A COUPLE of weeks ago, the boss of Slovakia's strongest opposition party, Robert Fico, vehemently protested against the praise that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso lavished on the reforms that Slovakia has enacted over the past several years.
What really pained Fico was the fact that in gushing over the reforms, Barroso was also indirectly congratulating the author of the changes and Fico's sworn enemy, the right-wing government of Mikuláš Dzurinda.
"It's impossible to say on the one hand that he does not want to interfere into the political fight between the left and the right, and on the other to fully support the right-wing reforms that are at the core of the pre-election struggle and of how voters will decide," Fico complained.
Barroso made it clear even before flying to Slovakia that he had no intentions of getting involved in the pre-election campaign, adding that "the Slovak people chose their own government".
He added that it was not important whether the government inclined to the right or the left of the political spectrum, but rather that it was committed to reform.
For Fico, the word "reform" has long had a pejorative sense in his lexicon, a catch-all for the "experiments" performed by the Dzurinda team on the guinea pigs of the Slovak nation for the benefit of a profit-hungry breeder.
Desperate for some foreign reassurance of his own, Fico told the Slovak media on April 19 that his intentions for the next Slovak government had met with understanding from British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
According to a Smer press release, in a 40-minute meeting Fico informed Blair of Smer's attitudes to Slovakia's right-wing reforms, which he said may look different from the outside, mainly from the viewpoint of investors. Inside the country, where people must bear the negative impact of reform, things can seem far less rosy, he said.
Fico added that Blair "expressed understanding" for his intentions to cancel some of the decisions of the rightist government.
The Smer release claimed that Tony Blair had wished the Smer representatives good luck in the elections, and that the two men had jointly expressed the wish that Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic get governments during elections this year with strong social-democratic programmes.
Fico reportedly also assured Blair that he saw no reason to change Slovakia's current foreign policy orientation.
Katarína Strýčková of the British Embassy told The Slovak Spectator that it is not the habit of the British prime minister to comment on domestic issues in any country prior to the elections.
Strýčková pointed to an earlier statement made by Blair during his March trip to Slovakia, that many admire the progress Slovakia has achieved over the past couple of years, including the power of Slovakia's economy.
Even during Blair's trip, analysts stressed that Slovak politicians could not expect him to give any clear political signals to voters ahead of general elections.
Could Fico's desperate search for political partners and foreign support have led him to slightly overstate the warmth of Blair's embrace? After all, a good word from the British PM would be a trophy to show off to business circles that do not seem to buy Fico's version of "the third way".
Fico's critics have said that the Smer boss has been inflating his own popularity by criticizing the reforms, but has failed to provide a credible road map describing the "third way" and where it actually leads.
It is clear that parliamentary elections in 2006 will differ greatly in one aspect from those in 1998 and 2002. The international community will likely not be making any statements, direct or indirect, about the eventual return of three-time PM Vladimír Mečiar and what it could eventually mean for the country.
Foreign politicians are also very unlikely to make statements for or against Fico, even if the Smer boss would badly like to hear those statements somewhere between the lines.
It also is far from certain that statements by foreign politician, now that they are no longer backed by the threat of barring Slovakia's NATO or EU entry, can sway Slovak voters in elections. But parties are unlikely to give up trying - just on the off chance.
Despite their history of enmity, Fico's election behaviour shares some similarities with that of Mečiar. Smer and the HZDS are built around their leaders, both of whom claim to know what is best for the nation. Each has tried to persuade the public that only he can provide shelter and protection from evil foreign influences that can only harm this small nation, which has struggled so long to win its independence.
However, one of the differences between them is that Mečiar already knows what it feels like to be in power, while Fico is still a virgin and would do anything to become experienced.
This is what makes Fico, a man whose hopes have been inflated by opinion polls only to be dashed twice, so impatient.
By Beata Balogová