Zuzana Hlávková took part in the preparation of cultural events for the Slovak EU Council Presidency at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She left when unethical practices began to spread. Now, together with Transparency International, she is trying to hold those responsible to account.
I began my employment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July 2015 as an expert in cultural presentation at the Secretariat of the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the EU. Having graduated in Cultural Studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I wanted to return home after spending several years abroad and contribute to the good image of Slovakia. Therefore, an opportunity to co-prepare the Presidency was an obvious choice for me.
Within the scope of my work, I was responsible for cultural events and activities aimed at promoting Slovakia abroad. For instance, I worked on the ‘Searching for Beauty’ Brussels exhibition (a collaboration between animation duo Ové Pictures and the Slovak Design Centre). I also coordinated the cooperation with Bažant Kinematograf open air cinema, as well as the development and the launch of the Presidency Patronage scheme.
During the first few months, the atmosphere at our department (Department for Communication and Cultural Presentation) was very open and free. We enjoyed full support from our superiors and were able to do our work to the best of our knowledge and conscience. At that time, our team comprised of 6 people; as of September 2015 it counted 10 members already. Everybody knew what the others were doing and what problems they were currently dealing with. We used to meet at regular departmental meetings and talked about our work openly and without restraint with colleagues and superiors alike.
The media advisor arrives
In autumn 2015, Zuzana Ťapáková – a former director of the private TV Station Markíza – started appearing at the Ministry with increased intensity, especially at our department. She was introduced to us as the new media advisor. She mostly commented and advised on big cultural events in Slovakia – such as opening ceremonies and concerts. This took place at the highest level at the Ministry – she would meet with the Minister, the State Secretary, the Chief Operating Officer, the Directors-General and the Directors, and later on also with us – the regular employees.
We began to be pressured to change the scope and the format of the original projects in accordance with her demands, which also brought about a substantial increase in the budgets. Events originally planned as low-key and humble were suddenly transformed into spectacular happenings of a much more commercial nature. The most notable ones were the two opening concerts – one for the public and one for the VIP guests. Originally, the budget for these two events amounted to 63,800 euros (see: Memorandum of Cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture from July 2015) and, according to the contract, they were to be covered by the Slovak National Theatre. After Mrs Ťapáková got involved, the budget for these concerts shot up to several hundred thousand euros.
Meanwhile, Mrs Ťapáková began to push for organising a spectacular ceremony for the unveiling of the Presidency logo. The entire department was against it, since it looked suspicious from the very start and we all considered it a senseless waste of funds on something that other Presidencies managed to do with a simple press conference or a press release. At the same time, great emphasis was put on the event to be scheduled for January or February 2016, so that the then government could appear there.
At the time, we already knew that if such ceremony were to take place, it would be organised by an agency which took part in the preparation of the national convention of the Smer government party in December 2015 in Nitra. It seemed obvious given also that after one of the key meetings our superiors passed on to us a short video of the party convention’s opening cultural programme – a romantic video about the beauties of Slovakia and a performance by a folk dance group. Our superiors pointed out that “this is what it should look like”. The similarities with the final programme of the logo unveiling ceremony – especially the introductory video, the same folk dance group and visual motives – are apparent.
Notice obvious similarities in choreography of two events: The Smer party convention (left) and the Slovak Presidency logo ceremony (right). Sources: smertv.sk, rtvs.sk
My colleagues and I watched the proposed changes in disbelief, but, frankly, nobody thought they would really come into being. We considered it insane. We thought it was some kind of backroom game and someone in the management would put a halt to it in time and diplomatically reject it (because it was only the top management of the Ministry that could approve or not of such event). That was how we left for the Christmas break.
Nice and quick before the elections, no questions asked
After Christmas we returned to work only to find out that preparations for the unveiling of the logo had already begun. Documents were quickly drafted for a “make-believe” market research. Three already preselected event agencies were contacted by the Ministry, including the Evka agency. The description of the assignment was, to our knowledge, drafted to suit Evka. According to the assignment, the winner was to cover the event comprehensively – including artists, premises, technical equipment, dramaturgy, etc. The contract was to be processed through an exemption from public procurement law (the so-called Slovak Presidency Exemption), which allows purchases for Presidency-related activities that do not exceed 162,000 euros (VAT included) to be done without a public tender.
We received three offers of which the one from Evka for 156,000 euros was automatically selected (one of the counteroffers was a truck show with the logo around Slovakia). The date of the event was set for 22 February 2016 – just two weeks before elections. Preparations began in haste. Although Evka was supposed to fully cover the organisation of the event, our people participated in the process to a large extent.
To make things worse, it turned out during the preparations that the artists would be contracted and paid by the Ministry itself, on top of the contract the Ministry signed with Evka. That is to say, in addition to the 156,000 euros paid to Evka, the Ministry would also pay the performers’ fees from its own budget, as well as the premises of the Slovak National Theatre (which initially were to be provided either free of charge or covered by the agency). Also, the National Theatre rented the premises to the Ministry at a commercial price, which is not a common practice since both are state institutions and the latter should thus enjoy the premises either free of charge or for operating costs only (for instance, the Dutch Embassy in Slovakia rented the same National Theatre premises for operating costs only, which amount to approx. 5,000 euros, for their Presidency concert that took place on 25 January 2016.)
This is when our people became even more nervous. It all started to spin out of control. The type of contracts the Ministry signed with the artists did not have to be published, therefore the Ministry could conceal their existence. Guests were invited to the event hastily, but many could not come due to the short notice, and so the Ministry staff was obliged to go and fill the empty seats. Many colleagues had to work at the event as hostesses and other support personnel (min. 8 hostesses in uniform clothing were to be provided by the agency Evka, as stipulated in the contract).
I did not go, for at the time I had already submitted my resignation and refused to attend the event.
The Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák speaking at the Presidency logo ceremony (screenshot from rtvs.sk)
Opening concert – the same again?
In this atmosphere, after the New Year, I was put in charge of the opening concert for the public in cooperation with the Viva Musica! agency. Originally, it wasn’t my project. I had to process another request for the Presidency exemption from public procurement. Viva Musica! was approached by the Ministry in August 2015 based on recommendation from the Slovak National Theatre, in order to consult the opening concert for the public. Initially, it was meant to be a modest event accompanying the VIP concert – screening of the concert onto a large screen on the Main Square in Bratislava with an optional dance performance. The original budget was 20 000 euros (out of the afore-mentioned 63,800 euros allocated to opening ceremonies in Slovakia).
From the perspective of the Viva Musica! agency such format was not sufficiently attractive and they promised to send alternative proposals. One of these was then approved by the Minister in mid-October 2015, yet without a specific budget. Subsequently, in November, we received a proposed budget of approximately 140 000 euros. How the agency knew they could present such a disproportionately larger budget, remains uncertain. In January, when I took over the project, the budget amounted to more than 230 000 euros already.
I was pressured to process the exemption from public procurement before the elections. I knew that the budget skyrocketed under dubious circumstances and that it was never formally approved by the Minister. Viva Musica! agency was contacted and selected without a public tender or a market research.
After consulting my colleagues and researching the budgets of similar events (the concert on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Slovak accession to the EU, Presidency trio concert of the Dutch Embassy in Slovakia in January 2016 – both around 50,000 euros), we became concerned the budget was too high and had to be revised (not to mention that it exceeded the legal limit of the Presidency procurement exemption 162 000 euros). I openly communicated my concerns to my superiors. They said the whole thing went beyond us and there was nothing we could do about it.
Meanwhile the logo presentation took place – all the machinations with the budget, the contracts, the premises. I saw how my colleagues were drawn into things against their will and often unknowingly (because they did not receive full information, or they received it too late). Subsequently, they feared to speak up or feared for their jobs and often just went with the flow, despondent. However, several people were considering resigning.
I decided to leave the Ministry definitively. On 16 February I officially submitted my resignation notice. Along with my notice I presented a document specifying the status of cooperation with the Viva Musica! agency and requested a revision of the budget (based on the official contract from July 2016 the budget got reduced to 123 000 euros; however, according to my information it was not the final price for the event).
Meeting the Minister: as if nothing had happened
Upon leaving the Ministry, I decided to inform the Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák and the State Secretary Ivan Korčok about the dealings at the Secretariat of the Slovak EU Council Presidency in a letter, where I asked for a personal meeting with the Minister as well.
Four days later, I was received at the Ministry by the Chief Operating Officer Pavol Sýkorčin. We had a more or less open conversation. He admitted that the organisation of the logo ceremony wasn’t kosher (he still insisted it was legal). At the end, he asked if my decision to leave was final and if I wouldn’t consider coming back. I insisted on meeting the Minister, which happened on Friday, 11 March in his office.
The meeting unfolded in a strange way, since the Minister opened it by asking what it was that bothered me. As if nothing had happened. He said that he liked my youthful ideals, but that the heart had to go hand in hand with the reason. He also said that, unfortunately, in Slovakia we live in a certain setting where, for instance, there are various cartels and backroom deals in the IT sector and there is nothing the state can do about it, we must adapt. And that if I trusted him, I believed everything was fine. And that he would like to give me the opportunity to return to the Ministry, to any department, if the Secretariat of the Presidency wasn’t to my liking.
I asked that if everything was fine, why was it that we had to lie to the media about the total cost of the logo presentation event (the Ministry publicly claimed that it cost 200 000 euros, while the total amount indicated by my colleagues working on the event was to exceed 300 000 euros). He replied evasively that the Slovak media are biased and ill-wishing and only interested in money, not the content.
Next, I asked about the role of Mrs. Ťapáková at the Ministry. He replied that her job was to make proposals and comment only, not to execute or carry out anything (Ťapáková was not signed under any of the assignments and thus wasn’t officially behind them). He also said that it was the Prime Minister who sent her in order for us to make use of her. I pointed out that the budgets of various cultural events began to rise precisely after her arrival. He did not say anything.
We parted and I was supposed to inform him of my decision to return or not to the Ministry by the following Monday. I think he was quite sure of himself.
On Monday, 14 March, I sent him a negative response by email.
To let it go or not to let it go?
Then I found myself in a strange state. I wanted to forget it all, to move on. I was thinking about going abroad, but, at the same time, I still wanted to stay in Slovakia. I did not want to leave outraged and disgusted by everything Slovak. I tried to convince myself that I did do something, I made an attempt, I tried to appeal to the Ministry management. But still, I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I felt like I did not do the best and the most correct thing I could have done.
I was also becoming bitter, overcome by helplessness – the voice of the individual is powerless against the system, the latter always forces us to change our values, this is how it goes. I did not like myself being like that and I did not want to become one of those angry, bitter people at the age of 26 already. I decided to act. I turned to Transparency.
I first met Zuzana at Transparency in the beginning of July. She told me her story. Although we often deal with complaints of corruption or fraud, it is rare that an “insider” comes to tell us about it in person. Even more so, if that person is also willing to testify in public.
We began to examine information Zuzana gave us, especially in the registers of contracts and invoices. We turned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Slovak National Theatre and the artists with requests for documents that would show whether the Ministry really acted in accordance with the law. We exchanged three rounds of information requests and answers with the Ministry. Here are the findings that support Zuzana’s story.
- Zuzana received recommendation for employment at the Ministry from the LEAF non-profit organisation, which strives to attract Slovak graduates of prestigious foreign schools to come back to Slovakia. “We have recommended Zuzana as a very strong candidate. She passed our selection process, graduated from excellent schools and is fluent in four languages besides Slovak. After a few months, we always ask employers for feedback on candidates recommended by us. The Ministry assessed her as an excellent employee and was satisfied with her work,” says Michal Kovács of LEAF.
- Budgets for the activities pointed out by Zuzana did indeed grow significantly in comparison to the expectations. From the beginning, the Ministry insisted repeatedly that the Presidency costs will be effective and transparent. “They will be definitely economical and transparent,” said Minister Lajčák in April last year about the Presidency budget.
- Zuzana Ťapáková participated in the events in the capacity of advisor, and she herself boasted about working on the logo presentation too. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to disclose her official function and her salary to us.
- Although in February the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed to the media through its spokesman Peter Stano that a competition for the organisation of the logo presentation did take place and that Evka offered the best price, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to us it has no criteria or documents regarding the selection process. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that of the overall costs of the event it covered only the rent for the theatre premises and Evka’s fees for the organisation. It did not provide us any contracts with the artists. However, Adriana Kučerová, an opera singer present at the logo unveiling ceremony confirmed to us in writing that she was paid by Evka only for her copyright license, and that the main reward came directly from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (other artists contacted by us did not respond). This also increases our suspicion that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs covered additional expenses for organising the event and withheld it from public. This could also mean that the contract for organising the event was artificially divided as well, in order not to exceed the 162 000-euro legal cap of the Presidency exemption. In other words, they gave a nearly maximum possible amount stipulated by the exemption to the agency, but most likely also covered additional costs in Evka’s place from the state budget. This would constitute a gross violation of the public procurement law. In addition, our concern that this was a fictional or a pre-agreed contract is further reinforced by the fact that the contract with Evka was published (and thus entered into force) only three days before the event.
- Similarly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to provide documentation regarding the selection of the agency for the opening concert for the public. It was finally organised by Viva Musica! agency. If the Ministry officials did not at least carry out a market research, they violated the public procurement law and European directives. If they did do it but did not disclose the offers from the selection to the public, they violated the law on free access to information.
According to our latest survey, out of all EU countries Slovaks are the least willing to report corruption they experience themselves (in the neighbouring Czech Republic the willingness is twice as high, for example). Up to 41% of Slovaks think that an ordinary citizen cannot do anything about corruption. That is why we appreciate Zuzana’s attitude even more. We would be happy if more employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came forward and testified on how the Presidency public contracts were awarded.
Taking into account our findings and Zuzana’s testimony Transparency International has submitted today a formal motion for review by the Supreme Audit Office, the Antimonopoly Office and the Office for Public Procurement. At the same time, we appeal to Minister Lajčák to face the questions properly and disclose all unlawfully withheld documents regarding the tenders in question, and either prove that his Ministry complied with the ethical and legal rules or assume clear responsibility for the misconduct, and do his utmost to return all unlawfully used funds to the state, in case such misconduct is confirmed. We expect that as a responsible politician he will not focus on the people who brought the information forward, but on the issues raised by it.
“Depending on how we seize [the Presidency] we will be judged by our partners, the European institutions and even individual member states. It is very important to us that the Presidency is well prepared, because …. largely based on that Slovakia will be for many years perceived as an apt and competent country,” said Minister Lajčák last summer to the public.
Indeed, it’s time to do the final judgement.
Gabriel Šípoš, director of Transparency International Slovakia
Zuzana’s original letter to the Minister
Bratislava, February 29, 2016
Distinguished Mr. Minister,
I am writing to you on the last day of my work at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic. I am writing to express my disappointment and concern regarding the preparations of the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the European Union, especially in the past few weeks.
I joined the Ministry in July 2015, determined to contribute to the organisation of the most significant political event in Slovakia since the Slovak accession to the EU. I believed that the Presidency was an opportunity to show Slovakia’s enormous potential – human, diplomatic, economical, cultural, touristic. To show that if we are given the opportunity and the voice, we can be a global player, a society which ranks among the most developed democracies and thinks on a global level, whether in the field of culture, economy or diplomacy.
With my colleagues at the Department for Communication and Cultural Presentation, we were striving to deliver work of the highest possible quality. We succeeded to push through multiple innovative projects – the cooperation with the Slovak Design Centre and the successful young animation duo Ové Pictures on the Slovakia GIFs/Searching for Beauty project, or the cooperation with the Bažant Kinematograf open air cinema. I also coordinated the launch of the SK PRES Patronage scheme.
Unfortunately, after less than a year I have decided to leave the Ministry as of 1 March 2016. And I am not the only one. The reason is the execution of public procurements which is not in the interest of the state and the general public whom we had the ambition to serve with my colleagues.
Let me mention the gala evening on the occasion of the SK PRES logo presentation whose financial background is not in line with the public interest. The same applies to planned events, including the SK PRES opening concert for VIP guests and the SK PRES opening concert for the public, where public funds may be at risk of misuse too.
As an alumna of the Scottish University of St Andrews, I intended to join other young Slovaks who come back home after living abroad to pay their “due” to the country. After several years spent abroad, I wanted to invest my energy into the work for the community which I grew up in and which shaped me as a person and a citizen. I was recommended for the position of expert in cultural presentation of the SK PRES Secretariat by the LEAF non-profit organisation, which has long collaborated with the Ministry and has precisely this mission.
I regret that there is no other option but to quit a rewarding and meaningful job. However, I did not return to Slovakia to help spread the disease that is corroding our country – the systematic bypassing of laws and the cynicism in all things public. I do not believe that the state cannot be administrated otherwise. I was convinced I worked for a man who shares this view.
It is in the interest of all of us to do our best and turn a new leaf in the eyes of both the Slovak and the international public, and to show that in Slovakia we can administer public affairs properly, responsibly and, most of all, transparently. Our Presidency in the Council of the EU is that chance.
We shall not waste it.
Mr. Minister, I appreciate your work and devotion to the representation of Slovakia on the international stage. It is not an easy mission and I believe you must make many sacrifices. Therefore I would be grateful, even though as your former employee already, if you addressed my concerns at a meeting.
(The original article appeared on Transparency International Slovakia’s blog on November 20, 2016. We are very grateful to three Slovak students studying abroad – Adam Bučko of University of Copenhagen and Rastislav Beťko and Adam Pavlovič, both from the Hague University – for volunteering with the translation and proofreading).