STILL euphoric over his election victory back in July 2006, Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico boasted that it would take him three minutes to sack any member of his government who was brushed with the slightest suspicion of cronyism and corruption.
Well, he almost kept his word. "Almost" means that the delay might be measured by days or even weeks, rather than minutes.
Fico called on Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa, a nominee of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party (HZDS), to step down for what he called an indisputable political responsibility for the land transfer scandal.
It almost seemed that the head of Branislav Bríza, who the prime minister said was responsible for the transfers, was enough to sacrifice on the political altar. However, even after Bríza resigned from the post of deputy director of the National Land Fund, the media watchdogs kept barking and the pressures kept mounting on Fico.
It is hard to determine how much Fico knew about the suspicious land transfers before Sme broke the story about the murky deal involving land worth about Sk1.5 billion, in the lucrative High Tatras area. The plots were sold for Sk13 million to GVM, a company allegedly close to HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar, according to Sme.
Fico said a couple of strong words about how he cannot tolerate any corruption in his government. Then he told the TA3 news channel that "it is better to quit the government" or leave the ruling coalition rather than "support, hide or take some measures that would conceal the scandalous land transfers".
His statements would have sounded more genuine if he had restrained from forming a ruling coalition with Mečiar: who has never been able to explain how he financed his lavish villa, and whose rule has been inseparably linked to what many call the era of wild privatisation, which helped people who made their money in rather interesting ways.
Fico does not seem to understand that he cannot wear both masks in one play: the uncompromising protector of political ethics, and the one who lets bygones be bygones.
What he can do, though, is disseminate some barbed comments, demand Jureňa's firing and then appoint someone else, proposed by Mečiar. Mečiar will have to swallow the bitter pill of seeing his man leave the ministry, but he can stick another figure there because the agriculture ministry belongs to the HZDS, based on the ruling coalition agreement.
Though Mečiar flexed his muscles and said the HZDS has not yet said its last word, the truth is that he might just be feeling HZDS' time running out, and his voters would hardly forgive him if he is kicked out of the ruling coalition.
It is likely that Smer will absorb some more HZDS voters, especially those who no longer see Mečiar as the father of the nation who can keep his fingers on the pulse of the country, as he liked to brag. Fico can easily substitute Mečiar in his role, as there are some similarities between the two of them.
According to the latest MVK survey, the HZDS, which reached its peak about 12 years ago, would collect only 6.8 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held today. A party with this level of support cannot just walk out of a ruling coalition.
Mečiar knows this very well. Besides, he faces tough pressure from within his own party, where he has at least two strong competitors: Viliam Veteška and Tibor Mikuš.
Mečiar, who seems to have lost all his political teeth, still has one badge of honour: he is one of the three least trusted politicians of the country, along with SNS boss Ján Slota and SDKÚ leader Mikuláš Dzurinda.
But political scientist Miroslav Kusý suggested that the whole land scandal and Fico's calls for Jureňa's head could very well be ploy to divert attention from the fact that his political marriage with the SNS is still a problem for the Party of European Socialists (PES). Was it accidental that Fico became such a determined fighter for political purity right when a delegation of MEPs from the socialist faction of the European Parliament, headed by PES Euro-deputy Hannes Swoboda, was visiting Slovakia?
The delegation led by a deputy of PES, the party which suspended Smer's membership due to SNS' presence in the ruling coalition, came to examine what attention Slovakia is paying to its ethnic minorities - an area Fico could never really excel in, because Ján Slota and his statements about Hungarians have made it to Brussels' ears.
Yet it still seems that these three men - Fico, Slota and Mečiar - are destined for each other. They will both tolerate and use the weaknesses of the others to keep the coalition running.
And what are the options if the union for some reason breaks? Any opposition party willing to unite with either Mečiar or Slota would sink to political oblivion, just as the HZDS will do.
Perhaps there is some historical justice. But sometimes it comes too late.
By Beata Balogová
26. Nov 2007 at 0:00