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The name of Gabriel Šípoš is very well known to anyone who has paid attention to anti-corruption and transparency efforts in Slovakia in the past decade.
He has led the Slovak branch of the non-governmental watchdog Transparency International since 2009, and is soon leaving the post after 11 years.
“The longer I worked on transparency topics in Slovakia, the longer I thought it would be interesting to work on such topics globally,“ Šípoš said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
Many of the problems he dealt with are global rather than local, according to Šípoš. He is now looking to take his experience from working on transparency issues in Slovakia to countries or continents where the situation is far worse, with a particular interest in corruption-related projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Even though corruption perception is high in Slovakia, Šípoš claims the country has made massive progress in recent decades. The high-profile arrests the Slovak public witnessed in the past couple of years are a result of the hard work that media, NGOs and active citizens have done in the previous decades, he claimed.
Bad things eventually lead to higher transparency
When Šípoš took over as director of Transparency International Slovakia in 2009, the first government of Robert Fico, in a ruling coalition with Vladimír Mečiar and Ján Slota, was slowly coming to the end of its term. The actions of that government, the first term of Robert Fico in the highest governmental post, inspired transparency advocates to promoting many anti-corruption measures, which later became part of Slovak legislation, notably the obligation to publish contracts, verdicts and information about companies and their background, Šípoš said.
“All the bad things we'd been through led to an improvement in the following years,” Šípoš said. Slovakia reached a rather high level of transparency quite fast, and it is still above average globally and in the EU context. The volume of data that citizens may check about public administration and state contracts puts Slovakia among the most transparent countries in the world, he noted.
“Today, we can discuss the purchase of rapid tests for nationwide testing and come to conclusions about the ordering parties and transparency,” Šípoš explains. “But 15 years ago, we dealt with questions like whether the state would show us the contract so we could see from whom the goods and services were purchased and for how much.”
Slovakia has admittedly come a long way, but its everyday reality shows it is not enough. Slovakia ranked 59th among 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index in 2019. In the June 2020 Eurobarometer survey, 87 percent of those polled in Slovakia agreed that the problem of corruption is widespread in their country (against the EU average of 71 percent), while more than half of the respondents said that the problem of corruption has increased in Slovakia over the past three years.
Šípoš says he understands why the perception of corruption is so high in Slovakia: Transparency only helps expose corruption, but the exposed should then be prosecuted and punished.
In the past couple of years, Slovakia has marked progress in this area. It was very much due to the murders of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, Šípoš said.
“We needed to descend so deep to see things move forwards,” he said, but noted that anti-corruption reforms played a role, too. "For the entire decade, elections in Slovakia were less about economy, as they used to be, more about corruption and justice. The mood in society shifted and impacted the election at the local and regional levels as well.”
The anti-corruption ethos elevated people to high positions in local and regional politics in Slovakia. And then one year ago, the same happened in the parliamentary election: Igor Matovič won on promises to eliminate corruption.
In 2020, Slovakia saw a massive wave of arrests and allegations of former top representatives of police, judiciary and state institutions, including former economy minister Peter Žiga, still active in politics.
“It is true that a high level of transparency does not mean corruption will just go away on its own,” Šípoš said. “There must be punishment, and the culture of drawing consequences. In this sense, Slovakia is still only halfway there, if not less.”
The disappointing steps of the anti-corruption government
The current government, despite its anti-corruption and transparency promises, has had some scandals of its own its first year in office. The plagiarism scandals of the prime minister, the parliament's speaker and the education minister arose early on. More recently, the public has learned about exemptions for politicians and officials.
But Šípoš highlights the attempt to amend the public procurement law that would lead to lower transparency as particularly disappointing.
“This law governs the distribution of five billion euros every year,“ Šípoš explained, adding that nearly every public administration office is related to the public procurement law.
“The government suddenly claims that they are going to radically change it, but without an analysis of the real consequences of their proposals. The flow of money is so huge that it is still a magnet for people wanting to corrupt somebody.”
Šípoš says he understands the worries of the ruling politicians that Slovakia may encounter problems drawing money from the EU funds, expected to direct billions of euros to Slovakia in the coming years. Yet, the efforts to increase the pace of public procurement should not be to the detriment of its transparency.
“So far, the government has only dealt with where the money should go, but the next step is keeping an eye on the money, so we do not find out later that one billion came and went and we have done only half of what we wanted to do with it,” Šípoš noted. “It is an opportunity for corruption as much as it is an opportunity to really do something.”
Whistleblowing is crucial
At its upcoming January session, the parliament is expected to elect the director of the Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers. The office was established in January 2019 but the MPs have been unable to choose its director.
The office was created as an answer to repeated calls of transparency NGOs to beef up the protection of whistleblowers in Slovakia. Two years into its existence, Šípoš admits awareness on such an office in Slovakia is still low among the public, even though it could mean a shift towards more whistleblowing in Slovakia.
"A whistleblower is the most effective person in the whole process. Police usually receive a tip from a person who reports directly from within the environment," Šípoš noted. Without whistleblowers, watchdogs and police can only look at data from the outside in the hope of finding something to confirm potential suspicions.
Even though this will not be a big office, it could make a difference in the anti-corruption world, Šípoš said. This will depend on how active its new chair will be, very much like the ombudswoman's office, which is small but acts as a significant voice defending people's rights.
"If we can inspire just a small percentage of the people who could be whistleblowers, I think we could solve far more cases than we do today," he added.
Conspiracies instigate more hate speech
Throughout the years that Šípoš served as the head of Transparency International Slovakia, the perception of NGOs in society has also changed. He has been receiving more hate mail since around 2014. Back then, few people knew about George Soros. But various conspiracies have arisen in Slovak politics since, and the disinformation scene has thrived.
Šípoš noted that people who write him negative messages often only repeat what they heard from politicians who blame NGOs of promoting their interests.
“I think they should be fans of ours, because we advocate for their interest as well,” Šípoš said, adding that corruption especially impacts the less-educated, poorer people outside of big cities.
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