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EDITORIAL

Mečiar under siege: State must fight for higher ground

Vladimír Mečiar has kept the promise he made in 1999 to create a "circus" if police ever tried to bring him in for questioning on the 1995 kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr. After Interior Ministry investigators tried to collar Mečiar last week, the three-time Slovak prime minister holed up in his Elektra pension in western Slovakia's Trenčianské Teplice, and vowed to remain barricaded "until the current government decides to respect the law and the decisions of the Constitutional Court."
A circus the opposition HZDS party chairman has indeed created, with police investigators waving subpoenas at him, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner swearing he will bring Mečiar to court "in handcuffs if necessary," and Mečiar himself inviting citizens to join him in acts of civil disobedience.

Vladimír Mečiar has kept the promise he made in 1999 to create a "circus" if police ever tried to bring him in for questioning on the 1995 kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr. After Interior Ministry investigators tried to collar Mečiar last week, the three-time Slovak prime minister holed up in his Elektra pension in western Slovakia's Trenčianské Teplice, and vowed to remain barricaded "until the current government decides to respect the law and the decisions of the Constitutional Court."

A circus the opposition HZDS party chairman has indeed created, with police investigators waving subpoenas at him, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner swearing he will bring Mečiar to court "in handcuffs if necessary," and Mečiar himself inviting citizens to join him in acts of civil disobedience. A group calling itself "the Civil Association for the Support of the Legal and Human Rights of Vladimír Mečiar" has been distributing leaflets calling for Slovaks to protect themselves against "undemocratic tactics which could lead to the destruction of democracy in Slovakia." The newly formed Young Democratic Party hung a huge banner last week in downtown Bratislava saying "Please don't put Mečiar in jail: It could lead to civil war." Lawyers are now evaluating whether the authors of the banner can be charged with spreading incendiary information.

It's a mess, but one for which the current Dzurinda government bears at least some responsibility.

On March 3, 1998, Mečiar as acting president gave an amnesty to everyone involved in the infamous 1995 Kováč Jr. kidnapping, in which the son of the then-president - Mečiar's political foe - was beaten, tied up, forced to drink hard alcohol and taken in the trunk of a car across the border to Austria, where he was dumped in front of a police station. As odious as the 1998 Mečiar amnesty was, preventing the investigation of a crime suspected of involving the Slovak secret service, it was nevertheless extended in accordance with the presidential powers Mečiar enjoyed under the constitution.

On December 8, 1998, Prime Minister Dzurinda, working in his capacity as acting president, cancelled the Mečiar amnesty, and declared an investigation of the kidnapping open. Although the Constitutional Court later ruled that the constitution gave Dzurinda no power to cancel previously issued amnesties, the decision applied only to future similar cases, meaning that the Dzurinda 'reverse amnesty' stood.

The prime minister's defence of his act was that true justice - in this case, learning the truth about crimes committed under the Mečiar government - outweighed concerns with the exact letter of the law. As much as one may sympathise with Dzurinda's motives, however, in essentially violating the constitution he laid the groundwork for Mečiar's recent three-ring circus, and has given the HZDS what it so desperately needs - a claim to some legal, if not moral, rectitude.

Many educated Slovaks, and not a few international diplomats, feel that if Mečiar returns to power in 2002, Slovakia will be promptly dumped from the roster of candidate countries for EU and NATO accession, and will once again find itself internationally isolated. For this committed anti-Mečiar elite, it is inconceivable that a politician as discredited as Mečiar could ever be trusted to rule the country again, just as it is acceptable that the current government use sometimes questionable tactics to prevent this from happening.

But most Slovak voters, who in the end will decide the HZDS chairman's fortune in 2002, are not so resolutely anti-Mečiar. Many have all but forgotten the cleptomania and oppression of civil society that occured under Mečiar, and have become disillusioned with the rule-bending and clientelism which seems to have continued under Dzurinda. If the parties of the current ruling coalition are to regain anything close to the 60% support they won in 1998, they must make a very clear and public distinction between their methods and those of the previous government.

Dzurinda and his colleagues are thus playing with fire when they ignore the constitution, even for laudable reasons. Mečiar may have ignored Constitutional Court verdicts 17 times from 1994 to 1998, but if Dzurinda does it once, the HZDS can paint him as a hypocrite.

In the same way, the clientelist scandals that have been so much a part of the Dzurinda cabinet over the past 16 months may have arisen from the fact that the current government is far more transparent about how it works - but try telling that to an unemployed factory worker from Žiar nad Hronom who made less last year than a member of the Dzurinda cabinet received in illegally-awarded Christmas bonuses.

It's all about perception, and if the current government is claiming to be clean, fair and democratic, it must be entirely so - not just slightly improved on the methods of the man holding fort in Trenčianské Teplice.

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