Vladimír Mečiar says nothing stands in the way of his entering government.
Now 63, the man who was credited with almost single-handedly steering Slovakia into international isolation while at the helm of an authoritarian government from 1994 to 1998, has visibly aged since holding office. His hoarse voice has lost some of its election-stump timbre, and he asks for interview questions in advance, perhaps no longer trusting in his fabled ability to dissemble.
His politics, too, have become more benign. While formally in opposition from 2002 to 2006, his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) occasionally helped the Dzurinda administration pass its bills, and even gave up two of its MPs to help the government recapture a parliamentary majority.
Once at opposite poles of the political spectrum from Mikuláš Dzurinda's SDKÚ, the HZDS these days is even sounding a lot like the strongest government party. It, too, plans to cut taxes from 19 to 15 percent over the next four years; it too stresses the importance of pro-investment, pro-integration and pro-American policies; it too has identified the front-running Smer as its main opponent, and is slinging the same colour of mud.
Could Mečiar really return to government in 2006? If so, would he practice a different style of politics from that which almost cost Slovakia its EU and NATO membership? What explanations, climb-downs and about-faces would be required to get the international community to accept him?
A few years ago, most political commentators in Slovakia had written Mečiar off as a has-been. These days, no one would be so definite, just as no one knows quite what to make of the prospect of his return.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Two weeks ago, the country passed the 10th anniversary of the murder of Róbert Remiáš, whose death became a symbol of Slovakia's democratic shortcomings under your 1994-1998 government. Since you left office, the international community has said it needs to see some evidence of reflection in you on those years and an admission of the mistakes your government made, before it will consider accepting you. In interviews with this newspaper in the past, you have always rejected these conditions. Has anything changed?
Vladimír Mečiar (VM): (pause) The tragic death of Róbert Remiáš in a car accident was portrayed as a political act of the government. But time has shown whose side the truth was on. The division of political forces into pro-NATO and pro-European later turned out differently than it appeared in 1997 and 1998. Back then it was claimed that those who were against Mečiar were in favour of entry to the EU and NATO, but in time it became clear that Mečiar was in favour of NATO and the EU, while Ján Čarnogurský, who was then the leader of the opposition, eventually resigned as chairman of the Christian Democrats, left the party and signed a document against NATO.
The Christian Democrats, which led the [1994 to 1998] opposition, are also now against the European Union Constitutional Treaty. Time also showed that the Party of the Democratic Left [SDĽ, a member of the 1994 to 1998 opposition] fell apart, while its successor party, [the current opposition leader] Smer, is still influenced by a strong current of anti-Americanism, which it keeps promoting.
Despite the fact that this party [the HZDS] has been under strong international and domestic pressure, both political and criminal, it has managed to defend its honour and its truth before the judgement of history, and that is the main way we have profited from those years.
Even though some kind of self-reflection has been demanded of us regarding the mistakes we made - and we made many - we have never demanded of anyone an apology for doing us wrong.
TSS: Despite the fact that the HZDS has not distanced itself from the 1994 to 1998 period, in 2006, compared to the last two general elections, there are far fewer voices from abroad saying that Mečiar is a threat to Slovakia's future, and that Slovaks should vote "with their eyes open". Why do you think that is?
VM: Because I have never been a threat, and because there was a misunderstanding of the steps that were taken at a transitional period in this country's development. Above all, I think that time has shown that we are a pro-integration party, that we are consistent in this, and that we are looking for ways for Slovakia to act constructively in both groupings.
TSS: Are there any political threats to Slovakia in 2006?
VM: I see three: anti-Americanism from Smer, anti-Europeanism from the Christian Democrats, and nationalism from the Slovak National Party.
TSS: Should this be taken as a list of parties the HZDS would have trouble working with in a coalition government?
VM: If they continued in these policies, then yes, we would have problems cooperating.
TSS: Over the four years of the second Dzurinda government, you chose a much less radical opposition policy than Smer and the Communist Party, and even on occasion helped the government get its bills passed, or propped up its minority government. Why did you choose this strategy?
VM: There were two factors. First, a serious domestic political struggle could have slowed our integration to NATO and the EU. Second, if we are going to base the future of Slovakia on anything, it has to be on the basis of an agreement. We tried to follow a policy that was opposition in nature, but we didn't reject discussions. Our approach was not entirely accepted, but we achieved more than Smer, for example.
TSS: What did the government do well over the past four years?
VM: I think they handled our integration well, even through not all government parties were in favour of it, and even though we had to help them. I also think they were successful in trying out some new economic ideas in the area of public finances, although the rest of the economy stagnated. Third, the government was successful in securing great credit abroad, and that is also valuable.
The mistakes the government made were largely to do with democracy at home, the representative nature of democracy, which collapsed, and that's why we have early elections. It also collapsed because of corruption, which is very widespread. Third, in focusing on integration into these international groupings, the government forgot to define what came next.
TSS: Ivan Mikloš told us in an interview last year that if it was the price of saving reforms, he would be prepared to work with "Mečiar and Mečiar's HZDS", because responsibility to the country would demand it. How would you feel about working with him in return?
VM: The fact we have been so long in opposition has given us a chance to work on a vision of the future. This vision calls for Slovakia to reach the average per-capita wealth of the leading EU countries within 20 or 30 years. For that to happen, Slovakia will have to experience incredible economic and social growth. We have to search for advantages in EU membership in terms of making up for how far we are behind. We are the poorest country in the EU, we have the highest unemployment, the lowest level of education, and the most poor people. We have to look for ways in the EU to help us out of this situation.
TSS: At this time before elections, our newspaper frequently gets visits from foreign investor groups trying to figure out who is who on the Slovak political scene, and what might happen after elections. What should we be telling them about the HZDS' economic programme?
VM: In terms of monetary policy, we would keep the currency stable with low inflation and a fiscal deficit of 3 percent of GDP, although whether we enter the euro zone in 2009 or 2011 doesn't depend only on us.
In terms of fiscal policy, we would reduce the rate of taxation from 19 to 15 percent. If we are to catch up with the advanced EU states, our rate of economic growth must be roughly double theirs. For this to happen, Slovakia has to make major changes in its educational set-up and to make major investments, especially in the regions. Our policy must above all be pro-investment, and must encourage investors to do business in Slovakia.
We reject these senseless tax burdens that Smer proposes, such as taxing dividends. Instead, there will be various incentives to turn accumulated capital into investment capital. We will stimulate the building of infrastructure and try to reduce the reliance of Slovakia on individual industries or sectors.
TSS: Even though you write in your programme that Slovakia's economic development must be "social" and "ecological", much of what you are saying now identifies you as a centre-right party. Is that a fair assessment?
VM: We said that development should be Christian, and that tends to be conservative. We said that our values should be national but not nationalist, which is again more right wing. What we actually say is not that changes should be social, but that they should be socially acceptable - not in a way that would slow economic growth, but that would provide for political stability.
TSS: Robert Fico's Smer party is allegedly sponsored by people who used to be connected with the HZDS, such as entrepreneur Vladimír Poór or marketer Fedor Flašík. You are famous for being unforgiving of people you feel betrayed you politically. Is part of your hostility to Smer motivated by personal feelings?
VM: The time is long past when I had personal feelings about these people. I try to be objective, and objectively speaking, I have no dispute with Fico. As for Smer as a party, it declares itself to be a left-wing party, but it does not have a left-wing programme. It also makes big promises that cannot be fulfilled.
The second problem is that Smer does not have the grass roots structures a party needs. It's more a media party created by its founders against the current government than a real programme alternative.
Third, the founding members of Smer nominated their candidates to parliament. These [founders] are people who operate in the shadow economy. It's not just Flašík and Poór, it's also [financier Juraj] Široký and others. These people have direct influence on [Smer] members of parliament. I know them personally, as I kicked them out of the HZDS in order to rid politics of this element. If Smer became a government party, what would they want? They would want to control the economic flows within the state for their own benefit. That's why I doubt that Smer would be able to fulfil what it promised, either as a partner or as a stable member of a coalition. I would fear a further deformation in Slovakia's development caused by this anonymous group, and a deepening of corruption.
I also think that the kind of anti-Americanism that Smer practices is simply not in Slovakia's interest.
TSS: Given the weaknesses of Smer that you have named, how do you account for the fact that they remain at the top of the polls? Do people not know these things, or do they simply not care?
VM: Very little has actually been said on this score, and these facts remain hidden from Smer's voters. This information is not being communicated in an appropriate manner. I started to talk about it, but I found no support in the media or in other political parties. The SDKÚ is starting to talk about it to some extent, but the other parties are pretending they don't notice, because they don't want to burn their bridges. They fear they might one day need to cooperate with Smer, and they don't want to say anything to hurt their own interests. The end is justifying the means in this case, and that is never good, especially in politics.
TSS: Do you think if people knew the truth, Smer's support would fall?
TSS: How much internal pressure are you under within the party to ensure that the HZDS comes to power in 2006 after eight years in opposition?
VM: Some of those who remained with the party despite the repression they suffered, who lost their status, their dignity and their posts, believe that participating in government would contribute to their rehabilitation. Others just hope for a good result, and for things to improve. So it's balanced. But there is no strong "either/or" demand regarding our participation in government.
TSS: If elections go as expected, on the one hand you might have Smer with about 25 percent, and on the other hand the three former right-wing partners in the ruling coalition with maybe slightly higher support. That leaves parties like the HZDS and SNS as kingmakers. Do you see the HZDS as being in a strong position to influence the makeup of the next government?
VM: Any considerations of election outcomes are premature, because a lot depends on what the voter turnout will be. There is no major social conflict being addressed in these elections, and the media are presenting them mostly as a question of who will get what post. The content of party programmes and the differences between them are disappearing.
When you look at Smer's current 30 percent, only 10 percent of that is decided voters; another 10 percent is simply against the government, while the final 10 percent likes the promises Fico makes, but as elections approach they will begin considering other options. We've seen this in the past, and the added factor now is turnout, which will have a major impact on the relative margins of each party.
TSS: What kind of turnout are you expecting?
VM: Between 35 and 50 percent. It's a dangerous trend because it reflects a decline in democracy, the fact that people feel let down by their elected representatives and no longer believe they will honestly serve their interests in power. And where democracy fails, it opens up room for radicalism.
TSS: Many of the larger parties on the political scene have said they would work with the HZDS in government, but not with you. Is it conceivable that you might withdraw from politics to allow your party back into power?
VM: This is the position of the Christian Democrats, and indeed we do find it difficult to agree with them, especially on the foreign policy question, where they are resistant to integration. The [opposition] Free Forum also says it, but they are a party created for one use only, more a "skupinka" [little group] than a party. And Mikuláš Dzurinda says we should not be together in one government, which is very sensible, because I really do have a much higher level of performance than he does.
TSS: When we talked with the prime minister, the foreign minister and the finance minister last year, all of them from the SDKÚ, they took various different positions on working with you...
VM: It's more about their attitude to their own mistakes in relation to us. It has nothing to do with me personally. Even though they made certain mistakes, they are afraid to admit that they made them, in the same way that I was forced to admit it and re-evaluate every step that I made. It's only fair that everyone should do the same.
TSS: Do you think Slovakia could see Vladimír Mečiar back in government after the June elections?
VM: I think the HZDS will have to be there because without it, the government will be unstable. The HZDS is pre-condition for a stable government.
TSS: But I asked about you personally.
VM: I am Vladimír Mečiar, chairman of the HZDS, and I will remain so. Everything else will be decided later, not now.
TSS: Do you see any barriers at the moment, at least on the theoretical level, to your participating in the government?
VM: I don't see any.