Woman of the Year 1999: Emilia Sičáková

If she could spend one hour speaking to any famous person, she would choose the French Cardinal Richelieu. She's an avid reader of economic books, although she used to read romance novels until her first love went sour - "I realised that love isn't that romantic." She's a middle child who says her parents were her biggest influence growing up. Her favourite singers include Mariah Carey and Seal, but she also professes to be a fan of Slovak folk music. She's just 25-years-old, yet she's one of the most influential women in Slovakia.
She's Transparency International Slovakia President
Emília Sičáková.

If she could spend one hour speaking to any famous person, she would choose the French Cardinal Richelieu. She's an avid reader of economic books, although she used to read romance novels until her first love went sour - "I realised that love isn't that romantic." She's a middle child who says her parents were her biggest influence growing up. Her favourite singers include Mariah Carey and Seal, but she also professes to be a fan of Slovak folk music. She's just 25-years-old, yet she's one of the most influential women in Slovakia.

She's Transparency International Slovakia President Emília Sičáková.

With the change of government after the September, 1998 elections, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and his coalition mates promised to make all government activities transparent. This promise was not kept.

A series of scandals involving government corruption in 1999 weakened the country's faith in the government and left many wondering whether the country had really turned the corner on Mečiar-era corruption. Two ministers from the largest party of the ruling coalition - Telecom Minister Gabriel Palacka and Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák of the SDK - resigned amidst a flurry of mismanagement allegations.

Any transparency that has been achieved this year can largely be ascribed to the efforts of corruption watch-dog Transparency International Slovakia (TIS). With each passing scandal, cries for an independent mediator of state dealings have increased as has the public support and political clout of TIS.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of TIS is the fact that its leader is a 25-year-old woman who was still in university just over a year ago. "Age and gender are not important," she says defiantly. Judging by her growing influence on Slovak society, she's right. The Slovak Spectator's 1999 Woman of the Year is TIS President Emília Sičáková.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You were born in east Slovakia in Snina and grew up in Michalovce. How did you end up as the head of Transparency International?

Emília Sičáková (ES): When I was studying at secondary school in Michalovce, I thought about what profession I would follow. I knew that I was quite good at mathematics and English, and from this combination I could either go into teaching or economics. I chose economics and applied to study at the Economic University's Faculty of Trade in Bratislava because they had more foreign language requirements and the programme was oriented towards foreign trade, which was unique at the time.

Then they opened a commercial diplomacy programme. This was a completely new programme, and I was one of the 20 people who started it. During my third year I noticed an announcement at our study department saying that the [Slovak NGO] Centre for Economic Development [CPHR] was looking for young people to work for them. I contacted Mr. [CPHR Director Eugen] Jurzyca and arranged a meeting with him. I started to co-operate with the centre.

Back in Michalovce, I used to meet three times a week with a folk dance group called Zemplín. When I came to Bratislava and suddenly found that I had a lot of spare time, I missed extra-curricular activity. That's why I started working for the centre. It was perfect to work at the centre, because school itself was not so difficult, and I could easily handle both work and studies. I think now that the decision to work there was perfect for me. It helped me gain a deeper insight into economics, to meet interesting people, read some great books and discuss issues with Eugen Jurzyca and Daniela Zemanovičová.

When I graduated I was very proud because I was the best student at the university and the faculty. I didn't have to think about what I'd do next because I was already working at the centre. I didn't have a holiday, I just took my diploma from the faculty and went to work the next morning.

While I was still studying, the centre began focusing on the issue of transparency. In 1998 we had to decide what to do with all our research. Do we start a different project or do we go deeper into transparency? We realised that the issue was very complex, that it's is not just a Slovak problem, but a world-wide problem and that international organisations working on transparency exist. So the Centre decided to become a part of Transparency International. An organisational section was created and I became the president.

TSS: Do you see your current position as truly reflecting your abilities?

ES: I try hard. Before we started this activity we had three years of research behind us, so we didn't just start from scratch. But this is a very broad area, there is always so much to improve on and so much to learn. For the last two months I've been abroad attending conferences because you have to see the problems from a wider perspective. It's very demanding and it means I have almost no private life. But I think that we can help a lot and that's what keeps us going.


TSS: What were your expectations when TIS was founded in September 1998?

ES: My expectations were very high. There was the change of government and I was hoping that this change would indicate a change concerning corruption. I think that a big change has occurred, but my expectations have not yet been fulfilled. There are still not enough organisations in Slovakia to fight corruption - it's not enough to have one NGO. We can start the activities, we can give the impulse, but the whole implementation process and the main responsibility for what is done in this field is up to the government.

TSS: Looking back at your time working at the centre during the Mečiar years, how do you compare that government to the current government in terms of corruption?

ES: Corruption is very hard to prove, but one of the indicators of corruption can be the presence or absence of transparency in the country. If you look at the people who were prosecuted for corruption then the numbers for this year and past years are the same.

But there's been a change. Now the government is discussing the freedom of information act, for example. The media has been very active and they are trying to chase those who ignore laws. There is also more pressure from NGOs. It wouldn't be fair to say that nothing's changed, but in my profession I must be critical, I must say that I believe much more can be done.

TSS: How would you characterise your co-operation with the current government.

ES: We were very happy when the Prime Minister asked us to prepare a draft of the anti-corruption plan. We prepared and submitted a study called Faces of Corruption in Slovakia. Of course, as an NGO we believe that discussions could move faster. When we submit a paper we are ready to discuss it and to give some recommendations, we have a more energetic and flexible approach. But with the state it's different.

So our possibilities are limited. We do our best, we get involved but it's up to them. They have the power according to the Constitution.

TSS: As late as this spring, nobody really knew about TIS. How did you change that? How were you able to pressure the government into accepting your participation in state tenders?

ES: We were invited to monitor the process of privatisation by the former Telecom Minister [Gabriel Palacka] for the process of choosing the third operator of the GSM 1800 frequency. This is how we got our foot in the door.

I would say that I'm active. If you want the system to be changed, you have to understand the weaknesses of the system, you have to go out and study the field.

TSS: Do you think you can achieve more as an NGO?

ES: I think NGO's can achieve more because we are an independent institution and we can do professional work. I'm not saying that politicians are not professional. But I feel we are doing something important which can help improve the system, improve Slovakia.

There must be independent organisations that analyse and come up with proposals to be discussed by the public. Changes can be made in two ways: either by political decisions or by public pressure. The best is a combination of the two. Politicians should be acting according to the public needs, and to achieve this you have to set up a standard of public accountability.

TSS: Would you ever consider stepping into politics?

ES: I've never thought about that... I don't feel comfortable with it. When I look at the people [in politics] and the way they behave, I don't think I want to be a part of that club.

TSS: How effective were Slovak NGOs in 1999?

ES: Many NGOs got involved in government activities, many were working on environmental issues, on social issues. I don't know how successful they have been in promoting their ideas but I know they were invited to discussions. NGOs and think-tanks can be a big help especially if they come up with ideas and analyses, proposals which can somehow help those who make decisions.

Then, of course, there is the question of NGO independence. We have a limited budget and we have to be careful. Last week on [the television talk-show] Sito, Mr. [KDH party MP Pavol] Hrušovský said that TIS was established by Siemens, which is totally not true. I came back to Slovakia from abroad and my friends told me, 'hey, I didn't know you were funded by Siemens' and I thought it was a joke. But then I read it in a newspaper article. This is very harmful to us because it's extremely difficult to persuade all Slovaks who were watching Sito that it's not true.

We keep a distance, we cannot be misused for any political objectives. The greatest challenge for NGOs in the 21st century will be how to co-operate and help while maintaining their independence and sustainability, and not to be caught in corruption. Tools have to be created to make this possible for NGOs, maybe to be funded by 1% of people's taxes if they choose.


TSS: How do you see the role of women in modern Slovak society? What kind of conditions do woman face?

ES: The system is changing. One study I read by the Harvard Institute called Gender and Corruption stated that if there were more women in leading government positions there would be less corruption. But, I don't think the solution is to say that 50% of the government should be women. That would be artificial.

You can organise the system in two ways: with a vertical structure or a horizontal one. If you have vertical organisation, it is hard for women to get high positions even if they are more qualified than men. But when you build a horizontal system, where there are not so many bosses above you and you just handle your responsibilities and tasks, researches show that women do better.

But it's also a cultural thing. That's why it won't help to say that 50% of leading positions should be held by women. Culture and society must change first. Women should be more active and not rely on men so much. They must try to prove that they are capable and that they can be independent. Life isn't just about getting married and having a house.

It's hard, you have to work hard. Maybe you will have to work much harder than men, but it's possible. Not every woman wants this responsibility. It's very easy to just rely on somebody who will take care of you, it's easier for some to just rely on men. But I say it's possible for women to rely on themselves. It's up to each individual.

TSS: Is Slovak society sexist?

ES: It's a global fact that women have to overcome more problems than men. For example, look at Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady.' She cried when she left her post as Prime Minister. But you didn't see her crying while she held the job because this is a man's society and men don't cry.

I know the husband of [Finance Minister] Brigita Schmögnerová, and I've read her poetry. From that poetry you can see that she is very sensitive, but she cannot show it because she works in a man's society. If she did show her feelings in this way, I'm not sure whether she would continue to be accepted as a leader.

My success also shows that it's possible [for women to excel in a 'man's society']. I think it's just a question of will. You will not get a post by a miracle, this isn't a fairy tale. If somebody says 'I'm going to reform the system', it's not that easy. You have to work hard, make a proposal and then stand up for your proposal.

So I think that women can do a lot even in a man's society, but they must unfortunately play by the men's rules of the game. I really respect Brigita Schmögnerová as a woman. She has a family and I cannot understand how she can handle all her responsibilities. But she's a very insightful person, as I understood from her poetry. It's not easy for women to 'wear the trousers.'

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