Slovakia has its share of official sleaze, but it also has people who hate bribery and the waste of public money.by Martin Ehl 19 June 2012
The poetry of corruption is a special genre. No one knows this better than the Slovaks. They’ve given unusually nice names to some of the recent scandals: Gorilla, Anemone, Tomcat. And “White Crow” – the award given by two watchdog groups to those individuals who fear not to point the finger at suspect behavior in the public sector. In a country where 80 percent of people polled by Eurobarometer say corruption has been a major problem since Slovakia entered the EU, it becomes an act of heroism when an employee warns of irregularities in tenders, company finances, or hiring practices.
The experiences of White Crow awardees show that to be a hero means to lose your job, and be thankful if your former boss decides not to file a criminal complaint against you. The only outcome we might call a happy ending is Jan Micovsky’s election to parliament after he drew attention to murky property deals in the state forestry company.
Zuzana Melichercikova’s story may be the most compelling. In 2010, she blew the whistle on the strange admission practices at the law school of Comenius University, the country’s largest institution of higher education. She left school assuming those practices would be investigated. Instead, as the media sunk their teeth into the case, potential employers refused to consider her applications and she ended up taking a job at McDonald’s.
After she was awarded the White Crow in 2010 a few offers came in and she eventually landed a job at the Labor Ministry. Not long ago, however, she left, because she had nothing to do. Two months after a new government took office, she and her fellow workers showed up at work only to punch the clock. It seems that the public procurement section, where she worked, was suddenly without anything to do because the procurement process at every ministry ground to a halt while the new government, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, examined every tender on the books. The previous cabinet headed by Iveta Radicova had carried through a revolution in the form of making public all purchase orders in the public sector, scoring a major point in the fight against corruption. But Melichercikova would not take the state’s money for nothing. After complaints were filed against her by former superiors, the mother of four has no kind words for public officials.
“I got a job in the private sector from the first ad I replied to. I’ll be working in Austria, for a higher salary but with higher expectations,” she told me in a phone interview.
She remains cautious because of yet-unresolved differences with the law school, but in general she’s unafraid of harassment by Slovak officialdom. On the contrary, she acted naturally, as her conscience demanded. “This republic would look different if everyone spoke up in that way,” she exclaimed, surprised at my questioning if it was rational to take on two large state organizations in such a short time.
“I’m not afraid of them, because I’m telling the truth,” was her clear answer.
Last spring she turned down an offer to run for office from one of the parties now in parliament. She wants nothing to do with either politics or the state sector. This is understandable in the country of “Gorilla,” the code name for an official file of phone taps revealing close ties between political and business interests. Police are still investigating how the file got leaked, presumably by someone in the intelligence services. Lawyers for Penta, the financial group implicated in the recordings, tried to stop publication of a book on Gorilla by Canadian-Slovak journalist Tom Nicholson, but last week a court overturned an earlier injunction, and the file and the story behind it should be out in paper form in late July or early August.
Transparency International’s new comparative study of the corruption situation in 25 European countries notes that Slovakia has the standard legal toolkit to fight corruption, but only on paper. In practice the tools are little used, and the police, courts, and the state agency for public procurement aren’t working well. The reporters and investigators who looked into Gorilla know a bit about these things, as does Zuzana Melichercikova.