Ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Slovakia has been busy fighting corruption. Although the country has made impressive progress, corruption is still seen as a big problem.

Despite all the effort which has been made over past three decades, corruption stubbornly persists.

The murder of Jan Kuciak is a tell-tale sign that something is not quite right. Why? In the search of answers, we need to plunge into the shadows of this hard-tried nation. Its turbulent past caused some deep – but invisible – wounds that have not healed yet and that manifest on the surface as corruption. At the root of it all is a chronically bad reputation of the state and dispirited population.

Protesters marching through the streets of Bratislava

Slovakia did not have the luxury of growing into democracy. It was imported in the great rush of post-1989 liberalisation.

With a noble intention to bring Slovakia up to speed with the most evolved societies in the world, democratic infrastructure sprung up like mushrooms after rain.

Slovaks, who just came out of 40 years of totalitarian rule and for the first time in history claimed their independence, were expected to ditch decades and centuries of behavioural and thinking patterns, forget their past and adopt not just a different ideology, but an entirely new way of being.

A long story short, the institution-building was faster than societal evolution

There are democratic institutions and tools for Slovaks to use, but not enough people to actually use them in the way they were intended. Instead, there is a lot of bypassing, undercutting, ignoring or bending of the law to achieve personal gains on the top as well as on the bottom. By default, anti-corruption keeps running into public apathy.

This stems from a long legacy of undemocratic regimes. Slovaks have experienced decades and centuries of abuse at the hands of the state that was not even theirs.

These experiences shaped the behaviours and thinking of Slovaks about the state, a great many of whom still consider it to be an enemy and themselves a victim. Consequently, the role in life is to protect themselves, not to inspire change, build a state and a country that serves them better. 

What is more, Slovaks have had a rough transformative journey. Slovakia was only industrialised in the second half of the 20th century, until then it was rural and relatively poor. The ancestral memory of going to bed hungry and struggling for survival is still too fresh for the populace.

As a result, a survivalist mindset continues to rule the day. We are ceaselessly competing for scant resources, whether this is money, a permit, a good job or a humane medical care in a disempowering rat race. Even though times have changed and Slovaks have never been better off, most are still too busy surviving to engage in lofty ideas of a greater common good and fairness.

It is no surprise Slovakia is still dealing with extensive corruption today. It is nothing more and nothing less than a symptom of a disoriented, bitter and apathetic society.

The umbilical cord between the state and the people has been cut, save a few surviving threads. The feeling of having a stake and a say in the public matters or the ability to change anything is rare to come by.

Surrounded by negative news and media messages and feeling powerless to change the situation, most are struggling to break out of this vicious circle and turn to corruption as a temporary relief to secure one’s own survival.

This is widespread enough for petty corruption to be condoned as the only way to get things done and making one’s life a little bit easier. Why try to change rules we don’t like or improve the state that is not serving us well when it is easier to bypass the law and get what we want now? Why should we report corruption? Why should the Slovaks say “no”? Why should we strive to make a change for the greater good of the collective?

As above, so below. The grand corruption on the top reflects and nourishes the petty corruption on the bottom and the wheel of corruption keeps turning.

Ultimately, anti-corruption is about feeling responsible for consequences of our own behaviour and for our country, and that cannot be created out of thin air. The issue with the current anti-corruption mechanism is that it assumes just that.

It should be enough to make corruption illegal and talk about the importance of transparency, but real life certainly in Slovakia is proving that this is not the case.

So how do you go about nurturing such a mindset? One way of persuading someone to think differently is by telling them a persuasive and positive story, or does that sound a little flimsy and improbable?

The power of storytelling

Shifting behaviours and perceptions with the use of stories is not a foolish novelty, but a concept well established in psychology that stems from a long list of scientific evidence as to its effectiveness. It has been successfully used to heal trauma in individuals in war zones, but also to empower social action and to turn countries around.

In fact, the greatest social evolutionary leaps of humankind were made possible by changing a narrative.

The movement for women’s rights that re-narrated the role of a passive woman bound to the kitchen and nursery to an active woman asserting her rights from politics to sexuality is a potent example of how a narrative incites change.

A recent example can also be found in Central Europe. Slovenia shaped itself from a pleasant, harmless country into the green beating heart of Europe, a leader of environmental initiatives on a global scale.

Slovakia has endured some severe traumas in the recent past. To tackle corruption with a lasting and sustainable impact means to heal the experience that led to the relationship between the people and the state to break down, wiped out trust in society as well as any motivation to change the status quo in order to restore the belief in a better Slovakia.

The country needs to flip its story of itself, from apathetic victims to active, empowered citizens in order to stop re-creating the past, feeding passivity and nurturing corruption.

Slovaks need stories that will encourage them to drop the tedious survival mindset and corruption for the good and give meaning to their lives beyond mere survival.

The society craves uplifting narratives that will help people to move on, that will inspire them to abandon comforts of short-term achievements for the ideal and for the idea of a better country and a better life. Simply, Slovaks need a persuasive reason to fight corruption, a belief that a cleaner Slovakia is possible and, above all, they need to believe in themselves.

30 years of promoting one anti-corruption paradigm, the one that favours measuring, legislation, watchdogs and transparency, has brought about a considerable amount of improvement.

Slovakia now openly talks about corruption, people take to streets to protest. But it has also been enough time to take a long hard look at what is working well and what is not. It is time to shape anti-corruption that will not just cure the symptoms, but heal the wound that produces them.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was also published in Slovak on Tyzden and can be found here.

Published Author, Scholar and Corruption Expert, with a specialisation in CEE mindsets, Dr. Bereghazyova is actively engaged in and spearheads initiatives that seek to strengthen the civic society in CEE. She is also a co-director at Global Slovakia, a Slovak-based NGO dedicated to spotlighting Central Europe’s potential on an the international stage.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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