ANYONE who saw the images of the young female student, Hedviga Malinová, after she was allegedly beaten up by two attackers in Nitra on August 25, likely had little doubt that the incident occurred as she described it. Her lower lip was swollen, her right eye was blacked, and she had blood and several scrapes on her face.
The authenticity of these images made them difficult to reconcile with the doubts police revealed two weeks later about the truth of Hedviga's story. Because if she wasn't beaten up as she said, what did happen to her face?
It would indeed be more reassuring if Hedviga remembered the incident better than she claims to, and if some of her allegations sounded less fantastic. In particular, her explanation of why her DNA was found on an envelope in which her stolen documents were returned - the stamp was falling off, so she licked it and stuck it back on before handing it over to the police - sounds bizarre.
But some parts of the police version seem just as absurd. Investigators said that the blood found on Hedviga came from her nose, and that she suffers nosebleeds in stressful situations. So was she just stressed out before her university exam, got a nosebleed and decided on the spot to take advantage of it? Did she spontaneously smear herself with blood, beat herself up, tear off her blouse and scrawl anti-Hungarian slogans on it, and then make up a complex story just to get out of an exam? Anyone who lives in this country knows how easy it is to get a doctor's note to achieve the same thing.
According to police, a forensic doctor examined Hedviga 10 days after the attack and found no injuries. Given that the student's initial facial swelling and abrasions, though unsightly, were not severe, it's not clear what the doctor's findings established, or why they were included as part of the police case against Helviga. Shouldn't we be asking what took the doctor so long to look at her?
It's one thing for the police to conclude that the incident did not occur. It's another thing altogether (i.e. a display of atrocious political judgement) for the prime minister and interior minister to immediately call a press conference and claim "incontrovertible evidence" that Hedviga was lying.
First, the investigation isn't over yet. Hedviga's lawyer appealed the police decision, meaning the case file went to the Attorney General's Office for review. It's up to the AGO - not Robert Fico - to say whether the evidence is incontrovertible. Given the questions that clearly remain to be answered, for and against the charges, that may take a while.
Second, the alleged beating in Nitra must be seen in the context in which it occurred - not just of the series of provocations on both sides of the border between Hungary and Slovakia, but above all of the presence of the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) in the ruling coalition. This context demands that the Fico government show acute sensibility to feelings in Hungary and the European Union regarding the SNS' role in government, and if necessary go the extra distance to dismiss doubts about the current administration.
Rather than sensibility, however, we've seen only offended virtue. Even now, three months after the elections, Fico has yet to speak directly to his Hungarian counterpart, Ferenc Gyurcsányi. It's as if a new Iron Curtain has gone up between the two neighbours, and nothing short of a nuclear crisis will get either of them to pick up the red phone.
In Brussels, as well, Fico was telling journalists during his protocol visit on September 7 to "be objective", and claiming that there was no relationship between acts of extremism and the presence of the SNS in his government.
Robert Fico has fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of the Hedviga case. Like the interview that SNS boss Ján Slota gave for the Czech paper Lidové Noviny, in which he said he envied the Czechs for having deported the Sudeten Germans after World War Two (whereas Slovakia did not evict its Hungarians), Fico believes if he can make the Hedviga attack disappear, the international clouds over Slovakia will melt away as well.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The indecent haste with which the investigation of Hedviga's claims was "disappeared" has only inflamed tensions in Hungary, for as the girl's lawyer said, "two weeks for a police inquest must be some kind of record in this country". And Fico's absurd claims that the interview with Slota was manipulated by an ethnic Hungarian editor at Lidové Noviny make him look even more desperate, and out of step with the times.
Slota will continue to be an immense political liability, especially abroad, and Fico must find some way to come to terms with this. No one is arguing that his government is illegitimate, as its member parties were all elected democratically. However, Slota's past statements and behaviour have made him a fringe player that mainstream politicians embrace at their peril. Having taken that danger on board, Fico must now spend some time on damage control, which requires diplomacy, tact, political instincts and above all communication - none of which are his strong suits.
What's at stake here is far more than lining up in support of comfortable liberal values like ethnic tolerance. If Fico's Smer party gets kicked out of the Party of European Socialists in October, as seems extremely likely, the Slovak government will lose an important political network in Europe. There will be no consultations before meetings of European finance ministers or European Parliament council sessions, and the country will find its impact on EU policy seriously curtailed. Nor would a resolution in the US Congress condemning the Slovak government for working with Slota - as mooted by Congressman Tom Lantos - do any good to the country's recently restored image.
On one level it is easy to understand why Fico feels hard done by. Hungarian politicians have been exploiting the situation for all they are worth, as they were bound to do, and international opinion on Slovakia since the elections has contained more than a little schadenfreude at seeing Fico in trouble after ignoring warnings not to work with Slota and Mečiar.
But life ain't fair, and a national leader has to be able to rise above these disappointments, especially if he courted them in the first place. He has to show he can look after all his citizens - including their international reputation - despite the political choices he has made for them. He has, in a word, to show a great deal better judgement than he has so far - whether he believes the crisis is real or imagined.
By Tom Nicholson