From democracy to kleptocracy and back? The unfinished business of democracy in CEE

Author: Juraj Mesik

What happened with the mobilizing power? Juraj Mesik is disappointed 10 years after the Slovak civil society campaign of 1998 and warns for the serious political problems and concerns that are left unanswered.


In the dark days of December 2008, sitting in this corrupt country, it may seem strange, or perhaps even inappropriate, to start my review of the past 20 years by reminiscing about the glorious days of civil society in Slovakia in 1998. This era marked a halfway point between “then“ and now. Without the surge in civil society activity in 1998, Slovakia and, to a certain extent, the whole of east central Europe would look very different ten years on.

Although we are unlikely to ever have sufficient scientific data to prove that unequivocally, based on the data we do have, we can argue that civil society played a critically important role in what became one of the major success stories of post-communist transition in Europe. The authoritarian regime was overthrown and Slovakia was put on a trajectory towards full EU and NATO membership.
To fully understand the situation today and speculate on the future, we need to start in 1998 - the high water mark of civil society in Slovakia.
The third sector, which was a key element of active citizenry in Slovakia in 1998, had quite specific features. Dušan Ondrušek, a prominent Slovak NGO leader, described it in terms of a deformed human body (“a homunculus”). While it had a big head and muscular arms, its body and legs were small and weak. What from today’s perspective appears to be a structural problem, was a more or less natural result of the evolution of NGOs’ active role in the country’s struggle for orientation in the first decade after the fall of communism. To contribute to the fundamental fight over Slovakia’s geopolitical affiliation, the think-tank, advocacy and campaigning capacities of the sector had to grow to disproportional dimensions. This inevitably left other parts of the sector weak.
NGOs’ quick retreat from power politics after 1998 consequently pre-determined the pitiful status of Slovakia´s civil society today. If we return to the analogy of the deformed human body, in the past decade the third sector has lost much of its strength in the head and arms, while failing to build a stronger body and legs. It’s no surprise then, that without a civil society watchdog, Slovakia is currently characterized by a gradual but steady shift towards a non-liberal democracy and a deeply corrupt government. The country remains formally democratic, but the people (alt. citizens) have a rather limited influence over public affairs. Public authorities, and political culture as a whole, are dominated by corrupt political parties controlled by oligarchs lurking in the background.
Political parties today are using their power for two very straightforward aims: Firstly, to sell cheaply whatever is still publicly owned and can be sold. This includes land, concessions and any other kind of public property; and secondly to buy products for public use from the private sector at exorbitant prices. This includes cars, arms, construction works, everything…. Party “friends” are involved in both types of transaction. This situation is symbolized by the current ruling coalition, two members of which were actually defeated in 1998. These are the populist Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the extremist nationalist and anti-Hungarian Slovak National Party (SNS).
The gradual shift towards a fundamentally corrupt kleptocratic form of government, or rather a return to this phenomenon, started shortly after the breakthrough in 1998. It occurred under the coalition government formed with crucial help from civil society organizations. This turnaround was made possible by the quick retreat of civil society players from their prominent role in public and political life, in other words by the naïve and premature de-politization of NGOs and their networks.
Not only is the current government corrupt on a major scale, it is also a government that understands the potential threat of civil society to the established regime. It is therefore innately hostile to civil society, as it is hostile towards any remaining outlets of free and critical media.
Unlike the pre-1998 government, the current coalition is more intelligent and more constrained by rights guaranteed by the EU. It is also much less threatened by the now weaker civil society, and the overall atmosphere in the country. It does not need to behave too aggressively against the NGO sector.
At the end of 2008, civil society in Slovakia is very unlikely to succeed in mobilizing people on a scale that could present a real threat to the established rule of corrupt political parties and oligarchs. Not only are NGOs and civil society organizations too weak in terms of their human and material resources to represent a threat to the establishment. The population at large is satisfied with the situation.
Let me start with the social reasons for civil society’s current low levels of influence on public matters.
First of all, the psychological profile of Slovak society today compared to what it was in 1998 is entirely different.
At the end of 2008, Slovakia is part of the EU, NATO, the Schengen Zone and will even join the Eurozone at the start of 2009. Thanks to these anchors to the West, albeit combined with very cheap labor and several reasonable policies introduced by the post-1998 government, over the past several years the economy has grown at a record speed. Unemployment has dropped to less than 8 percent. It is still among the highest in the EU, but a significant improvement on the 20 percent recorded in the late 1990s. These fundamental achievements have given most of the population a high level of personal comfort and a range of prospects for the future. In 1998, many Slovak citizens were saying “if Meciar stays in power, I will emigrate from this country.” No major changes are needed today – if you are not happy here, you and your family are free to move elsewhere within the European Union and return if and when you choose. It’s no longer a stressful process, especially for those who are young and capable.
This movement is indeed the reality for many Slovaks. Around 250,000 Slovaks – mostly those who are young, dynamic and well educated – are working and living outside the boundaries of Slovakia, in the Czech Republic, the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and elsewhere. In addition to this, around 20,000 university students are studying outside of Slovakia. For a small country of 5.4 million people, this is a very significant number of the working-age population. When it comes to potential rebels, activists and agents of change, the proportion outside the country is even higher. The opportunity to leave the country is wide open, for the benefit of Slovak citizens, but also for the benefit of our corrupt status quo. Too few people with the right profile remain to push for eventual change.
The second critically important change compared to 1998 is a result of the massive spread of information and communication technology over the last 10 years.
Linked to this potentially very beneficial trend is a deep fragmentation of public debate, due to the growth of the blogosphere. Information, views or ideas presented in just a handful of key media outlets in 1998, such as the daily Sme, were able to reach maybe 80 percent of the key players in civil society as well as many other important people. To reach a comparable segment of the active citizenry without significant money today is much more difficult, if not impossible. The position of printed media has been weakened by the growth of electronic channels, which are preferred by the younger generation, as well as by the commercialization of printed media, TV and radio stations and their high dependency on advertising as well as popular, light topics and images. While it is much easier for each and every citizen to spread information or express his or her ideas, including political ideas, through the myriad of blogs, it is much more difficult to reach a critical mass of people in order to stir the widespread public debate about critical issues that is essential for affecting change. With just a handful of free media outlets in 1998, the change was, paradoxically, much easier to bring about than it is today.
Looking at the dire situation of the third sector and civil society, most people describing its weaknesses will start by talking about a lack of money.
This is indeed a very important factor, but to me the high level of burn out and the loss of leadership in the sector is actually more important. In 1998, NGOs in Slovakia benefited from strong leadership with a rather high level of legitimacy and respect throughout the NGO community across the country. The situation was never simple, but the leadership was there and the sector and society at large benefitted from this reality. Several of the key individual leaders of the Gremium of the Third Sector (G3S) or OK 98 Campaign were experienced politicians, including former government ministers and MPs. The OK 98 leadership disappeared naturally with the completion of the OK 98 campaign, but the end of the G3S was not inevitable, nor desirable. It happened after several critical G3S leaders stepped down and allowed the sector leadership to be filled by much less experienced individuals. These new leaders lacked the necessary vision, drive and political experience. Within just a few years, the Gremium ceased to exist as a relevant political player, leaving the arena of “big politics” open only to political parties and oligarchs.
The second most important weakness in the sector is indeed related to money.
It’s not so much about the quantity of money available, but more about the quality. Critical financial support for NGOs’ political work before and shortly after 1998 came from the American private and public donors. However, U.S. donors never intended to remain active in Central Europe in the long term and they gradually left Slovakia soon after 1998. Perhaps too soon. The logic behind this early departure was complex, but clear – Central Europeans became part of the EU and NATO, two of the elite clubs of the world. The need for American resources in other parts of the world may be much bigger. Moreover, it was clear, that the EU would flood new EU member states, including their civil society organizations, with much more money than the U.S. ever could. And the reality is that tons of money did come through. Unfortunately, however, it came with massive bureaucratic restrictions and to finance priorities defined by Central East European (CEE) politicians and European bureaucrats, not by citizens and citizens’ organizations of either the new or old member states.
European donors, both public and private, proudly ignored the opportunity to learn from American experience in CEE and about U.S. grantmaking strategies and practices that played a critical role in the democratic transformation of the region. Our West European counterparts proudly believe that they know better than Americans – and the citizens of new EU member states – what democracy is and how to build it. Unfortunately, they never did know any better and certainly do not know any better now. While interpreting that as intellectual arrogance is a bad sign, an even worse option is that they simply do not care about the quality of democracy in new member states. Whatever the reason, the consequences may be very costly, if the cancer of excessively corrupt politics and illiberal democracy spreads its long arms from Bratislava, Warsaw or Bucharest to Brussels and the older EU member states in general.
At the end of 2008, citizens of Slovakia are still happy and blissfully ignorant about the upcoming economic crisis. Civil society organizations are fragmented and lack politically literate and skillful leadership as well as financing. And there is no longer a “big theme” to mobilize people behind as there was in 1997-98. Could the next big theme be fight against corruption? Or climate change? Upcoming energy crisis? Or the fast decline of the middle class and the growth of poverty when the economic crisis starts to hit really hard?
The economic crisis may indeed prove to be a big opportunity for civil society to challenge the corrupt political establishment, and not only in Slovakia. The upcoming crisis is an opportunity to expose corrupt political deals to a sensitized population, to expose the flawed policies which served the interests of a few oligarchs at the expense of the interests of millions of ordinary citizens, in cases relating to the energy and transport sectors, the environment, and the issue of falling standards of education. The crisis presents us with major opportunities as well as with major risks: If civil society fails to mobilize people around real and forward-looking issues, populists and nationalists will mobilize them around the tried and tested themes of the 20th century - nationalism, xenophobia and isolationism…  
How to mobilize people around primitive instincts has been common knowledge for centuries. How to do it around complex global issues is unchartered territory. Where to find resources for this more sophisticated form of mobilization is another major challenge. No public or wealthy private players in Europe seem to be aware of the risks that have emerged over the last few years in CEE and can “infect” the rest of the Union. Even abuse of billions euro from EU funds for unjustified, flawed projects is being ignored by west Europeans, who pay for them, fueling further culture of institutionalized corruption. They also seem to be ignorant of the fact, that changing realities require a change in approach and strategies.
I know, we should be looking for what we, the Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Romanians, can do ourselves to improve the situation instead of pointing towards someone else, in Western Europe or elsewhere. There is no point in playing blaming game. But with receptive ears in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Madrid or Paris and channels for mutual dialogue open, we all could be in much better and safer situation.
We thought the 20th century was exciting, maybe it was just the beginning.


Juraj Mesik’s educational background, as well as the first part of his career, was in biomedical research. 1989 marked a change in his professional focus, as he turned to politics. From 1989 to 1990, Mesik served as a member of parliament in the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly in Prague and was chairman of the Green Party. In 1990-1992 he was director of the Department of Social Context at the Ministry of Environment in Prague, administering a federal grant program, which supported NGO development and environmental awareness. From 1993 to 2002, he was the Director of the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe (EPCE) in Slovakia (now known as the Ekopolis Foundation). From 2003 to 2008, he worked as senior community foundations specialist for the World Bank in Washington D.C.

Throughout his career, Mesik has been extensively involved in the development of the environmental movement and the wider third sector. From 1982 to 1992, he served as chairman of the local branch of the Slovak Union of Nature and Landscape Protectors (SZOPK). He was also a trustee for the Healthy City Community Foundation - the first modern community foundation in continental Europe. Among other positions, Mesik has served on the Advisory Board of the Community Philanthropy Initiative for the Open Society Fund in Bratislava, on the Board for the Slovak Academic Information Agency (SAIA) and on the European Community Philanthropy Initiative at the European Foundation Centre in Brussels. Mesik was elected to the City Council of his home town Banska Bystrica in 1998 and to the Regional Parliament of Banska Bystrica in 2001. He is the author of numerous articles which have appeared in a range of publications including the dailies SME and Pravda, as well as on the and internet portals.

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


Comments by readers

Posted by: Zuzana Szatmary

On: Wednesday, July 29 2009 @ 02:09PM

Dear Juraj, thanks for writing and saying things for me - good job!


Terms of UsePrivacy Policy
Copyright © 2008, CEE Trust. All rights reserved!
Django development by A115 Ltd.