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Corruption in Slovakia: The story of a young whistleblower

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As a young whistleblower, Zuzana Hlávková has seen it all: cronyism, power games and corruption. After leaving her job at the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she decided to go public with a scandal revealing irregularities in the Ministry’s public procurement practices during Slovakia’s 2016 EU Council Presidency. We met with the young whistleblower in Germany to talk about her experience.

“Who would have thought that I would unveil a national scandal? I’m not a hero. Everyone can become a whistleblower, even ordinary people. I have just chosen to live life to the fullest,” Zuzana says in a hushed tone. She is modest, but Zuzana Hlávková has become a symbol in Slovakia after reporting cases of cronyism and unjustified use of public funds within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the country’s EU Council Presidency, which took place from July to December 2016. With the help of Transparency International, her mission is now to stress the importance of whistleblowers in society.

Make Slovakia great again

Slovakia is the second most corrupt country in the European Union, according to the World Economic Forum index. The ranking is done on the basis of three fundamental questions: how common is the diversion of public funds towards companies, individuals or groups in your country? How are political ethical standards evaluated in your country? And how common is it for companies to make undocumented payments or bribes? Zuzana’s case may seem insignificant placed next to striking examples like the recent Paradise Papers, but it shows how deep corruption runs, how it is found at every level and how important it is to report corruption as an ordinary citizen.

We are in Leipzig, Germany, and Zuzana has just spoken about her experience at a conference in the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, which is also a journalism school. She has been touring Europe since she became a whistleblower last year, at only 26 years old. “Mostly to meet people that have been corruption witnesses like me, but in other countries,” she adds. She takes a deep breath and adjusts her chestnut-coloured hair. “Shall we have some tea? It’s kind of a long story…”. Zuzana started working for the Ministry in July 2015 as an expert on cultural events for the Slovak EU Council Presidency.

Slovakia became a member of the European Union on May 1st, 2004, after four years of membership negotiations, and only adopted the Euro in 2009. Together with the Baltic states, Slovenia and a few other countries, Slovakia is one of a handful of countries from the old communist bloc to be part of the EU today. Slovakia is a parliamentary democratic republic with a multi-party system, and the last presidential elections took place in 2014. Andrej Kiska, the current president, is pro-European and extensively mentioned the importance of Slovakia in the EU throughout his campaign. It was Kiska who governed the country’s 2016 EU Council Presidency semester.

“With a degree in cultural studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I wanted to return home after many years spent abroad between the UK, Mexico, Spain and Cyprus, and contribute to improving my country’s image. Participating in the preparation of the EU Presidency was the perfect opportunity [to do so],” the young woman explains. Some of her main tasks were dealing with promotional activities, or launching the EU Presidency logo. “During the first months the atmosphere was very stimulating. We were about 10 people and we were meeting regularly, speaking openly.” But everything changed with the arrival of a new communications consultant.

One big mess

In autumn 2015, an unknown figure started incessantly visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Zuzana Ťapáková, director of a private Slovak television station. “She was introduced to us as a media advisor and she was always in meetings with the seniors from the Ministry,” says the young whistleblower. “We started to feel a strange pressure when, under her orders, we were forced to substantially change original projects for events, with a higher budget each time.” Low cost and low profile initiatives were becoming huge and commercial events. Zuzana continues: “What was particularly absurd were the two EU Presidency opening concerts. The estimated cost was 63,800 euros which, after the arrival of the new consultant, shot up to hundreds of thousands of euros.” The new recruit also proposed an expensive ceremony to present the Presidency logo; “an event that looked more like a catwalk for political parties than a national interest opportunity.”

Thinking back to this episode, Zuzana becomes angry, as if it all happened the day before. She explains that: “The entire department was against it. We agreed that a press conference would have sufficed for the launch of a logo, not a massive fanfare paid with public funds!” After the Christmas holidays, Zuzana Hlávková went back to work hoping that there had been some kind of mistake. She was wrong. “Three agencies had been chosen for the launch of the logo, without specifying any kind of criteria. It was Evka, Ťapáková's agency. According to the contract, the winning agency should not spend more than 162,000 euros, all costs included. Not only was Evka automatically selected, but we found out on the day of the event that the performances, the renting out of the theatre and the permits were all extra costs paid by the Ministry.”

It all happened one week before the event, so the team didn’t have enough time to change things or organise things well. “We had to fill the seats with Ministry personnel because otherwise the theatre would have been empty. We had been forced as employees to act as hostesses for free. Where was the seriousness of a EU Presidency? There was something so absurd about the fact that this specific agency had been chosen.” Zuzana didn’t go to the launch of the logo that evening, and it was exactly in that moment she took the decision that changed her life.

“Normally in Slovakia” Zuzana specifies, “public contracts are subject to an open offer, but in the case of the EU Presidency logo an exception was made with a pre-selected agency without any competition.” These irregularities disturbed the young events organizer to such an extent that she ended up quitting her job. Before leaving, she left one last cry of concern in the form of a letter to Miroslav Lajčák, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “His answer? Something happened with the logo ceremony, but nothing illegal. That’s what he told me when he invited me into his office. It was a very strange encounter, as if he was telling me that – although my intentions were noble – this is how things work. He even offered for me to choose any job I wanted in the institutions.”

The tea was cold at this point, but we were so into the story that we continued sipping it without paying too much attention. “I got out of that meeting without any grain of hope left. I felt like everything was useless, even going to the police, because they can’t intervene in such cases. It was time to let it go and think about my life, but I was so angry and frustrated! I couldn’t just let go of all my principles,” Zuzana said, outraged.

Three kinds of whistleblowing

Flutura Kusari is a lawyer for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom in Leipzig and an expert in whistleblowing. She was at the same conference as Zuzana, and stressed that: “It is important to explain the three different types of whistleblowing. There are internal whistleblowers, like when a person reports malfunctions in their own company. For example, telling the director that a corruption case is happening in the lower levels. The second type is external, like when a person goes to the police to denounce a wrongdoing of the system. And the third level is going public.”

According to the standards of the European Court of Human Rights, every whistleblower must comply with the following procedure to be legally protected: they must try to resolve things within their company, then with the help of the police, and if nothing has worked, only then can they publicly denounce facts. “There are some particular cases where steps can be skipped,” Flutura Kusari specifies, “especially when there is no procedure to report a case of corruption within a company. As a lawyer, I never recommend going to the public or to the media right away. There are enormous consequences for doing so.”

Zuzana Hlávková thought about her strategy for days, and considered all possible reprisals. She cried, she vented to her closest friends, she talked about it with her more sympathetic colleagues. Then she decided: “I was ready to report the irregularities that I witnessed. Truth be told, I never felt like a whistleblower, but a citizen tired of seeing corruption and omertà.”

 “I would do it again a thousand times”

The storm began when the scandal of the Slovak Presidency came to light. Zuzana decided to rely on the NGO Transparency International, which has been taking care of defending whistleblowers for years in the aftermath of their denunciations. “When you become a whistleblower, people start to recognise you on the streets, they know who you are and your story. I have tried in every way to safeguard my private space, because I like it the way it is. I don’t want to become a star, but I have surely lost my anonymity.” Zuzana also runs a blog on the Transparency International website, where she published documents, details of what she saw and tips for those who have something to report but who have not yet found the courage to do so.

Meanwhile, the political climate in Slovakia became tense. The Prime Minister Robert Fico described journalists who simply asked for clarification after Hlávková’s accusations as “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”. “The government tried to bury my accusations, saying that as a young consultant I couldn’t have known all those things, publicly denying the facts and calling me a liar in interviews,” says Zuzana. Still, support from civil society was immense: “Thousands of people had signed a petition to back me, knowing I had triggered indignation gave me the motivation to continue to fight against the abuse of power.”

Anna Meyerscest is the director of the Whistleblowing International Network, an organisation that became the main reference for all cases of denunciation we know of today, from the Panama Papers to LuxLeaks, but also smaller and lesser-known cases such as Zuzana’s. She is convinced that “whistleblowers ensure democracy in a country.” Supporting figures prove it: “40% of corruption cases are reported by whistleblowers. They are sometimes part of the solution because they are the most knowledgeable about what is happening within a company or institution. In a way, they are the guardians of democracy. You have to be very open to what whistleblowers are telling you, they cannot do it all alone, you need an audience ready to listen.”

Corruption is a fundamental issue in Slovakia, but no senior politician has ever been convicted. A Transparency International report shows that Slovak citizens are the least likely European citizens to report corruption cases. Perhaps because of the desperation that something can change. 41% of the Slovak population thinks that an ordinary citizen cannot do anything against corruption.

What Zuzana Hlávková is doing is an example for a committed and young Slovak generation, who struggles against favouritism and reacts to corruption in politics. Outside the journalism school in Leipzig there’s a wonderful sunset, and Zuzana relaxes a little at the end of our conversation: “I couldn’t work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs anymore if I wanted to, which was my little dream. But I would do it again a thousand times. You don’t have to be a superhero or be more courageous than others. You just have to have a strong civic sense.”

Translated from Corruzione in Slovacchia, storia di una lanciatrice d'allerta