HISTORICAL documents that reveal details of people's unsavoury pasts will always have their opponents, as will the institutions which administer them. It would be strange if there were not people happy to see such documents, not to mention the buildings in which they are stored, go up in smoke. But when political parties in power attack institutions such as the Nation's Memory Institute (ÚPN), clear in their intent to erase it from the public sphere, then something has gone terribly wrong in the way that the country deals with its past.

Following in the unenviable footsteps of insatiable, profit-hunting pension fund managers, greedy retail chains and an irresponsible media - as the prime minister likes to refer to those who have met with his disfavour - the Nation's Memory Institute has now joined the ranks of those requiring a "lesson" from the governing coalition.

The Slovak National Party (SNS) and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) have serious problems with the ÚPN, which administers the historical documents relating to the undemocratic regimes in Slovakia's past, and the people these affected. Since its inception, the institute has been releasing sensitive information about people whom the historical documents indicate were either opposed to, or collaborated with, the pre-1989 communist regime.

It comes as little surprise that HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar has issues with the ÚPN. The communist secret police (ŠtB) files have been a thorn in Mečiar's side since information emerged implying that he may have cooperated with the ŠtB. There have even been claims that Mečiar interfered with those files when he served as Slovak interior minister in the early nineties.

The SNS started calling for the abolition of the ÚPN only a few days after the media reported on material released by the ÚPN which revealed one or two inconvenient details about the record of its leader, Ján Slota.

The ŠtB files suggest that in the early 1970s Slota shoplifted from a textile shop in the village of Koš near Prievidza and then went to Austria for several days. Slota has refused to comment on his past, pretending that it has never been present.

Yet the SNS boss, known for his controversial ruminations on Hungarians, Roma and other minorities, didn't even bother to conceal his intentions of having the ÚPN's archive locked up for good. Ironically, Ivan Petranský, the current head of the ÚPN, is an SNS nominee; one whose loyalty and obedience Slota must now be pondering.

Both, Slota and Mečiar would obviously like the institute, which is indeed vulnerable to political influence, to have a selective memory: perhaps allowing it to recall only those inconvenient acts which relate to their political opponents.

Mečiar tried to summon Petranský to HZDS headquarters in late April; he told the press that the ÚPN boss had refused, saying he was only willing to meet Mečiar at the institute, and only if he came in an official capacity as a member of the parliamentary human rights committee.

"I told him he is no genius and that he sits in that position only because Fico, Mečiar and Slota agreed to it," Mečiar told the head of the ÚPN, as quoted by the Sme daily. Then, according to the daily, he added that he had told Petranský: "Darling, I am glad you do not want to meet me because I do not like talking to stupid people."

It is hard to imagine what it was that Mečiar needed to discuss so urgently with Petranský that he was unable to arrange a visit to the ÚPN. But his reminder to Petranský about to whom he owes his position reveals the core of the problem.

Institutions like the ÚPN should be free of political influence. These recent developments only go to show why this should be so: politicians and their political nominees are rarely good administrators of sensitive historical documents.

To describe Prime Minister Robert Fico's support for the ÚPN as tepid would be generous: he has done little so far to stand up for it, or the principles it represents. It seems that the coalition would be happy to shut the ÚPN's door and throw away the key. Their self-serving justification - that most people don't care much about it - has a worryingly familiar ring.

When the media cried foul after the government roughed them up with the Press Code, Fico said there was too much noise about nothing and that people in fact care very little about the Press Code. Now the government has found another subject - the nation's memory - about which, we are assured, people do not really care.

Understandably, the ÚPN will never receive the same attention as the labour ministry or the social insurer, which pays people's pensions. But that doesn't mean its role is unimportant.

Public figures don't appear from nowhere and the public need to see how deep their roots reach and what sort of soil has been nourishing their growth. Fico said he does not want people to be affected by untrustworthy ŠtB files. But by hiding the files away from the public, it will be easier for people who affected other people's lives in the service of undemocratic regimes to bury their past. This generation would send out the message: you can get away from your past because it can be abolished, along with the institution established to shed light on it. And without public scrutiny, those files can easily become a tool for political extortion and blackmail.