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How One Courageous Whistle-Blower Exposed Corruption in Slovakia’s Government

Zuzana Hlavkova started working at the Slovak Ministry of Cultural Affairs in July 2015. Her job within the Department of Communication and Cultural Presentation was to promote the country abroad in connection with Slovakia’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, which was to run from July to December 2016.  

Hlavkova became concerned when a new media advisor changed the scope of some of the department’s projects. The budget for two concerts ballooned by several hundred thousand euros, for example. The advisor also wanted to stage an expensive ceremony where Slovakia’s EU presidency logo would be unveiled, an event that seemed to have partisan political rather than national significance.

Usually in Slovakia, public contracts are subject to open bidding, but in this case an exemption was applied, a preapproved company was awarded the inflated contract, and additional funds were secured directly through the ministry rather than the responsible organizing body.

Such was the level of Hlavkova’s disturbance at these irregularities that she submitted her resignation from the ministry, no easy decision when public jobs like these are prestigious and well paid. When she resigned, Hlavkova wrote to the minster of foreign affairs, Miroslav Lajcak, requesting a meeting, and a few weeks after she left the ministry, the minister met with his disgruntled former employee.

The minister did admit that there were cartels in the IT sector the state was powerless against. And sure, there were issues with the logo ceremony, but he insisted nothing illegal had taken place. The heart must be reasonable, he said—essentially saying, that’s the way it is. Finally he offered Hlavkova her job back, or any job in government service if she preferred.

A few months later, Hlavkova decided she couldn’t remain silent and contacted Transparency International. It is very rare for someone with government experience to come forward in this way, and rarer still that they are willing to testify publicly about their claims. We requested information and documentation from the ministries involved and checked Hlavkova’s story to the extent that we could.

In November, Hlavkova wrote a detailed blog explaining her actions and faced the media the following day. Our requests for audits and procurement information for the contracts involved remain unanswered to this day.

The government has responded, in that Prime Minister Robert Fico called reporters asking questions about Hlavkova’s accusations “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Hlavkova has been threatened with a lawsuit by a top government official, and was attacked for criticizing her country and, incorrectly, for being so junior a civil servant she couldn’t possibly know everything she claimed.

But public support for her has grown and thousands of people have signed petitions in her support. Hlavkova is a young woman of 26. After she contacted our organization and was deciding what to do, I told her that the kind of personal testimony she was able to offer is far more valuable than any number of statements from organizations like ours.

Corruption is a major issue for voters in Slovakia, but no high-ranking official has ever been successfully prosecuted. Perhaps as a result, a Transparency International survey shows that Slovaks are the least willing of any EU citizens to report corruption, and 41 percent of Slovaks do not believe an ordinary citizen can do anything about corruption. People do understand that money that should be going to support our hospitals and schools is being misappropriated, and this is why medical equipment costs far more in the public sector than the private.

There have been some gains in the realm of transparency. A blog I wrote for some years uncovered numerous examples of journalistic plagiarism. There has been a whistle-blower law on the books in the country since the first of the year. It is also the law in Slovakia that all details of public contracts have to be published online, down to the last receipt. Transparency has been a positive force when the information that it releases is handled in context.

Right-wing populist parties have made gains in Slovakia as they have in the rest of Europe and across the world. We must be vigilant and work to ensure that these groups do not undermine our democratic processes and devalue transparency by propagating lies and misinformation unchallenged.

It has been common practice since the Velvet Revolution for young Slovaks to study abroad, primarily to learn a more international language than our own. Hlavkova herself studied in Scotland, Spain, and Mexico, and speaks five languages. Many of these young people continue to live outside Slovakia, and I have received letters saying that if this is what is going on in the country, they think they’ll stay away. But other people have been asking what they can do.

What Zuzana Hlavkova is doing is a great example for engaged Slovakians who want to do something, and she has generated a great deal of energy ready to be harnessed. If there are no politicians that you like—a common complaint—then go into politics yourself. Or support an NGO whose aims align with yours. I also urge people to check out the contracts published online and ask questions. 

We know that NGOs are on our side, and a number of private companies have come forward to support Hlavkova and, in a number of cases, to make offers of future employment. Hlavkova’s experience demonstrates that we need honest people like her to go into public service. But we need to make sure that public servants are actually protected by the whistle-blower law, which has yet to be tested in the field. Above all, we must do all we can to help create a safe environment for more men and women like Zuzana Hlavkova to come forward and speak out.