Can Slovakia’s New Anticorruption Movement Avoid Common Pitfalls?

In late February 2018, news that Slovakian anticorruption journalist Jan Kuciak was shot to death at home—the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history—shocked the country and world. Slovakians demanded that the government, controlled by the corruption-plagued Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party, investigate the brazen attack and hold the perpetrators accountable. Tensions escalated in the days following Kuciak’s murder after his last unpublished story surfaced, exposing connections between advisors to SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico and a prominent Italian organized crime syndicate. Fico resigned shortly thereafter, a development which proved to be the beginning of the end of SMER-SD’s twelve-year reign. By the February 2020 general election, voters decisively ousted SMER-SD in favor of the emerging anticorruption-focused Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OLaNO).

Much of OLaNO’s appeal stems from party leader and current prime minister Igor Matovic, a self-made media mogul. His signature communication method was posting videos exposing graft to social media (similar to Russian anticorruption hero Alexei Navalny, whom this blog recently discussed here). In one of Matovic’s most widely viewed videos, he filmed himself in Cannes outside the luxury home of a former SMER-SD politician holding signs saying “Property of the Slovak Republic” and alleging that the home was illegally bought with taxpayer money. Matovic also traveled to Cyprus and posted a video of mailboxes belonging to shell corporations connected to Penta, a multi-million-euro investment group; the video claimed that Penta had used the companies to evade 400 million euros in taxes. Each of Matovic’s videos garnered several hundred thousand views in a country of less than 5.5 million, which helps explain why the February 2020 election boasted Slovakia’s highest voter turnout in 20 years.

Now, just one year into its mandate, OLaNO and its coalition are hard at work rooting out corruption. The government arrested and prosecuted dozens of current and former public officials involved in graft. Those targeted include high-level figures, such as the former Finance Minister, the head of the State Material Reserves Administration, the Director of the Agricultural Paying Agency, and more than a dozen judges, including a member of the Supreme Court and the former Deputy Minister of Justice. OLaNO is also pursuing a number of legislative efforts, including aggressive judicial reform.

Can Matovic and OLaNO finally cleanse Slovakia’s reputation as the corruption “black hole of Europe”? Maybe. But while the story of an outsider stepping forward in the wake of a national scandal and securing electoral victory with an anticorruption political agenda may be a first in Slovakia’s modern history, it is not an unknown tale on the world stage—and (spoiler alert!) the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. To be sure, difficult political dynamics and entrenched domestic corruption can hamper even the most earnest anticorruption efforts. Nevertheless, examples from other countries provide some cautionary tales of how populist leaders elected on anticorruption platforms can sometimes lose their way, and offer some lessons that Matovic, OLaNO, and their supporters should take to heart going forward. Three lessons in particular stand out:

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“NGOs with Foreign Support”: A New Draft Law Threatens Ukraine’s Anticorruption NGOs

In May, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Dubinsky, a controversial member of the Servant of the People Party (Ukraine’s ruling party, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky), registered a draft law that would label certain civil society organizations as “foreign agents.” More specifically, this legislation—which resembles Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law—would:

  • Oblige NGOs receiving at least 50% of their financial support from foreign entities to include the term “foreign support” in their organization’s name, and to include in any materials published by the NGO a disclaimer stating that the materials are published by an organization that functions with foreign support;
  • Initiate the creation of a central register of such NGOs, requiring the Ministry of Justice to publicize a list of these NGOs on its official website and to publish annual reports of foreign-funded NGO activity in Ukraine;
  • Require the management of these NGOs to undergo annual polygraph interviews in order to review whether or not these individuals have committed treason; and
  • Prohibit any individuals in NGO management positions from working in the civil service or holding membership on supervisory boards or in the leadership of state enterprises for five years after working in a foreign-funded NGO.

While Dubinsky’s proposed legislation poses a serious threat to all NGOs that receive foreign funding (except for a few categories that the draft law specifically exempts, such as NGOs that work in the sphere of culture, arts, science, prevention and health of citizens, social protection, social support for the disabled, and environmental protection), this legislation would have a particularly adverse impact on the work of anticorruption NGOs.

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