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Civil society seen as the best cure to safeguard democracy

Relations between NGOs and the state are not defined by mutual trust.

Martin Gierl serves as the Plenipotentiary of the Government of Slovakia for the Civil Society from 2014Martin Gierl serves as the Plenipotentiary of the Government of Slovakia for the Civil Society from 2014 (Source: TASR)

A glossary of words is also published online.

“Watch out! A foreign agent.” This is what one political party proposed every non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Slovakia that accepts money from abroad publish by law in its promotional materials and websites.

In early October 2019, the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) made its third attempt to push this legal change through in parliament and introduce the “foreign agent” label for NGOs, which is also part of the legislation in Russia and Hungary. They have failed repeatedly.

Civil society is the most efficient cure to safeguard democracy.

Martin Giertl, Plenipotentiary of the Government of Slovakia for the Civil Society

It was not an isolated show of hostility among politicians towards NGOs. Several of them have adopted a rhetoric slamming the third sector, most notably former prime minister and Smer chair Robert Fico in his response to the protests that followed the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová in 2018.

People’s spontaneous activities, including anti-governmental and climate change protests in the last two years, NGOs, volunteers, religious associations and some others, all make up civil society.

“Today, [civil society] is well developed, diversified, and emancipated in Slovakia due to 30 years of living in democracy,” sociologist Michal Vašečka said. He stressed non-democratic and radical groups are, and have always been, part of civil society.

Against Mečiar

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After the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the subsequent introduction of freedom of assembly and other laws linked to the third sector, civil society began to diversify and grow. There are almost 64,000 non-governmental organisations, including foundations and civil associations, today.

In the early nineties, NGOs joined forces voluntarily and worked together within the newly established Chamber of the Third Sector. They manifested their unity as soon as the then authoritarian-leaning prime minister Vladimír Mečiar wanted to legally worsen the third sector’s position. NGOs launched a campaign called “The Third Sector SOS” in 1996, which failed.

“The pre-election campaign OK ’98 was the first big success of Slovak civil society, impacting politics and its execution on the national level,” Vašečka told The Slovak Spectator. The campaign, driven by NGOs, contributed to 84 percent of Slovaks casting their votes in the elections and to the end of Mečiar. The Chamber vanished, too.

Condition: Stable

“Legally speaking, their position is stable today,” Martin Giertl, Plenipotentiary of the Government of Slovakia for the Civil Society since 2014, told The Slovak Spectator. “But, things can always get better.”

He pointed to the fact that Slovakia joined the global Open Government Partnership in September 2011. The country has a strategy on civil society development and operates a legislative and information portal, Slov-Lex. The latter allows the public to take an active role in the law-making process.

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“Fico never tabled a bill that would change the climate [for NGOs],” Giertl said. He added it was Smer that came up with the law on the registration of NGOs.

The law that its proponents portrayed as a tool to unveil a foreign inflow of money to Slovak NGOs was approved by 139 MPs out of 140 present parliamentarians in late November 2018. In fact, legislation only unified terms for the registration of different NGOs.

EU money part of Slovakia’s budget

Although NGOs are represented in one of the two chambers within the Governmental Council for NGOs, Ján Orlovský of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) said “mutual trust” and “sincere interest in cooperation” is not a common thing when it comes to relations between NGOs and the state.

Both Giertl and Orlovský refused the disinformation that fake news websites and populist politicians keenly spread, on Soros funding Slovak NGOs to overthrow the government. In fact, they questioned whether the state could be considered a foreign agent as well since part of Slovakia’s budget is covered by EU funds.

Giertl said he had received scholarships from Soros-funded organisations. He believes politicians in Slovakia sometimes neglect people, which helps populists.

“Civil society is the most efficient cure to safeguard democracy,” the plenipotentiary said, adding that politicians should not gamble on NGOs.

More state funds needed

The non-governmental organisations approached by The Slovak Spectator – OSF, Divé Maky (Wild Poppies), and Inakosť (Otherness) – all agree the state should support NGOs more. Giertl claimed the funding is stabilised but admitted new funding mechanisms could be, in fact, created.

Fico never tabled a bill that would change the climate [for NGOs].

Martin Giertl

Barbora Mistríková of Divé Maky, an NGO working with Roma communities, said there is a lot of money, but it is spent inefficiently. Martin Macko of Inakosť said no resources exist for the institutional support of organisations providing services to the LGBTI+ community. The organisation relies, to a large extent, on the European Social Fund.

In the 1990s, the third sector was mostly supported by donors and organisations from abroad such as the OSF. Nowadays, NGOs can receive money from the EU, grant schemes, and donations. Individuals and firms can redirect 2 percent of their income tax to NGOs, too.

“If the state regarded NGOs as its actual partners, it would primarily equalise and improve the conditions and ways of providing resources for the non-profit sector, especially for social services and education,” Orlovský added.

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