Christine Stone practised at the English Bar as a lawyer specializing in crime and civil liberties before setting up the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a number of academic and journalist colleagues in 1992. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator and Wall Street Journal on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Her column now appears Thursdays on Antiwar.com.
Archived Antiwar.com articles by Christine Stone
On the morning of 20th April forty masked police commandos broke into the home of Vladimir Meciar in Trenciaske Teplice and arrested the former Slovak prime minister. After ringing the doorbell and using a loud hailer to summon him out they blew up one door with explosives and smashed a second to pieces with axes. Meciar was taken into police custody and charged with fraud and abuse of power for, allegedly, handing out illegal bonuses worth c.$325,000 to members of his cabinet during his 5 years in power.
Nothing like it ever happened when Vladimir Meciar was prime minister of Slovakia. Although Western governments, their tame media like the New York Times and their attack dogs in the human rights community used to accuse Meciar of ruling Slovakia with an iron-hand between 1994 and 1998, none of his opponents had their front doors blasted open by an assault commando of masked secret policemen. What happened yesterday was out of the NATO copybook for arresting alleged war criminals in Bosnia rather than the traditional way of asking any citizen, let alone an ex-prime minister to come down to the police station to answer a few questions.
Meciar is the most popular politician in Slovakia and his party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), consistently gains the highest opinion poll ratings in the country. This, despite losing parliamentary elections held in September 1998 to a broad US-EU backed rainbow coalition. The government in Bratislava formed after that election is now in disarray, stumbling from crisis to crisis and only recently surviving a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. Its leftist component is alarmed by the hostility of its core supporters to the government’s strict monetarist policies and the resulting record unemployment. Sensing the vacuum at the heart of the country’s political system, Meciar has demanded early elections and the country’s president Rudolf Schuster is deliberating over the idea of calling a referendum to decide the matter.
This was not how it was meant to be. The coalition of conservative and leftist forces that won the 1998 election campaigned on a policy of bringing greater prosperity to Slovakia in the form of job creation, a vast house-building programme and increased wages. None of this has come about. By the end of 1999 Slovakia had a 22% rate of unemployment the highest in Europe.
Such an economic programme could only have worked anyway if it had been implemented along traditional Keynesian lines. But any informed observer of the Slovak scene could have told its starry-eyed electorate that Keynesian economics was not going to be in the cards. As soon as Meciar was defeated, Slovakia was welcomed into the club of aspiring EU members and once there it was obliged to pursue a policy of cutting public spending and setting high interest rates. The other opportunity that might offer the possibility of increasing state expenditure revenues from privatisation projects did not materialize as government members and their cronies argued, and are still arguing, over the method and the spoils.
The threat of prosecution for alleged crimes committed during its period in power has haunted HZDS members ever since the 1998 election. The former Minister of the Interior, Gustav Krajci, awaits trial for sabotaging a referendum into the election of the president in 1999. Ivan Lexa, former head of Slovak Security Services, has been charged with organizing the kidnapping of the former president, Michal Kovac’s, son and spent several months in custody before being released on bail. It is the kidnapping case that has most preoccupied the Slovak authorities and which hangs over the head of Meciar.
What, then, are the facts of this strange incident? In August 1995, Michal Kovac Junior was abducted from his home in Bratislava and driven over the border into neighbouring Austria where he was found the next day, unharmed. Kovac claimed that he had been set upon by unknown assailants who had forced him to drink two bottles of whiskey before pushing him into a car and driving him away. When the news was reported in the West it was taken for granted that the whole operation had been conducted by the Slovak secret services under the orders of prime minister Meciar. But, the question remains: who gained from this bizarre episode?
By August 1995 any misfortune that overcame Slovakia even bad weather was laid at Meciar’s door. It is difficult to see what benefits could accrue to him at this time by unleashing such a high profile operation. The president and prime minister did not get along so it was odd for the latter to embark upon a course of action that actually helped rather than hindered the Kovac family, for, there was more to the story than meets the eye.
In August 1995 Kovac Junior was the subject of an international search warrant issued by the German courts for alleged complicity in fraud and conspiracy charges. A co-defendant had already been convicted on similar matters. There is evidence that the net around him was tightening – the morning of the kidnapping a request for his extradition had been delivered to Bratislava in person by German officials.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a plan was cooked up that satisfied a number of people. If Kovac Junior was found to have been removed to a third country against his will – worse still, as a result of forced inebriation and kidnapping it would be highly unlikely that that country (in this case, Austria) would subject him to extradition proceedings. Thus, he could escape trial in Germany. If, at the same time, you could blame the whole incident on the government’s security apparatus this could only further damage its reputation in the eyes of the international community. With the foreign press accepting, as usual, the version of events presented to them by their so-called "independent" Slovak colleagues, both Meciar and Lexa were assumed without more ado to have been responsible for the kidnapping.
The Kovac case with its heady brew of secret service agents, car chases and forced drinking all conducted around the family of a respected head of state has served the opponents of Meciar and his government well since it took place. But, despite rumours that new witnesses are about to be produced and the truth finally revealed, little more is known about the case than was known (or suspected) five years ago. The arrest of Meciar on 20th April is, no doubt, meant to change all that. Although, ostensibly, about the illegal payment of bonuses the real reason for the police blitz was to ‘question’ the former prime minister about his role in the affair. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a full Bukharin-style confession might eventually result from these ‘interviews’ and Meciar depart into the state penitentiary for many years to come.
If that is to happen one can be sure that there will be no outcry from foreign governments and international human rights groups. In fact, it would probably be accurate to say that there would have been more people highlighting the horrors of the Soviet purges in the late thirties (and there weren’t many) than are likely to object to political trials and dawn raids on unarmed civilians in Slovakia in 2000.
There is certainly a lot to complain about. Since the new government came to power thousands of people have been dismissed from their jobs in state and local officialdom. While the opposition HZDS consistently gains the highest percentage in opinion polls it has next to no media outlets. TV both state and commercial are in the hands of the government’s supporters as is the majority of the press. Despite the shrill complaints from foreign NGOs and press watchdogs during the Meciar years that the opposition was unrepresented in the media the fact was that they controlled most of its outlets, apart from state radio and television. With a whole raft of magazines, newspapers, TV and radio stations screaming constant abuse against Meciar, the Committee for Protection of Journalists in New York judged the Slovak media to be ‘unfree’ and put it in the same category as Cuba and Iraq.
The same Committee to Protect Journalists was recently prodded (no doubt, reluctantly) into action against the new regime. On 23rd March a district court in Bratislava convicted the editor of the Slovak weekly Zmena of calumny against the Slovak Republic for an article published on the magazine’s front page in March 1999 that criticized the Slovak government’s decision to allow its air space to be used during NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. For this heinous crime Pavel Mohorita was sentenced to 4 months in jail.
It is interesting to note that the Council of Europe which had loudly criticized this provision in the Slovak constitution (which was never, anyway, used by Meciar) is silent today when the new ‘democrats’ resort to locking someone up for criticizing the government.
But, there is a powerful alignment of forces which would welcome Meciar’s disappearance into the state penitentiary of which the government in Bratislava is the least influential. Both the United States and the European Union laboured for years to end Meciar’s political career and they do not want to see him coming to power again. The EU’s Integration minister Gunter Verheugen has regularly pointed out that Europe would not tolerate a new, Meciar-led government. (Verheugen’s democratic credentials were similarly displayed when he announced that an election victory for former president Ion Iliescu in parliamentary elections scheduled for December in Romania, would be looked on askance by the EU).
On 20th March Dirk Megrack, head of the EU’s negotiating team for Slovakia, said that "a lack of political stability" could be an "obstacle" to the country’s joining the EU. Nearer home, newly-elected President Mesic of Croatia has warned against the return to power of people like Meciar and Tudjman – "We must form such a parliamentary structure to prevent the rise of another Tudjman or Meciar" he said in an interview with Croatian TV on 17th April..
It is always interesting to ask why there should have been such a hysterical response to a small-time politician in a ‘far away country’ whose crimes and misdemeanours still remain shrouded in mystery. There were no political prisoners in Slovakia during the Meciar years – the country didn’t even merit inclusion in Amnesty International’s Yearbooks. And, far from living in fear of the police and the secret services, many Slovaks, particularly the young, spent their time criticizing both Meciar and his government openly in the (allegedly censored) press. In September 1998 I was followed around the eastern town of Kosice not by Meciar’s secret police, but by agents of the present government – I saw them mixing jovially with members of the new regime several months later.
It may be that the main obstacle to putting the former prime minister on trial and sending him to prison for a long, long time will be public opinion. While commentators on Slovak affairs are always ready to inform you that only peasants and old people support Meciar they know that this isn’t exactly true. As far back as 1994 I realised that there were many young and middle-aged people in the ranks of the HZDS. Would there be civil unrest if Meciar was imprisoned?
It is unlikely. The legacy of 50 years of Communism is to have made people viscerally aware of the nature of power and where it resides. If you are out of work – or on the brink of unemployment you are unlikely to take to the streets. The days when a real secret police operated are not that long ago. Also people in Slovakia today know that the Western chorus of support for the well-funded, pseudo-dissidents opposed to Meciar between 1994-1998 is now leading the pack demanding purges and imprisonment for the fallen opponents of the "democrats", so there is no help to be expected from Human Rights Watch et al. if the reinvigorated Slovak secret police and commando squads decide to smash protest. It is people in Western Europe who should really be complaining about what is going on in countries like Slovakia. Such things could soon happen here.
The refusal of most European states to cooperate with the new Austrian government which, though legitimately elected, upsets certain vested interests, is one example of the undemocratic turn of events in the Western world. And, as I write, journalists and commentators like the International Herald Tribune’s William Pfaff are in a state of apoplexy over the possibility that Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi might once again come to power. Like Meciar, Berlusconi was subjected to years of smears and allegations of impropriety resulting in prolonged criminal investigations which, in the end, added up to very little. The dawn raid so sensitively performed on Vladimir Meciar’s home could yet happen on this side of the old Iron Curtain if the wrong person is elected.
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