IVAN Gašparovič
photo: TASR

AFTER spending 12 years in the shadow of Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia's most popular politician, Ivan Gašparovič has struck out on his own, successfully launching a new party last month 10 days before a deadline for participation in September elections.

Gašparovič's Movement for Democracy (HZD) is, not surprisingly, a virtual carbon copy of Mečiar's opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Many members of the HZD list of candidates for elections are former HZDS local and national politicians. The HZD's leftist orientation is a self-described return to the 1990 roots of the HZDS. Even its logo and name are difficult to distinguish from the parent party's public face.

But Gašparovič, for eight years the speaker of parliament, says there is a crucial difference between the two political forces - the younger is more democratic and open to suggestions by party members, unlike the authoritarian HZDS, which has long been dominated by Mečiar.

The HZD, its leader adds, is also more accepted by Western diplomats, and with recent polls giving it anywhere from five to eight per cent of voter support, could even form part of the next Slovak government.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Ivan Gašparovič on August 26.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Some people have doubted your claim that your party was founded spontaneously after a July national congress of the HZDS party in Nitra, particularly because you apparently needed only 10 days from deciding to launch the party to having a complete political machine. How could you have managed if you hadn't started preparing beforehand?

Ivan Gašparovič (IG): Let me say straight out, very simply, I had never considered starting a new party, so no, nothing was prepared. The situation reached a climax at the Nitra summit, where the HZDS experienced a complete absence of party democracy, where delegates didn't have the chance to express their opinions, and where the leadership didn't give them the chance to put forward or vote on their own proposals.

This was the climax of a process that already existed in the HZDS. At the time we said we had to change our approach to consultation, to meetings with citizens and accepting proposals from members of the party. It was generally the party leadership that decided things without accepting member proposals. That was just too much. I often had differences of opinion with HZDS leader [Vladimír] Mečiar, mostly about the leadership of the party, and these had reached a head at the preceding Trnava summit [in 2000], where I had been against his change to the statutes making only the party chairman eligible to nominate party vice-chairs. I want to stress that what happened in Nitra was not an 'explosion' at the fact that some of us were not included on the HZDS candidates list.

At the same time, [starting the HZD] was a spontaneous act, because after the congress many district [HZDS] officials stopped me and asked us to start a new political entity. Even at the time I said we should wait, that we needed cool heads, and that we would decide later what to do. I never imagined launching a political party before elections. But after meeting on the following day with district officials and hearing their feelings, seeing who all wanted to support us - business people of all sorts, people who didn't work for any political group - we decided.

We had to take care of administrative things, such as registering the party, very quickly. I predicted we wouldn't be able to handle it by ourselves, so I asked a former colleague from the law faculty who has a law office for help. They took care of all the administrative tasks for us including registering the party at the Interior Ministry.

We arose at the demand of 42,000 citizens who managed over three days to find time to give us their signatures [on a petition] allowing us to participate in elections. That was the first moment I really had the feeling we had done the right thing.

TSS: You said that you left the HZDS because undemocratic practices had reached a head. Were you not aware of these tendencies during the 12 years you were a member of the HZDS? Hadn't you seen even in the early 1990s where the party was heading?

IG: Sure, of course. I was by Mečiar's side in 1992, when Czechoslovakia was divided and two new states were created, when former federal property was divided, when new processes for creating a new state were launched - in other words, in situations which demanded a man like Mečiar. Mečiar really deserves credit for the fact that these things occurred practically problem-free, for the fact the Czech side accepted him more than some other people.

Slovak politics at that time really needed his approach as a decisive man, even if it meant that from time to time he took steps that appeared to lack democratic principles. The period was truly one that demanded such things in order for Slovakia to gain normal work, political and economic environments. But in another sense it was as if [Mečiar] had jumped on a train which went plunging along the rails, always at the same speed, and without paying attention to the light signals - whether they were red, or indicated a turn to the left or right. These were the mistakes that later occurred. He simply wasn't able to adjust his politics to suit reality or the needs of the state.

TSS: When you speak of the mistakes the HZDS made, what acts exactly do you have in mind?

IG: I think we stopped accepting the [opinions of the] citizen, and even though we kept declaring we were a party with a strong social programme, later we evolved into a party that appeared more centrist or rightist than leftist, and our voters didn't accept that. We thus gradually lost contact with our voters, and some steps we took to strengthen the HZDS were negative, and were regarded in such a light largely from abroad. I'm thinking here of the first parliamentary assembly [of the 1994-1998 Mečiar government in November 1994], when we elected parliamentary committees [the Mečiar government used its parliamentary majority to bar opposition politicians from oversight and expert committees - ed. note]. The legal order of parliament was not contravened, but I think it was not a politically just step.

TSS: At the time, as speaker of parliament, it was a step you heartily endorsed and were associated with.

IG: Yes, why, the order of debate of the national assembly was not violated. But politically I think it was not appropriate, it was not good, and it was one of those steps that damaged us abroad.

TSS: There are a number of other things the HZDS did which hurt it abroad, and which you seemed to endorse or at least not to protest. One was the banishing from parliament of MP František Gaulieder in 1996 by government deputies after he resigned his membership in the HZDS, which was later found to have been unconstitutional. You accepted as valid a letter Gaulieder said he had been forced to sign resigning his parliamentary seat, and rejected two letters he later wrote denying the validity of the first...

IG: In such a situation it is the responsibility of the speaker of parliament to pass on material to the mandate and immunity committee. I passed it [Gaulieder's letter] to the committee, which drew up a resolution that parliament was to debate. Parliament debated, and decided [to strip Gaulieder of his seat]. The Constitutional Court later said that parliament, if it had already accepted one letter, should have accepted another, which denied he had given up the function.

On the other hand, no one wants to look at the reasons the Constitutional Court gave. It said that parliament had to examine whether Gaulieder had given his [MP's] vow unconditionally. The Slovak Constitution says that if an MP gives a conditional vow, his vow is invalid and he loses his mandate. Gaulieder signed and later confirmed that he had signed a statement for the HZDS that if he ceased to agree with HZDS policy, he would not join any other political party but would give up his mandate.

TSS: But the HZDS required many of its MPs to sign such statements before 1994 elections because of the party's bad experience with losing defectors to the Democratic Union.

IG: I can tell you unequivocally that I didn't sign such a thing, nor would I have signed it. As to whether others signed it, I wasn't present, but I don't think all [HZDS MPs] signed it.

TSS: What is your view of other events that the West considers key mistakes of the Mečiar government, such as the 1995 kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr, son of the then-president, and the thwarting of the 1997 referendum on Nato membership?

IG: I refuse to comment on such things, because they must be decided by judicial organs. It's not possible for a citizen to say "he did it, and he didn't do it." Only a court can say that. I can't say it was Mečiar, [former secret service boss Ivan] Lexa or [Justice Minister Ján] Čarnogurský, or that Kováč kidnapped himself. It's for courts, prosecutors and investigators - if they have the proof, the materials, they should investigate it. Lexa is here, that's good, he is before the Slovak courts, and the courts must decide on the basis of relevant evidence.

TSS: What is your view, as a Slovak citizen, of the amnesties that Mečiar issued in 1998 which have prevented what you have just urged - the investigation and conviction of the people who committed these crimes?

IG: Amnesty is the exclusive constitutional power of the president of the republic [Mečiar issued the amnesties under presidential powers inherited from the outgoing Michal Kováč - ed. note]. He can do what he wants. It's a matter of his will and conscience. It's valid. That's my view as a lawyer.

TSS: I'm asking for your moral view as an ordinary person on how Mečiar used the amnesty power.

IG: President Clinton gave an amnesty to a drug dealer a few hours before his presidential mandate ran out. It's up to these people to decide.

TSS: One drug dealer had far less impact on the US than the Kováč kidnappers and Robert Remiaš killers had on Slovak society.

IG: I think that drug dealers are even worse. Thank you very much, if someone manages to get hundreds, thousands of young people into a state where they are insane and die. That's worse.

TSS: Western diplomats have said they wanted to see signs of self-reflection from the HZDS before they would begin to trust the party, but you seem to have the same view of the past as your former HZDS party colleagues. So why should anyone believe you have changed? What is the difference between you and Mečiar?

IG: I don't want to deny my role in the HZDS, whether in negative or positive steps. I take full responsibility. But I say that a situation arose, in which I think steps I have mentioned harmed Slovakia, they were bad, and thus I distance myself from any such potential steps in the future, and I would never do them.

TSS: Who are your main financial sponsors?

IG: So far we have no large sponsors, only small ones. We have a bank account, we get money and we don't hide it. But our campaign according to our experts shouldn't cost more than Sk8 million [$178,000].

TSS: What is between you and the Harvard group of companies, which are owned by Juraj Široký and Vladimír Lexa Sr? You say you have no large sponsors, but these men are reputed to be among the richest in the country. Eleven firms in the Harvard group now have their headquarters here, in the same building the HZD sits in. Široký or members of his family have been active in 11 companies registered here, and Lexa or members of his family in four. Doesn't your sitting in the Harvard building qualify as sponsorship from and ties to a powerful financial group?

IG: We have nothing to do with it [Harvard group]. It's not true to say we're in the Harvard building, because I think this building doesn't belong entirely to Harvard. We are located in the premises of a joint stock company called Pekáreň, which is in bankruptcy. We have a rental contract for these premises with the bankruptcy trustee, and the danger is that when the trustee sells these premises we'll have to move. So we have nothing to do with Harvard. [Gašparovič's assistant, Katarína Chajdáková, later told TSS the name of the firm in bankruptcy was Dúbravanka pekáreň a cukráreň, whose basic capital is Sk153 million. The firm's chairman of the board, Juraj Bratislavský, along with supervisory board chair Andrea Bratislavská, were both on the boards of the firm Dúbravanka RFT at the same time as Radovan and Igor Šillo, who have been on the boards of at least three firms with Vladimír Lexa Sr - ed. note].

TSS: What kind of relations do you have with the Smer party?

IG: So far we have not held talks with Smer officially as a political party. We are slightly to the left of centre, and Smer also defines itself as a leftist party. I don't rule out that in the future we could discuss cooperation. Slovakia will be in a very unusual political situation after elections - we are approaching a year in which it will be decided if we enter Nato and the EU. Given this very serious situation for Slovakia's future, political agreements will have to be made that perhaps in another situation would not arise.

TSS: Do such political agreements include one between the HZD and Mečiar's HZDS?

IG: Cooperation and coalitions are two different things. If the HZDS submitted a law to parliament that we felt should be supported because it was in Slovakia's interest, of course we would do so. But as a coalition partner, no way.