THE DECISION of the Party of European Socialists to suspend Slovakia's ruling Smer party for its cooperation with the far-right Slovak National Party is a decisive and welcome contribution to increasing the political sensibility of Slovak voters.
In sidelining Smer for 10 months, the PES was telling Fico that it makes no difference what the Slovak National Party actually does in government, because its past extremism have disqualified it from the political mainstream.
For Slovakia, the PES decision could be a dangerous development in the short term, because it follows the refusal of Hungarian PM Ferenc Gyurcsány to meet with Fico at a summit of the Visegrád Four states on October 10. In September, meanwhile, US Congressman Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, said he was considering introducing a motion to the House condemning Smer for working with the SNS. The more such international snubs and rejections Smer accumulates, the more the country's image as a whole will suffer.
But before we start feeling sorry for Fico, and injured on behalf of Slovakia, let's take another look at the man at the centre of it all - SNS leader Ján Slota.
When I interviewed him for The Slovak Spectator in May, Slota had already been drinking. It was a big day for the Žilina mayor, with the unveiling of the Sk30 million Hurban statue, and a congress of SNS members from all over the country. He delivered a meandering ex tempore speech to that congress, clutching a plastic cup of white wine, and then gave an interview to me, during which he drank three shots of scotch (to be fair, I drank three shots with him).
At issue is not whether or how much Slota drinks, but the fact that alcohol has been involved in so many of his escapades, from urging Slovaks to climb in tanks and "flatten" Budapest, to the story, later retracted, by the Nový Čas daily that he had urinated from the balcony of a Bratislava restaurant. Then there was the footage on TV JOJ this summer of Slota spitting on the patrons of a bar in Bratislava, apparently because they were speaking Hungarian.
During our interview, Slota demonstrated a wily ability, even while imbibing, to communicate his meaning without getting himself in trouble. When I asked him about the Roma, he didn't answer directly, but compared them to the Kosovo Albanians, who were allegedly "multiplying like mice". When I asked him about his critics, his lips contorted into a whitened oval. "Those intellectual scum," he cursed. "Those scum".
In person, Slota seems to have a lot of hatred in him. He has learned not to direct it publicly towards ethnic minorities - intellectuals are less of a hot-button target - but rage still crackles off him when he's in the mood.
He wasn't always so circumspect, though. Back in 1997, he attended a congress of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in Strasbourg, and returned to Slovakia spluttering with rage at the demonstrations that had attended the event.
"I saw blacks making a huge noise banging drums on the main square [of Strasbourg]," he told the independent Radio Twist, as quoted by Reuters. "I saw broken shop-windows... drunk blacks and Arabs and a couple of anti-socials."
In an interview with Nový Čas following his trip to Strasbourg, Slota described Le Pen as "a person who wants to keep France for the French and not for the Arabs or the blacks. I don't know if anyone wants any half-coloured people running around Slovakia. Personally, I want the Slovaks to be the founding nation here."
When Le Pen did finally visit Slovakia in September 1997, he was received with high honours in Žilina, where Slota eulogized him as "the true leader of national forces in Europe, who during his entire life has never betrayed the goals that are dear and holy to us."
Almost a decade later, and after many more such verbal excesses, Slota has proven an Achilles heel for the new Slovak government. No one who listened to the far-right leader over the years, amazed that he somehow managed to keep getting elected, can be surprised. No one, that is, except Robert Fico, who said after he was suspended that the socialists were just angry because he was doing politics for the people, and waging war against the energy monopolies.
It will be far more interesting to see how Slovak citizens respond to the PES ban, especially if it is followed by other similar actions from abroad. Some may feel shame, others indignation. But everyone will hear the message - in Europe in the 21st century, you just can't elect such primitives to government.
By Tom Nicholson
16. Oct 2006 at 0:00