11/08/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Creating an NGO Culture in Slovakia

When I started working on U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1980s, I encountered my first GONGO. This was a "government-organized non-governmental organization." It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. An early GONGO, the Soviet Peace Committee styled itself as an NGO. It worked with various NGOs in the West. But it closely hewed to the Party line. Later, as Gorbachev began to shake up the Party, the GONGOs adopted more interesting positions. By 1989, throughout the Soviet bloc, they'd become dinosaurs, and real NGOs rapidly took their place.

As the executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Slovakia since 1995, Alena Panikova has focused on nurturing this new wave of NGOs in East-Central Europe. These organizations were important at two levels -- to provide direct service and to put pressure on a government that was becoming increasingly authoritarian under Vladimir Meciar.

"Society is made up of diverse people, diverse opinions, diverse experiences," she told me in an interview at the OSF offices in Bratislava in February. "Probably only a small group of people was privileged to see democracy with different eyes, having been exposed to other cultures or having had the opportunity to study or talk to good people. But common people were simply interested in their everyday life. They wanted somebody to help them if they were threatened. They didn't want to be afraid of losing their jobs. They didn't want to worry about whether their kid could go to school. It was important to develop this NGO sector as an intermediary that could speak and act on behalf of diverse groups and individuals. The ultimate goal has been for every individual to live in dignity and have their rights respected. But there are still people who need the help of NGOs or institutions to achieve this goal."

The NGO sector was also instrumental in eventually bringing an end to the period of Meciarism that made Slovakia an international pariah in the 1990s. OK '98, for instance, focused on ensuring that the 1998 elections would be free and fair. "They were not fighting against Meciar, but rather spreading ideas like the 'right to vote' and the 'right to participate' and the notion of personal responsibility," Panikova explained. "As soon as I saw so many young people participating, and so many NGOs establishing marvelous networks all over Slovakia, then I trusted that even though Meciar won in those elections, he was not able to form a government. And I had hope that the country could go in a better direction."

Once Meciarism was safely in the past, the NGO sector was able to help the country turn outward as well. "At the beginning, we were very much focused on ourselves: on our pains, our desires, our need for diversity and for new departments at the university, our desire to understand democracy, to work with young people, and to build civil society," Panikova pointed out. "But we were too much interested in ourselves. For me, the critical moment was when the first NGO was established to deal with the problems of people outside Slovakia."

Today, Slovakia has a rich NGO culture. In fact, there are more than 18,000 NGOs in this relatively small country. But it faces a problem similar to the days of the GONGOs, and that is the challenge of BONGOs or business-oriented NGO. Once again an institution that looks like an independent NGO is more like a dependent marionette.

"There's also a two percent tax assignation in Slovakia where not only individuals but also corporate entities can allocate two percent of their taxes to some NGO," Panikova said. "At the beginning it was only available for individuals, but then the government introduced the flat tax. We were struggling to have some other incentives for people to donate or to support NGOs, similar to the Czech Republic or other countries. But instead of giving us this, together with the flat tax, this two percent mechanism was introduced, and legal entities, like businesses, can allocate their paid taxes to NGOs as well. It inspired many of them to establish their own foundations in which they mostly use the money to fund education or health. Because of this complex situation, it's important to know which NGOs you're talking about."

The Interview

Can you give any examples of how, during the Communist period, the regime transformed language, or shaped the understanding of Slovak literature?

It's connected with so-called normalization. This was quite difficult to translate. When I was in university, for example, we didn't have textbooks because so many writers and philosophers, so many living people, had been removed from the official history because they had protested against the Soviet invasion in 1968 or they hadn't behaved in line with the expectations of the Communist Party. It was impossible, officially, to learn anything about them. On the other hand, this was probably a motivation for young people to be curious and to look into what was missing.

Nowadays there is a debate about the percentage of Slovak music being presented on Slovak radio. They argue that a compulsory 30% of the music should be Slovak. I'm quite against it because of that experience from the past when you couldn't listen to foreign music. In the publishing houses it was possible to publish good books, but you needed to have excellent people who were able to find the right books in English or somewhere else and then be very smart in describing what the book was about. The state controlled peoples' minds and opinions in this way, and it was really bad.

Also, when I hear today a phrase like, "fight for something positive," it always sounds strange because of that context of the Communist regime fighting with Western countries. Everything around that term was ideological.

Like "struggle for peace" in Russian - borba za mir.

Yes, in Slovak: Boi za mir. Struggle for peace. It's sad that if you speak too much about peace, then probably you have war on your mind.

Unfortunately, the Communist government created space for many incompetent people to be in power and control people's lives. Of course, also during Communism, as you can see from popular opinion today, there was some security. You could be sure that you would have work. If you were not fighting the regime, you could move about in a "secure space" without any danger. But it wasn't enough. You need to decide for yourself. But, as in all societies, some people prefer to be looked after.

Can you give me any examples, at the level of language, of these deformations of language under Meciar and whether there were any continuities with the Communist period?

During the Meciar period, they started to divide people living here into "good Slovaks" and "bad Slovaks," and that was determined by whether you supported the government's ideas or not. The Meciar government also used some similar language of security from the previous period, such as "I'm going to look after you." Also, many hostile words and nasty gossip were used against political opponents.

There was a documentary about a cameraman who worked for Slovak TV in those days. It was interesting to hear him talk about how the Meciar period was an excellent time to learn how to use this video language to make Meciar appear very solid and to use the camera to show his opponents as nervous. It reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker, and how she used cinematography during the fascist period, how she developed the technical means but without any ethics. So, it's not only about the words, but also the language of pictures, the use of video, the approach on radio. These stories always praising the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) people in Meciar's party were very, very powerful. It was so very frustrating when we went to holidays outside Slovakia and then came back and, as soon as you crossed the border, you could hear the radio saying something like: "If elections were organized this week, the winner would be Vladimir Meciar -- with a really big majority."

You mentioned Leni Riefenstahl. There was definitely an aesthetic that accompanied Nazism, and there was "socialist realism" under Communism. Was there an aesthetic that was connected to Meciar?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.