these questions requires various steps. First, based on reports from international and Slovak organisations, findings from academic research and official documents from the EU and the Slovak government, Slovakia's current state of corruption, its developments and manifestations, will be presented. To inform the reader how Slovakia was able to significantly reduce the levels of corruption in the years between 2000 and 2008, section 4.2 will give a brief overview of Slovakia's anti-corruption strategy during those years.

In a subsequent step, the concept of the Civil Society Diamond (CSD), "a method of presenting and interpreting information about civil society in a systematic and structured way" (Anheier, 2004, p. 14), will be applied to assess Slovakia's civil society. Data on the third sector will be complemented by experts' assessments of its capacity and strength and recent developments will be taken into consideration when making statements on the future role of civil society in anti-corruption.

This rather general assessment of civil society is supplemented by information on past and current activities by anti-corruption NGOs. It includes various anti-corruption projects which have been conducted by civil society actors in the past ten years. In semi-structured interviews, representatives from civil society organisations were asked to answer questions concerning their various projects with regards to project design, implementation, funding and cooperation partners. In addition, interviewees were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of their own project. Where possible, the information given by the NGO representatives on the effectiveness of their projects was supplemented with comments by interviewees from international organisations, embassies and the Slovak government.

4. The Case Of Slovakia

4.1. The State Of Corruption In Slovakia

On January 1st 1993, three years after the Velvet Revolution--the collapse of the communist regime that had controlled Czechoslovakia since 1948--the Slovak Republic gained independence moving from the status as "the nation after the hyphen" (Britannica, 2010) in the Czechoslovak federation to a sovereign state. At the outset, the prospects for Slovakia were not bright. Slovakia's economy was heavily dependent on large-scale but obsolete heavy industry, employment was extremely high and foreign investment lagged behind that of other former Soviet satellites. In addition, Slovakia's regional political leaders lacked experience on the national level since Czechs had long dominated the federal leadership of Czechoslovakia (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008).

Following independence in 1993, extensive reforms were implemented with the objective of building a stable democratic state with a prospering market economy. In the years of democratic consolidation of the mid and late 1990s, the Slovak public began to demand substantial reforms towards a clean and transparent government (Ivantysyn & Sieakova, 1999). However, instead of increased transparency and accountability, the 1990s were characterised by widespread corruption extending to every aspect of public life. In a time where new rules of the economy and the state had to be rewritten and where massive amounts of public assets were transferred to private hands, opportunities for corruption were rampant (Vachudova, 2009). In a study on the perceptions of corruption in 1999, USAID and the World Bank (2000) showed that corruption in Slovakia was perceived to be widespread affecting all key sectors of the economy and almost all public services. Moreover, the study revealed that corruption was perceived to be significantly lower under communism than in the years between 1994 and 1998.

Many observers have blamed Vladimir Meeiar, Slovakia's Prime Minister from 1993 to 1998, with a brief interlude in 1994, for the high levels of corruption in the post-communist period of the 1990s. According to many observers, the Meeiar administration undertook virtually no attempt to tackle corruption. In 1995, the government started an anti-corruption program called "Clean Hands". It mainly proposed to enact new laws and amend existing ones designed to fight corruption. However, the program was largely ineffective because most of the measures proposed were never implemented and so the program did not bring any improvement to the institutional framework to combating corruption (Zemanovieova & Sieakova, 2001, p. 451).

When press freedom was curbed, the pace of economic reforms slowed down and the Hungarian minority stripped of cultural rights, Slovakia's relations with its neighbouring states and the West worsened. Following repeated warnings by the European Union and the US over the deteriorating political climate, Slovakia was not invited to join the NATO and the EU in the upcoming expansion rounds (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008). In its "Opinion on the Application of Slovakia for Membership of the European Union", the European Commission (1997) stated that "the government does not sufficiently respect the powers devolved by the constitution to other bodies" and further stressed that "[t]he fight against corruption needs to be pursued with greater effectiveness."

A Success Story

Following a near-collapse of the economy in 1998 and continuing major problems with the rule of law and corruption along with the fear of missing out on the opportunities of EU and NATO membership, in the 1998 national elections the Slovaks voted a new government into office. After the crony capitalism of the Meeiar era, the public's main concern was to bring to power a reform-oriented government willing to enact much needed policies to bring Slovakia on the track towards EU membership negotiations (Beblavy, 2009, p. 4).

In its initial phase, the new government coalition, headed by Mikulas Dzurinda, was plagued by a number of high profile corruption cases leading to the dismissal of four ministers (Transparency International, 2001, p. 132). In 2001, Slovakia even became the first country whose pre-accession financial assistance was suspended by the European Commission on grounds of corruption involving the administration of EU funds (Sieakova & Zemanovieova, 2002, p. 543). Although malpractice and misuse occurred and the Dzurinda administration could not be considered entirely clean, the government, pressured by civil society and seeking to fulfil EU conditionality, passed a range of important reforms aimed at tackling corruption.

Against all odds, Slovakia could substantially reduce corruption between 2000 and 2008. Measured by the TI Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Slovakia's improvement from 3.5 in 2000 to 5.0 in 2008 was substantially higher than for the three neighbouring countries with most similarities, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary (see Figure 1) (2). After having been the "laggard" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2007, p. 14) among the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s, Slovakia turned into Europe's "leading reformer" in the early and mid-2000s (World Bank, 2004, p. 17). The government's extensive anti-corruption agenda reduced the levels of corruption significantly. The key drivers behind those efforts were strong and sustained public pressure organised by a vigorous civil society together with EU accession conditionality and fiscal pressures (Beblavy, 2009, p. 5). Besides the EU, other external actors such as international organisations (e.g. the World Bank), national governments (e.g. Switzerland) and international donors (e.g. Open Society Foundation) provided important financial resources and technical assistance.


The End Of History?

The Slovak Republic, having undergone far-reaching and largely successful reforms, was thought to be on the right track to convergence with the EU countries from "old Europe". It was hoped that joining the EU would result in "an irrevocable shift away from the bad habits of the past" (The Economist, 2009). However, in recent years the Slovak public had to witness a shift backwards into the very habits of cronyism, clientelism and favouritism. The reasons for this "backslide" remain somewhat unclear. For one, EU membership conditionality has faded "the day after accession" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2007, p. 16). However, other factors need to be taken into account as well. The communist legacy, for instance, should not be neglected as an explanation for the still relatively high levels of corruption as compared to the EU average (Interviewee 1). Moreover, many foreign donors have decreased their financial support in Slovakia which has led to issues of funding for a number of civil society organisations, especially those active in promoting democracy, strengthening the rule of law and fighting corruption (Streeansky et al., 2006, p. 572).

In the case of Slovakia the situation has been further aggravated by a change in the political leadership of the country. In 2006, after two terms in power, the rather reform-minded centre-right government was succeeded by a coalition of right-wing populists (The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, HZDS), left-wing populists (Direction--Social Democracy, Smer) and radical nationalists (Slovak National Party, SNS) headed by the new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Exemplified by a long list of corruption scandals involving ministers and government officials, party clientelism and cronyism have become the modus operandi of the ruling coalition (Interviewee 2). In addition, observers have noted a striking passivity with regards to the government's anti-corruption efforts:

"Yet after Prime Minister Fico took office in 2006, a significant decline was noted in the government's anticorruption activities. Over the past two years, the Fico administration has not adopted an anticorruption program or created administrative structures to combat corruption. [...] The incumbent administration has practically abandoned any systematic approach to combating corruption. At best, it appears to tackle only the consequences of corruption" (Freedom House, 2009, p. 495).

4.2. Slovakia's Anti-corruption Strategy

The early and mid-2000s witnessed an impressive pace of far-reaching political and economic reforms. Following a number of well-designed policy measures, Slovakia was praised by foreign media as "Europe's fastest reformer" (Newsweek) and "a model for change" (The Wall Street Journal). The Slovak Republic gained a hallmark of a reform-oriented state mostly due to its reforms in the areas of tax, pension, labour market and public finance management (Zachar, 2005, p. 14). However, important changes were also achieved in increasing the transparency and accountability of the government.

Although Slovakia opened accession negotiations two years later than most other candidates, it had soon reached preliminary agreements with the EU in a large number of areas. While in 1998 the Slovak Republic was officially viewed as a country that did not meet the political criteria for membership, in October 2002 the European Commission stated that the Slovak Republic had fulfilled the political criteria for joining. Slovakia had become "a showpiece of communist change" (The Economist, 2006).

The rapid policy change created a feeling that "when change is possible in so many areas, it should be also possible to do something about corruption" (Beblavy, 2009, p. 6). Through a combination of sector reforms (e.g. tax reform and bank privatisation) and a mix of measures directly targeting corruption in the form of repression, prevention and education (e.g. special anti-corruption court and awareness campaigns) and horizontal reforms (e.g. Freedom of Access to Information Act, FOIA), Slovakia could substantially reduce the levels of perceived corruption (see Figure 1).

Sector Reforms

Deep structural sector-by-sector reforms have removed potential structures and procedures conducive to corruption. By introducing clear and transparent rules, discretion in decision-making was limited and shifting transactions to the market through privatisation and liberalisation tackled state capture in economically vital areas such as the banking sector (Beblavy, 2009, p. 9). Together these measures have led to a sharp decrease of the potential benefits of corrupt acts.

Studies have shown that the levels of corruption have decreased mainly in those sectors where reforms have been implemented (see e.g. Beblavy, 2009) indicating that structural reforms, even if not specifically designed as anti-corruption measure, can have a strong impact on the prevalence of corruption. Moreover, the fact that corruption has remained relatively high in many of those sectors where major reforms were not adopted shows that the specific anti-corruption measures, that were implemented simultaneously, were not the sole reason for reduced levels of corruption.

Positive examples for successful sector reforms leading to a steep decline in perceived corruption include bank privatisation and business registration reforms. Before the privatisation of all remaining major state banks between 2000 and 2001, the state ownership of the banks had been associated with extensive corruption in the provision of loans (Beblavy, 2009, p. 9). In a 1999 survey, almost one third of the respondents (29 percent) perceived corruption to be widespread in the banking sector; in 2006, however, the share of those responses had declined to 13 percent (Sieakova-Beblava, 2007, p. 588). Similarly, structural reforms have created a transparent and efficient business registration system. Until 2003, any change in the business register took 40 to 150 days (Beblavy, 2009, p. 10). The slow and non-transparent decision-making procedures incurred substantial costs to businesses and so entrepreneurs were inclined to offering bribes to speed up the process and to ensure approval (Ibid.). The reform of the company register in 2003 simplified the procedures and introduced deadlines for decisions. There are no survey data on the perceived corruption in the business registration system, but experts have rated the reforms in this area as one of the most important anti-corruption measures adopted by the second Dzurinda administration (Sieakova-Beblava, 2007, p. 591).

However, not in all sectors could corruption be reduced by adopting structural reforms. Despite a series of radical steps in the years of 2003 to 2005 intended to fundamentally overhaul the health system, there was no change in the levels of corruption with 62 percent of all respondents perceiving corruption as widespread in 1999 compared to 63 percent in 2006 (Sieakova-Beblava, 2007, p. 589). One reason for this might be that many of the reforms steps were not completed due to political controversy or pre-election manoeuvring (Beblavy, 2009, p. 14), but it could also be that the reforms undertaken were just not the right medication for curing the health system from its diseases.

Cross-cutting Reforms And Anti-corruption Measures

Under the first Dzurinda government (1998 to 2002), the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior were given the main responsibilities for fighting corruption. Based on a proposal by TI Slovakia, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of Economic Policy developed a national anti-corruption program which was approved by the government in June 2000. It included a broad spectrum of anti-corruption measures such as a randomized case management system for the judiciary to minimize the possibility of influencing the assignment of cases or the institution of an agent provocateur which should increase the exposure of corruption. The 2000 National Anticorruption Program can be described as:

"a multifaceted strategy favoring changes both in formal and informal rules. It endorsed reduction in discretion and increases in transparency, but also sought to improve the functioning of the judiciary and prosecution, combat conflict of interest at all levels of government and change norms of behavior through education and public information campaigns" (Beblavy, 2009, p. 6).

Even before the anti-corruption program was adopted, inarguably one of the most important legislative changes was the passing of the Freedom of Access to Information Act. Experts have praised the law as "a revolutionary change in relations between the public administration and citizens. [...] It is one of the key anti-corruption measures the ruling coalition has managed to adopt" (Sieakova & Zemanovieova, 2002, p. 541).

In the 2002 national election campaigns, corruption was again one of the key topics (Sieakova-Beblava & Zemanovieova, 2004). At the end of 2002 the new coalition under Dzurinda established the Anticorruption Department at the Government's Office whose head became Jan Hrubala, a lawyer and civic activist and known for his relentless criticism of corruption in the Meeiar administration (Freedom House, 2004). The main responsibilities for the government's anti-corruption agenda were shifted to the Minister of Justice, Daniel Lipsic, and in May 2003 the cabinet approved the "Report on Concrete Measures to fulfill the Program Manifesto of the Slovak Government in the Field of Combating Corruption". This program was much more technical than the 2000 anti-corruption program and proposed a number of specific legal measures especially in the field of repression (Sieakova-Beblava, 2006). In 2003 the parliament passed a law establishing a special court of justice and a special prosecutor entrusted with combating corruption and organised crime while at the end of 2002 the penal code was amended introducing stronger punishment for some crimes connected with corruption (Freedom House, 2004).

Thanks to a number of awareness campaigns, partly by the government and partly by NGOs, corruption was no longer a taboo but widely discussed and political actors had started to change their attitudes on the issue (Sieakova & Zemanovieova, 2002). However, the rising number of corruption awareness campaigns became the target of growing criticism. In 2003 the Slovak government launched a massive anti-corruption media campaign financed by the EU's PHARE program flooding the country with billboards and TV spots. NGOs active in anti-corruption criticised the campaign saying that Slovak citizens had long been aware of the negative effects of corruption and the campaign itself did not offer any concrete solutions:

"Slovakia passed the stage of accepting the phenomenon and presence of corruption a long time ago. What it needs today are concrete and effective solutions. Given the fact that financial assistance from the EU was single and limited, it should have been spent on different anti-corruption activities which would have had higher value" (Sieakova-Beblava & Zemanovieova, 2004, p. 660).


Slovakia's combined approach of sector reforms and the introduction of special institutions to fight corruption and increase transparency has been largely successful. While not having solved the problem in its entirety, corruption could be substantially reduced. However, this analysis does not aim at identifying, or singling out, the measures and reforms most important for this success since this would require a more in-depth analysis of the various reforms. Rather, a brief examination of the various policy measures yields valuable information for the future anti-corruption work of civil society and donors alike. First, the case of Slovakia shows that a comprehensive approach involving sector and cross-cutting reforms in addition to specific anti-corruption institutions can be successful in reducing corruption. Second, it is important to note that even though some reforms were not designed to fight corruption per se, but aimed at changing structures and processes to increase efficiency and effectiveness, they could substantially reduce corruption. True, many of those sector reforms, e.g. privatization measures, can only be implemented once. However, there are still sectors such as the health system or the judiciary that are infested by corruption and where it is worth-thinking about supporting civil society actors advocating for reforms even though they are not explicit anti-corruption NGOs. Third, it needs to be noted that while petty corruption could be reduced significantly, political corruption remains an issue, exemplified by the many corruption scandals of the current administration (Interviewee 3).

4.3. Slovakia's Civil Society As An Anti-corruption Actor

Answering the question if, and how, civil society might be able to take on the role of a key actor in the fight against corruption requires two analytical steps. The first part of this chapter takes a brief look at past and current activities by civil society in the field of anti-corruption. The second part aims at assessing the general capability and strength of Slovakia's civil society in its current shape by looking at structural, political and cultural factors.

Past And Current Activities

Rather than conducting an in-depth analysis, this section attempts to provide a snapshot of past and current anti-corruption civil society activities. It therefore does not aim at systematically identifying the single most successful approach or the single most effective campaign but seeks to give a broader picture of civil society's anti-corruption activities by looking at different types of projects. This does not exclude any attempt to evaluate the different projects. It should, however, be noted that most of the information on the effectiveness of certain projects is not derived from independent evaluations but from those NGO representatives charged with the implementation of the projects.

Slovakia's anti-corruption NGOs have been active in tackling corruption in various ways. In the early 2000s, a number of awareness campaigns were conducted with the aim of informing citizens about the issues surrounding corruption and creating public support for necessary reforms. Amongst others, Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) conducted a nation-wide campaign using educational broadcasts, competitions, discussion rounds and seminars to educate Slovak citizens about the negative effects of corruption (Interviewee 4). According to Zemanovieova & Sieakova-Beblava (2003, p. 686), it was largely due to such NGO activities that corruption became a political topic. While awareness campaigns might have been an important instrument in the initial phase of anti-corruption work, Slovak NGOs have recognized that informing about corruption without providing solutions to the problem is of limited use (Sieakova-Beblava & Zemanovieova, 2004, p. 660).

Thus, advocating for adequate legislation that would promote transparency and accountability has played an increasingly important role in the work of NGOs. One of the most prominent pieces of legislation initiated and supported by civil society organisations is the aforementioned Freedom of Access to Information Act (FOIA) from May 2000. A coalition of over 120 NGOs, joined by virtually all media, launched a massive civic campaign to pressure the parliament to pass the law (Zemanovieova & Sieakova-Beblava, 2003, p. 682). Similar campaigns have followed and often those campaigns were conducted by coalitions of NGOs. Even though not all major advocacy campaigns have been as successful as the FOIA campaign, an interesting characteristic that many of these campaigns share is the element of cooperation between NGOs and parliament--and not government. For instance, in the case of FOIA, NGOs drafted the bill together with parliamentarians and the cabinet did not endorse the law when voting on the bill (Ibid.).

In other instances, however, there has been strong, and successful, cooperation with the government. Whereas under Meeiar before 1998 and under Fico since 2006 the Slovak government has not been very open to contributions of the third sector, the Dzurinda administration showed interest in involving NGOs to a certain extent. Accordingly, both the 2000 national program to fight corruption and the 2003 more technical document containing specific legal measures were strongly influenced by TI Slovakia (Sieakova-Beblava & Zemanovieova, 2004, p. 658). A more recent example of successful advocacy work can be found when looking at the activities of the NGO Via Iuris. Facing high levels of corruption in the management and sale of municipal property mainly due to a lack of clear regulation, Via Iuris filed a complaint with the European Commission (EC) which then asked the Slovak government to adopt adequate legislation. Pressured by the EC and supported by Via Iuris, the Ministry of Finance drafted a law which, according to a representative of Via Iuris, has already been successfully applied in a number of cases (Interviewee 5).

Another case of cooperation between government and civil society to reduce corruption can be found at the local level. In 2008 the small Slovak town of Martin adopted a set of anti-corruption measures. Initiated by the mayor, Andrej Hrnciar, and designed by TI Slovakia, the measures were mainly targeted at enhancing transparency and increasing efficiency in the town's public administration. The project was entirely funded by the town's budget without any financial support through donors or technical assistance by international organisations. An assessment of the measures by the town of Martin has revealed that savings amounting to 28 percent could be made in the field of public procurement (Interviewee 4).

Watchdog activities form another major part of the work of anti-corruption NGOs. Being legally entitled to access data and information on government activities based on the FOIA is the crucial basis for most of these activities (Interviewee 6). Civil society organisations such as the Conservative Institute or Fair-Play Alliance have successfully disclosed a number of corruption scandals ranging from the embezzlement of EU Structural Funds to malpractice in party-financing and cases of corruption in public procurement. Media coverage of such cases was high, especially when ministers had to resign and EU funding was suspended.

A promising approach is currently pursued by Fair-Play Alliance. Based on the FOIA, various data on the flow of financial resources within the public administration such as public procurement, state subsidies and the allocation of public tenders are entered into a publicly accessible database. The database has received increasing attention not only by investigative journalists and auditing firms, which use the information for checking the involvement of private companies in illegal activities concerning public tenders, but also by ordinary citizens who have access to the database (Interviewee 3).

As outlined above, this brief overview of anti-corruption projects only serves to give an impression of what Slovakia's civil society has done to reduce corruption in the past years. In general, the efforts of Slovakia's anti-corruption NGOs have been largely successful. Slovak NGOs have raised awareness for the negative effects of corruption, successfully advocated for important legislative changes and provided expertise to the government. Moreover, together with the media, they have successfully taken on the watchdog role of controlling and monitoring the government's activities.

However, most of these successes were achieved under a rather open and inclusive government which was pressured by the EU to tackle the issue of corruption to gain EU membership. In addition, many Western donors have moved on to other regions resulting in many of the anti-corruption NGOs experiencing severe financial problems. Clearly, things have changed since the new government came into power in 2006. Any cooperation between civil society and the government has virtually been abolished, exemplified by the termination of TI Slovakia's cooperation with the government in 2008. Given these new circumstances it is questionable if civil society has the strength and the potential to continue playing an important role in anti-corruption in the future. A systematic examination of Slovakia's civil society in its current shape might yield some tentative conclusions.

Assessing Slovakia's Civil Society

Slovakia's civil society is by many experts considered to be among the most vibrant and dynamic in Central Europe with a mostly positive public image (see e.g. Freedom House, 2003). However, such a description is not very telling. A closer look is needed if one seeks to systematically assess civil society and make informed statements about its capacity to take on the role as an agent for change, in this case an effective anti-corruption actor. Therefore, the following section applies the concept of the Civil Society Diamond (CSD), "a method of presenting and interpreting information about civil society in a systematic and structured way" (Anheier, 2004, p. 14).

The CSD approach suggests four key dimensions to measure and analyse civil society: structure, legal and political space, values and impact. For the four dimensions, different indicators can be used to describe each in more detail. It needs to be noted that the complexity of civil society necessitates the use of multiple indicators to provide a comprehensive picture. However, given the limited scope of this study, only the most relevant information on Slovakia's civil society will be presented without going into detailed analytical work. While the following section explicitly focuses on the macro level as the unit of analysis, and therefore is not confined to the field of anti-corruption, it will in some instances point to the special circumstances of those civil society organisations involved in tackling corruption.


In recent years, the Slovak non-profit sector has steadily grown measured by the number of NGOs. From 2002 to 2008 the number of NGOs registered with the Slovak Ministry of the Interior has increased from 16,849 to 34,064 (Freedom House, 2003 and 2009). Data from 2008 shows that the overwhelming majority of civil society organisations are civil associations such as societies, associations, movements, international NGOs and sports clubs (Ibid., 2009, p. 487). As the Meeiar Government continued some of the practices of the communist regime, i.e. showing disregard for the rule of law and individual rights, a large number of civil initiatives were formed to advocate for citizens' rights and to demand greater accountability and transparency.

The financial base of civil society organisations is relatively weak. Even though the share of public sector support has steadily increased in recent years, Slovakia still lags behind most neighbouring countries (Streeansky et al., 2006, 559). Despite efforts by NGOs to increase funding by local business, financial support by the private sector remains modest (Freedom House, 2009, p. 488). Since 2001 companies and individuals officially registered as tax payers have been allowed to donate 1 percent of their income tax--increased to 2 percent in 2004--for charitable purposes. Even though advocacy NGOs, including those active in anti-corruption, have "accomplished countless systemic changes that affected the whole of society" (Streeansky et al., 2006, p. 572), their funding has dropped significantly since foreign donors have left the region.

Legal And Political Space

The years of 1994 to 1998 were marked by a deep mutual distrust between the NGO sector and the government and a fierce conflict about the character of a democratic Slovak state (Streeansky et al., 2006, p. 569). Although the Dzurinda Government gradually eliminated the serious legislative deformations of the Meeiar administration and created favourable conditions for the emergence and existence of civil society organisations, the public administration has continued to show a lack of understanding for NGOs and tends to control them rather than seeking opportunities for cooperation (Ibid.).

While the conditions for NGO activity were rather favourable under the Dzurinda government, the situation has worsened substantially with the new coalition government in power. Prime Minister Fico has shown a rather critical stance towards NGOs: "Prime Minister Fico's cabinet has been unreceptive to policy advocacy groups. Slovak think tanks and watchdog groups are perceived by the ruling coalition as a threat to the stability of the government and are increasingly subject to verbal attacks by public officials" (Freedom House, 2009, p. 489). According to a USAID report (2009), the government has tried to limit civic participation and freedom of speech and a number of NGOs, ranging from TI Slovakia and Fair-Play Alliance to the Institute of Public Affairs, have been targets of verbal attacks by Prime Minister Fico. By contrast, NGOs have received predominantly positive coverage by private and public media (Freedom House, 2009, p. 489) which themselves have faced serious accusations by the government. For their coverage of the government's activities, journalists have been denounced by Fico as "sleazy snakes", "prostitutes" and "hyenas" (The Slovak Spectator, 2010).


The public image of civil society organisations is largely positive (Freedom House, 2009, p. 487), especially since civic activities became "the most important force in support of democracy in Slovakia" in the 1990s (Wolekova et al., 1999, p. 368). Due to repeated attempts of the Meeiar administration to hamper the development of the non-profit sector, it emerged with little support from and almost no cooperation with the government but proved to be very flexible, united and able to mobilise quickly. The highly effective "OK '98" campaign for fair elections, which mainly aimed at informing and mobilising first-time voters, was one of the first demonstrations of the potential of the Slovak non-profit sector. This and similar campaigns along with the daily civic activities to support citizens resulted in a very positive public image of NGOs. In addition, unlike in many other countries in the region, the development of the Slovak non-profit sector took place without major scandals concerning corruption and dubious financial transactions (Ibid., p. 369). Surveys show that NGOs are substantially more trustworthy than other actors in public life such as political parties and the reputation of Slovak NGOs has increased further in recent years (Streeansky, 2007, p. 559).


The USAID NGO Sustainability Index, a measure for the strength and overall ability of the NGO sector in a country, has regularly ranked Slovakia among the top performers within the region of Central and Eastern Europe (USAID, 2010). The very heterogeneous and pluralistic civil society sector has in the past been able to exert strong influence on the government's agenda. Slovak NGOs have played an important role in a number of major civic campaigns since the mid to late 1990s. Many observers consider the "Third Sector SOS" campaign from 1996, which mobilised against a discriminatory foundation law proposed by the government, as the start of a number of successful NGO campaigns. By then it already seemed clear that civil society would play an important role in the democratic consolidation of the country: "With the credibility and legitimacy that the sector has gained in this country and with the continuing build-up of infrastructure, it seems most likely that Slovakia's nonprofit organizations will be able to maintain their special role in the democratic transformation in the future" (Wolekova et al., 1999, p. 369).

While many equally effective campaigns followed, such as the 2006 "People to People" campaign to preserve the 2 percent tax assignation mechanism or the 2008 Freedom of Association campaign, over the last years the public has become increasingly tired of NGO campaigns. NGOs not only fail to generate new supporters amongst the general public, but the excessive number of campaigns has caused a considerable loss of credibility among the media prompting some newspapers to stop publishing stories on advocacy campaigns (USAID, 2009, p. 211). Moreover, advocacy NGOs often face difficulties pushing through changes in areas which do not directly affect people or to which the public is not sensitive. For instance, when Fair-Play Alliance undertook a campaign to make the Minster of Justice resign because he maintained friendly relationships with a prosecuted person, public support was relatively weak despite the fact that 90 percent of Slovak citizens expected him to resign (Ibid., 212).

4.4. The Future Role Of Slovakia's Civil Society

A systematic analysis of Slovakia's non-profit sector confirms the view that many experts share of a vibrant and dynamic civil society. With regards to anti-corruption, Slovakia's civil society organisations have been highly successful in raising awareness for the negative effects of corruption, advocating for important legislative changes and playing the role of a watchdog to control and monitor the government's activities.

A strong civil society is all the more important given the current situation in the country. A re-emergence of "the bad habits of the past" along with the absence of EU conditionality and weak involvement of external actors in supporting anti-corruption efforts necessitates a civil society capable of holding the government in check, monitoring the activities of the political elite and advocating for increasing the quality of governance. After all, one cannot rely on a change in power towards a cleaner and more reform-oriented government in the near future. The chances for Prime Minister Fico to win another four-year term in the general elections in June 2010 were foreseen to be excellent (The Economist, 2009).

Given the many scandals and allegations of corrupt practices within the government, this might be surprising for external observers not familiar with the political situation in Slovakia. The reasons for Fico's political success can be found in a mix of charismatic leadership, governance rhetoric and a widespread satisfaction with the government's management of the financial crisis (Interviewee 7). In addition, the concerns of Slovakia's citizens with political corruption are much less pronounced than their interest in economic well-being and high living standards (Ibid.) (3).

This should be taken into account by anti-corruption NGOs for their future work. Moreover, as stated by Interviewee 7, Slovakia's society can be described as rather paternalistic, traditional and rural. Campaigns on family issues, such as anti-abortion campaigns, have always raised more attention than political campaigns evolving around a topic without tangible personal impact, such as political corruption.

In addition, the public has become increasingly tired of the excessive number of NGO campaigns over the last years. Interviewee 8 has confirmed the waning interest of the Slovak public in civil society's anti-corruption work by noting that the number of nominations for their anti-corruption award--given to public institutions for being responsive and transparent--has decreased by half within recent years. This development can also be seen in some parts of the Slovak media (see USAID, 2009, p. 211). Interviewee 9, for instance, noted that only one journalist attended a press conference where information was presented on a major corruption scandal.

Facing a situation of decreasing interest in advocacy campaigns in general and NGO anti-corruption work in particular, civil society organisations and donors need to rethink their strategies. While broad NGO campaigns have been widely successful in the past in achieving major changes in legislation (e.g. Freedom of Access to Information Act in 2001) or in ensuring NGO funding through the 2 percent tax assignation mechanism (People to People campaign in 2006), more targeted efforts are needed for the future anti-corruption work.

Now that the negative effects of corruption have been widely recognized thanks to the many awareness campaigns, educational activities and preventive measures, there is a strong likelihood that those groups who suffer from a certain type of corruption show interest in investing in anti-corruption and join civil society-led networks. Tisne & Smilov (2004, p. 71) come to similar conclusions when they argue that civil society organisations should move from broad anti-corruption campaigns to a more constituency-based approach: "Those who rent public housing, those who do business with customs, those who drive on the roads--each group has a strong interest in combating a particular area of corruption which is lost when the objective is to fight corruption on all fronts."

Such a change in strategy should be accompanied by widening the scope of anti-corruption actors. Donors should stop only supporting traditional anti-corruption NGOs and widen the focus of their support programs where necessary. Many potential anti-corruption players such as trade unions, business associations or lawyers have received little attention in the past. Private sector involvement has been largely absent in anti-corruption activities (see also Tisne & Smilov, 2004, p. 69). In the case of Slovakia this is all the more surprising given the large number of sector reforms which, although not primarily designed at reducing corruption, had a substantial impact on the levels of corruption by creating efficient structures, clear rules and transparent decision-making procedures. Cooperation between those groups directly affected by corrupt practices in a certain area and NGOs active in anti-corruption could be highly fruitful.

After many cases of successful cooperation between civil society and government in the years of the Dzurinda administration, the situation has changed dramatically since the new government came to power. As outlined above, the Fico administration has shown a rather critical stance towards the NGO sector. As a consequence of the government's passivity in tackling corruption, TI Slovakia decided to terminate its cooperation with the government in 2008. Many other NGO representatives have stated that confrontation and pressure was more likely to yield any positive results than cooperation (Interviewee 3). Only Interviewee 7 suggested that NGOs should make attempts to cooperate with the government following the elections in June this year. In case of continuous mutual distrust between representatives from civil society and government, NGOs might be well-advised to continue pursuing a strategy of involving individual parliamentarians in their campaigns, as it was done successfully when advocating for freedom of access to information legislation.

While administrative corruption could be reduced substantially in the past ten years, widespread political corruption still poses a major problem. As Interviewee 3 noted, "a group of untouchables" including judges, politicians and businessmen is still active in Slovakia. The prevalence of such high-level corruption can breed petty corruption. Citizens learn that stealing money from the state or giving preferential treatment to peers in public tenders is tolerated among the political elites and thus corruption risks becoming (again) widely accepted. Slovakia's civil society actors have been very innovative in tackling issues of political corruption. Anti-corruption NGOs have successfully advocated for new laws to prevent corruption (Via Iuris in the case of municipal property management), have found ways to encourage politicians to publish their assets on the internet (Fair-Play Alliance: Open Politics) and have evaluated the election programs of political parties from the viewpoint of their anti-corruption potential (TI Slovakia: Anti-corruption Minimum). In addition, NGOs have come up with innovative tools to monitor the flow of public financial resources (TI Slovakia: Political Patronage Index and Fair-Play Alliance: Fair-Play Database).

NGOs should continue their activities in the field of collecting information, monitoring the government and disclosing corruption scandals. Cooperation with the Slovak media has in many cases been very successful (e.g. with the newspaper SME) and should be continued. Donors should consider increasing the financial support for watchdog NGOs since many of them face severe difficulties in funding their activities since many foreign donors have left the region following Slovakia's accession to the European Union.

2. Concluding Remarks

The findings presented in this analysis should be viewed as a first step to a better understanding of Slovakia's civil society as an anti-corruption actor. Clearly, further and more in-depth research is needed. This could be done by conducting another round of interviews or by organising stakeholder focus groups. Moreover, increasing the number of anti-corruption projects in the research could enable a more comprehensive picture of civil society action in the field of anti-corruption.

In addition, interesting results could be obtained by looking at a greater number of countries from the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Such a cross-country analysis is likely to uncover similar patterns across different countries. For instance, it is no secret that the majority of the new EU member countries have shown signs of backsliding towards misgovernance, weak administration and rising corruption after accession. It would be highly interesting to see how civil society in those countries has reacted to this situation. Also, there is room for policy-learning among civil society groups active in anti-corruption. Institutionalised cooperation and an exchange of best practices could lead to more effective anti-corruption work and more sustainable results. Collecting and sharing such information would not only be valuable for civil society actors, donors and international organisations in the region, but it would provide the European Commission with a useful instrument to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the process of further EU enlargement. The EU needs to learn from the many negative examples from the region where the political elites have reverted to a large extent to their old ways of doing politics: favouritism, clientelism and corruption.

In the case of Slovakia civil society has played the role of an important anticorruption actor in a number of ways. Despite the difficulties many NGOs have recently faced, the third sector remains a powerful player and should be part of any attempt to fight corruption in the future.


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(1) Graduate student, Hertie School of Governance. An earlier version of this paper was submitted in fulfillment with the requirements of the degree of Master in Public Policy with the Hertie School of Governance in April 2010, before the government change in Slovakia. The information in this paper describes the situation prior to the latest Slovakian elections.

(2) It needs to be mentioned at this point that TI's CPI does not measure the actual volume of corruption or frequency of corrupt acts but people's perceptions.

(3) See Kurer (2001) for a discussion of the widely observed paradox of unpopular corruption and popular corrupt politicians.
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Date:Sep 1, 2010
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