IN SLOVAKIA, being described as a lobbyist means something completely different than in the United States. Americans understand that lobbyism is a necessary evil - and a legitimate job. Here, it is rarely more than a nasty epithet.
Very few Slovaks take pride in being called a lobbyist. Even fewer would openly admit that it is part of their daily job.
In general, lobbying could be described as a process of influencing authorities; either parliament, government or the local executive branch, to adopt certain laws, create policy or take on normative legal acts.
Businesspeople, corporations and their interest groups, and citizens and their pressure organizations are trying to influence legislation and policy everywhere.
The only difference between lobbying "Slovak style" and lobbying in the USA is that the Slovak state is reluctant to tell people exactly how far they can go, and what rules they must observe.
The lack of parameters is what tacks on the negative associations and makes "lobbyist" a pejorative.
We do not have to dig deep into the past to find a representative example.
The state's criminal prosecutor dropped charges against former Transportation Minister Jozef Macejko after he could not prove that Macejko acted illegally when he handled the tender for the ministry's purchase of 35 light diesel engines for trains.
Although an investigation confirmed that Macejko and his subordinates did not act entirely in line with the law when they pushed the ministry to accept an offer from a specific firm, the prosecution says that no crime was committed.
Many described Macejko's actions as a form of lobbying. The context, however, invites readers to make the assumption that his activities were not inspired to serve the public good.
The case brought to the surface once again the question of whether Slovakia needs a law defining - and controlling - lobbying.
The cabinet will discuss a new draft bill on lobbying in March. If such a law were in force today, Macejko would have been found in violation of several rules and could no longer claim innocence.
In late 2003, the government made some feeble attempts to regulate lobbying on the national and local levels.
However, experts were sceptical about the draft measures' potential to fight against the lack of transparency and the hidden agendas of strong interest groups.
Critics claimed that the proposed legislation did not cover links between lobbyists and public officials.
Nevertheless, one measure of the proposed bill needs commendation. It sought to give citizens and organizations a voice in the process of law making.
Ján Hrubala, head of the government's Anti-Corruption Unit, has stressed several times that the state must make sure that lobby efforts are transparent and that state officials and legislators are clearly banned from enjoying advantages coming from interest groups.
Still, the draft failed to regulate the status of professional lobbyists, an issue experts say also needs addressing.
After all, Slovakia will need effective lobbyists, especially if it wants to push through some of its own interests in the EU.
It seems that lobbying causes a headache for the European Union, as well. European Commissioner Jose Manual Barroso convened a group of 50 non-governmental organizations in November of 2004 to help toughen restrictions on lobby groups.
The USA adopted a lobby law in 1995, obliging public relations firms and lobby groups to publish a list of their clients, issues they advocate and the budgets spent on these issues.
Different sources claim that over 15,000 lobbyist are active in Brussels and that their activities are not strictly controlled.
Due to a lack of registration of lobbyists, the real number of professional lobbyists in Slovakia is impossible to estimate.
Some insiders told The Slovak Spectator that if there was a lobby law in Slovakia, they would officially register themselves.
Most undeclared lobbyists present their activities as public relations services, consulting, or strategic advisory services.
Some PR agencies hint on their websites that they can provide lobby services, but it is still a far cry from how lobbyism is conducted in other democracies - the USA, for example.
Some say there are a number of fields in which professional lobbyists are already active - including heavy industry, pharmaceuticals, arms production and trading, and state procurement.
However, expert studies point out that, in order to effectively deal with corruption, which is considered one of the main challenges facing the country today, Slovakia must define and regulate professional lobbying.
It is important that not only the lobbyists themselves but also Slovak politicians understand that lobbying means trying to persuade someone on the basis of factual information and logical arguments.
It does not mean trying to bribe influential figures with the promises of services, goods or financial gain.
By Beata Balogová
7. Feb 2005 at 0:00