Civil society still lagging

MORE THAN four decades of a totalitarian regime taught the average Slovak to do their best to avoid public affairs. A quarter century later those dormant civic instincts are only just starting to wake up.

People had more illusions 25 years ago. People had more illusions 25 years ago. (Source: TASR)

MORE THAN four decades of a totalitarian regime taught the average Slovak to do their best to avoid public affairs. A quarter century later those dormant civic instincts are only just starting to wake up.

November 1989, when citizens filled the streets and squares of the country’s towns and cities, is often labelled the biggest ever outburst of civic energy in what is now Slovakia. The attempt to build on that by constructing a western-style civil society based on the principles of rule of law, civic participation, fundamental rights and freedoms for citizens, and environmental protection, started, with the aid of donors and know-how from abroad, has been more difficult. At present, civil society suffers from the lack of an economic and legal framework, experts say, even as citizens are beginning to show greater willingness to get involved.

“There are still people who haven’t been through the mental shift that democracy is really built on the will and power of the citizens,” Laco Oravec from the Milan Šimečka Foundation (NMŠ) told The Slovak Spectator. “It is completely natural that after revolutionary changes there is a need for time, and there is a need to build the society’s principles anew.”

Post-communist times

In the first decade after the fall of communism, civil society in Czechoslovakia, and later Slovakia, thrived. In the 1990s there was a mushrooming of civil activities and NGOs which covered a wide spectrum of problems in the society, including independent control of the state power, promoting of social innovations, or humanitarian aid abroad, sociologist Zora Bútorová from the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

Foreign donors played a key role in the initial stages of building a western-style civil society in Slovakia, not only with their finances but also with the know-how they shared, Lenka Surotchak, the director of the Pontis Foundation, said.

“This is where we drew many inspirations about the values of democracy, the functioning of NGOs, community foundations, fundraising, advocacy, and the work of think tanks and watchdogs,” Surotchak told The Slovak Spectator, adding that Pontis, with the support of USAID and Democracy Network programme helped build capacities of first NGOs active in designing public policies, protection of democracy and the rule of law.

Numerous organisations were created by locals, without much background to lean on. Oravec gives the example of his own organisation, NMŠ, which was created alongside the Public Against Violence (VPN) movement, the political organisation that was born from the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. There were people in the VPN who believed there were things that are beyond the activities of political parties, and saw the need for NGOs to fill the space.

“They founded a foundation that had no legal support,” Oravec said. “It wasn’t even written anywhere [in the law] what a foundation actually is.”

On top of that, Oravec admits there was also little knowledge among the activists about how their job should be done and what the role of the citizen in a democratic state should be, since until 1989 all organisations were centrally controlled and did not involve any real civic activity, while the dissent was small and marginal, catholic rather than civic.

“So those 25 years have been a history of learning, and perhaps even of trials and errors,” Oravec said, adding that nowadays people at least understand that there is a third sector and that the state is not reduced to one power centre that decides on everything, but there must be several sectors, civic initiative and supervision.

Civil society before 1989

Bútorová maintains that the building of a civil society was no greenfield project and describes the basis that existed in today’s Slovakia even before 1989: there were people promoting changes in environmental issues, or in academic, artistic and religious freedom.

Bútorová also listed the environmentalists who issued the Bratislava Aloud (Bratislava nahlas) document which described the condition of the environment in the capital, and which provoked an angry reaction among the communist leaders, as well as the secret church which in March 1988 organised the Candle Demonstration in Bratislava, the first mass protest gathering in Slovakia.

Free scientists and free artists had their activities too, she noted. Sociological terminology calls these active independent citizens “positive deviants”, she said.

“By the end of the 1980s, shortly before the fall of communism, these “islands of positive deviation” started joining into archipelagos, and later gave birth to VPN,” Bútorová told The Slovak Spectator.

From recipients to donors

Even though the current condition of civil society in Slovakia leaves much to be desired, results of the work of the third sector are clear to see. Surotchak mentioned Slovakia’s accession to the OECD among the milestones for the third sector, as well as the fact that for 11 years now Slovakia has been not just a recipient, but also a donor of know-how and funds.

Under the banner of Slovak Aid, Slovaks now share their know-how from the transition period and the experiences with building civil society, state, and state institutions, Surotchak noted. The development aid projects are mainly directed at the western Balkans, Moldova, Belarus, Tunisia, but also other, more distant countries. In this respect, cooperation with the Foreign Affairs Ministry is important.

Surotchak also listed the know-how of some Slovak NGOs in the area of the fight against corruption, inter-sector partnerships between companies and NGOs, projects of corporate responsibility, and philanthropy, among notable achievements in the process of the construction of civil society in the country.

NGOs and the government

Civil society in Slovakia did not develop in a linear way, but in several outbursts of citizen mobilisation, such as in the 1990s when the third sector was actively involved in bringing down the authoritarian-leaning regime of Vladimír Mečiar.

Generally speaking, the worse a country performs, the more interest it provokes among the international community and foreign donors, according to Oravec. This was the case for Slovakia in the 1990s. Since then, foreign donors and advisers gradually departed and Slovak civil society was left to itself for the most part. After that, many NGOs started feeling financial strain, among them organisations that provide good-quality social services cheaper than the state does, or NGOs dealing with human rights, watchdog organisations, and think tanks, Bútorová noted.

“The problematic aspect is that the state does not create an optimal legal and economic framework for the functioning of NGOs,” Bútorová said.

Governments have paid little attention to building this framework for the civil society. The brief term of the government of Iveta Radičová (who herself came to politics from the non-governmental sphere), in 2010-2012 was an exception, according to Oravec. That government passed a framework document, the Strategy of Civil Society Development in Slovakia, and created the post of the government’s plenipotentiary for the development of civil society.

“Radičová’s government set a higher benchmark in this area, which is then not easy to lower again,” Oravec said.

In fact, the post of the government’s proxy still exists, even though it has been vacant for almost a year after Filip Vagač resigned in October 2013. It was recently filled again, when the government approved Martin Giertl, who previously worked as a human rights expert at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and for the Charter 77 Foundation.

Giertl, in an interview with the Sme daily shortly before taking up his post on November 15, stressed that the economic and legal framework for the civil society in Slovakia is still insufficient. He too stressed that many NGOs lack finances after the foreign donors leave, and the 2 percent from taxes that they can get from companies and individuals are simply not enough to help them develop.

The year 2014 brought another positive change for the NGOs in relation with the state, when philanthropist Andrej Kiska was elected the country’s president. NGOs embraced the fact that the president has a positive attitude towards their work, Surotchak said.

“Representatives of NGOs considered it a great honour when they were invited for the inaugural reception, and also that the president invited to the festive lunch homeless people, seniors, and abandoned children,” she told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the president since his inauguration has personally supported various third-sector projects.

Passive Slovaks?

Kiska also called on the people to be active citizens in his inaugural speech. Slovak society is, however, going through a period of individualism at the moment, according to Bútorová.

“Many people are disappointed with politics, they do not trust institutions, and many close themselves out of the public life,” Bútorová said. One mobilising element that moves society is the cultural clash between the Christian conservatives and liberals, according to Bútorová.

This year, the Alliance for Family managed to gather 400,000 signatures to hold a referendum on the protection of the traditionalist notion of family, and there is a heated public debate. Citizens, however, do mobilise for other reasons too, such as due to economic frustration (protests by nurses or teachers), or when they see a threat to their environment (the case of the Pezinok waste dump), Bútorová noted.

All in all, Slovaks definitely belong to a category of more passive societies, according to Oravec, who ascribes this to several factors, such as the fact that for a long time Slovaks did not have their own state, but also the generally accepted conviction that Slovaks are a “nation of doves” [a reference to the allegedly peaceful nature of the nation]. Also, Roman Catholicism has traditionally prevailed in Slovakia and it is the protestant countries that tend to have more active citizens, he said.

Oravec admitted NGOs do not enjoy great trust among Slovaks.

“One thing is whether citizens are active and another is whether they support the activities of NGOs,” Oravec said. “Here I am less than optimistic.”

In his view, there is a need for generational exchange, as the young generation shows more enthusiasm and activity. In this respect things work better at the local level.

“People are convinced that they are more likely to bring on a change in their immediate surroundings,” Oravec said, referring to the growing number of local, community activities and petitions.

Attitudes of Slovaks are also gradually changing in the area of volunteering, where the Pontis Foundation is one of the key players. Surotchak notes that 15 years ago volunteering activities still carried the stigma of the communist-time ‘compulsory working Saturdays’, but nowadays companies tend to see volunteering as a tool for teambuilding, and their own usefulness in the community. Every year, the number of volunteers who participate in the project of Pontis Foundation “Our City” grows (with over 6,000 corporate volunteers participating in 10 towns this year), and over the years several other NGOs have picked up the topic of volunteering too, Surotchak said.

Challenges ahead

After 25 years of development the third sector still faces a major challenge: to find sustainable financing of NGOs, according to Surotchak.

Recently, parliament upset people working in the third sector when it passed a lower tax assignation for their activities. Until now, individuals and companies paying taxes in Slovakia could assign 2 percent of their taxes to an NGO of their choice. This tax assignation, which represents a major source of income for most NGOs, should be lowered to 1 percent for companies as of 2015.

In addition to that, laws to support donors are still missing.

“Donors have no motivation to donate finances from their income,” Surotchak said, suggesting that advantages in taxpaying for donors could help. At the moment, only about 10 percent of companies donate 0.5 percent of the taxes they pay over the year, in order to be able to assign 2 percent of their taxes at the year’s end. Under the new rules, companies will have to donate 1 percent of their taxes over the year in order to be able to assign 1 percent at the year’s end, and Surotchak expects this to lower the contributions.

On the other hand, the number of “enlightened corporate or private donors” is growing, according to Surotchak. She mentioned the Fund for Transparent Slovakia and the recently founded foundation Stop Corruption as examples.

“However, without the aid of the state, that is: a favourable legislative framework, they cannot cover all the needs of the country,” she said.

Above the outside challenges, there are questions civil society in Slovakia faces from within as well: such as the need for the civil society to regulate itself internally.

“This sector wants to be independent, so that the government cannot pose any rules and regulations on it, but only a little does it discuss ethics, the sense [of its work], the public contribution and similar things,” Oravec said.

Radka Minarechová contributed to this report

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