DESPITE some last minute maneuvering to avoid sanctions, the Smer party of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was suspended from the Party of European Socialists (PES) on October 12 for its decision to form a government with the far-right Slovak National Party.

The ban, imposed by the PES Presidency in Brussels, is to last until June 2007. The measure was proposed by the club of European socialists in the European Parliament in July, which said at the time that it "cannot accept a member that forms a coalition with a xenophobic, nationalist party".

Slovak National Party (SNS) leader Ján Slota is infamous for his xenophobic remarks concerning Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian and Roma minorities. Despite a warning from European socialists not to cooperate with the SNS, Fico formed a government with the nationalists and controversial former PM Vladimír Mečiar in early July.

PES Chairman Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who led the drive for the ban in the Presidency, said after the meeting that he was "proud of this historic decision," although he regretted that Smer was suspended.

"Most of our members stood solidly behind our values, according to which forming a coalition with the extreme right is unacceptable," Rasmussen said in explaining the decision. Only the Slovak and Czech delegates voted against the motion.

PM Fico said through a spokesperson that Smer was being "punished for doing politics for people".

It is the first time the PES has ever suspended a member. The party will reconsider Smer's status in 10 months.

"Smer now has 10 months to prove that it is pro-European and that it is prepared to fight extremism," said Smer MEP Monika Beňová, who was stripped of her seat as party vice-chair on September 30 for objecting to Smer's choice of political partners.

Dutch MEP Jan Marinus Wiersma, the author of the original ban proposal, said the suspension would not affect Slovak MEPs, who would remain members of the socialists club in the legislature.

However, according to political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov, the ban will deeply affect the Slovak government's ability to make a political impact in Europe.

"Smer will now not be able to attend meetings of PES members, including socialist heads of states. This means that Slovakia will lose a significant network of contacts and policy consultation that is so important to getting anything done in the EU," the analyst said.

For example, PM Fico will now not be permitted to attend next week's meeting of social-democratic heads of state and governments in Europe that is to precede the EU Summit in Finland.

"In the short term this will create complications for the government, and I expect it to strengthen the nationalist and isolationist wing within Smer," said Mesežnikov.

"However, in the long-term I see it as more positive for the country. It sends a strong message that politics is about principles as well as power."

Avoidance maneuvers

Before the Presidency reached its verdict, the Czech social democrats had proposed that rather than suspending Smer, the PES monitor the political situation in Slovakia for 6 to 10 months, according to Smer member Boris Zala, who represented Fico at the meeting.

The Czech proposal was supported by social democrats from Hungary, Austria, Germany and Poland, but was rejected by the French, Belgians and Spanish. The British, Italian and other delegations opted to wait for the outcome of the meeting, according to the SITA news wire.

Zala also presented a proposal from Fico that the Slovak leader in effect ban himself by simply not attending PES meetings.

Asked why the PES had in the end suspended Smer, Mesežnikov said: "When they put the fact that a member party had formed a government with radical nationalists on one side of the scales, and all the excuses and promises that Fico and the SNS made on the other side, they still wound up with a clear imbalance.

"Besides, it would have been impossible for them to go on criticizing the right wing in Poland for working with the far right, for example, and not to have taken action against one of their own members.

"They would have lost all credibility."