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Vladimír Mečiar: 1989 was 'beautiful'

After dominating Slovak politics for almost a decade, three-time Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has spent the last 12 months almost in seclusion at a penzión he owns in the western Slovak spa town of Trenčianské Teplice.
Mečiar gave a rare interview to Daniel J. Stoll, one of four owners of The Slovak Spectator, on November 19 in the dining room of the Hotel Atria in Trenčianské Teplice. During the almost two hours he spoke, Mečiar reflected on the 1989 revolution, the division of Czechoslovakia, the current political situation - and on the part he had played in each. In this, the first instalment of a two-part interview, the undisputed father of independent Slovakia tells the story of how his country emerged from communism.

Asked if he was the father of independent Slovakia, Mečiar said "some people respect me, some hate me."
photo: Peter Brenkus

After dominating Slovak politics for almost a decade, three-time Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has spent the last 12 months almost in seclusion at a penzión he owns in the western Slovak spa town of Trenčianské Teplice.

Mečiar gave a rare interview to Daniel J. Stoll, one of four owners of The Slovak Spectator, on November 19 in the dining room of the Hotel Atria in Trenčianské Teplice. During the almost two hours he spoke, Mečiar reflected on the 1989 revolution, the division of Czechoslovakia, the current political situation - and on the part he had played in each. In this, the first instalment of a two-part interview, the undisputed father of independent Slovakia tells the story of how his country emerged from communism.

Arriving at Hotel Atria just past noon, Mečiar greeted the reporter warmly and sat down. Seeing three pages of typed questions on the table, he picked them up, put on his reading glasses and studied them in silence for 10 minutes.

Daniel J. Stoll (DJS): You already know everything I want to ask.

Vladimír Mečiar (VM): (smiles)...

Mečiar says he respects former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus (right) for defending his ideas and 'going naked into the market.'
photo: Spectator Archives

DJS: You're famous for having a mind like a computer, at least in politics. You've just read all my questions, so now there won't be any surprises in this interview and you can calculate what to say. Do you think you have a mind like a computer?

VM: Sure, yes.

DJS: What did you do during communism?

VM: I finished university, then after finishing my two years of army service, I worked as an assistant at the Regional National Office. Then I worked in a [Communist] Youth Organization. In 1963, I became a member of the Communist Party until 1969, when I was kicked out of the party for the second time. After that I was never a member of the communist party.

DJS: Some people have said you were more deeply involved in the communist party.

VM: Sorry to disappoint everybody, but from 1970 until 1989 I was considered by the Central Comittee of the Communist Party and State Security service to be an enemy of the state. I was persecuted by the communists for activities against the Soviet Union. Because I didn't agree with their policies, I had to work as a steelworker for three and a half years. Then, until 1989, I worked as a lawyer.

DJS: How did you respond to the Warsaw pact invasion in 1968?

VM: In 1968, I was a part of the radical wing of the resistence to the Soviet occupation. We did everything that our pride and conscience demanded against occupation. Consequently, I didn't agree with 'normalization,' so I determined my own fate, a person cut off from society.

DJS: Do you have any stories that explain life under communism for you?

VM: (pause, as tears form in his eyes): I had to pay for my opinions and bad label in society alone. They broke my first wife, and she stood against me and even acted as an informer for them against me.

The second effect was that I could not fully assert myself in society. People said, 'you couldn't advance yourself but look, you were trained as a lawyer, all this during the tough years after 1968.' I want to explain this: As a normal worker, I didn't have the right to take free time from work to study. I pretended to be sick with a sore throat. I didn't go to work so I could study at home and take exams. Every year when I was 'sick' I took exams. This was the only way I could do this. In the end, I was able to get a lawyer's education.

I have many other gems to tell you how of I came into contact with the powers-that-be. Many times they tried to kick me out of work, but I was fortunate enough to have the support of good directors who always took a risk for me and let me work.

DJS: How did you resist communist rule?

VM: Of course, there was a lot of contact with people who resisted the regime, mostly in the Czech lands. Through Trenčín there were many activities that got to [the Slovak-born moderate Czechoslovak Prime Minister Alexander] Dubček. So the basic information came from us. My friend had contacts with Charter ['77, a fraternity of dissidents] signatories and with Prague. I didn't have these contacts myself, but through my friend. We made and distributed conspiratory leaflets.

DJS: When the revolution came, how did you participate in the fight?

VM: First of all, we thought that the revolution would come sooner, we were waiting for a signal from [Soviet leader Michail] Gorbachev. But when Gorbachev came to visit Slovakia, he forcefully supported the regime. For two years everything was ready for something to happen. This is why confidence and activities against the regime grew steadily. Then, in 1988, the State Security enforced a directive called Action Norbert, which sought to isolate some of the more vocal protestors. I was one of them. Then, when their power began to weaken, I took command of the Public Against Violence [VPN, the first post-revolutionary political party] in Trenčín and very actively challenged the Communist Party and its dominant position. We started to organize a large people's movement, and from this base we launched political parties.

DJS: Who else was in your group?

VM: In Trenčín there was a wide variety of people. Some of them were [parliamentary] deputies, some have already died. It was a relatively good group of people. The base of the group were people who worked at the Army Research Institute. Some of them were young entrepreneurs, doctors and others. Quickly we built a structure that influenced all aspects of life, for doctors, teachers and others. We gained the attention of people when I spoke as a leader of the VPN, which then led to my becoming Interior Minister in January [1990].


DJS: Everything written in the West about the 'Velvet Revolution' in Czechoslovakia is written from the point of view of Prague. [Czech President] Václav Havel is most often associated with the revolution. Only rarely do you see actor [and current Slovak Culture Minister] Milan Kňažko or [current member of parliament for the ruling SDK party] Jan Budaj's names mentioned. So what was unique about the revolution in Slovakia?

VM: Firstly, the movement in Slovakia wasn't dependent on activities in the Czech Republic. It began sooner, and there was no co-operation or influence from the Czechs. This is all a legend. For me, it was a fantastic feeling when in November, 1989 I stood on the platform in Trenčín and railed against the Communist Party, while behind me all the leaders of the Regional State Security stood helpless. This was beautiful.

As for developments in Slovakia it must be said that Slovaks wanted change. But not everywhere. People were cautious because they were afraid or didn't know what the future held. They wanted a change, but had misgivings about what would be next. To a certain extent, the communists helped the revolution a lot because they left their offices and their duties freely, preventing conflict. Their power collapsed from within.

DJS: When did you feel free for the first time?

VM: There are two kinds of freedom. The first is freedom around me, and the second is freedom inside me. I've always felt freedom inside and valued myself, never allowing anyone to take it. I was freer with a shovel than someone who had a high position.

Regarding political freedoms, our first task was to create the correct conditions for freedom, which meant that we had to eliminate the communists' grip on power. This we did in one way by asserting citizen's rights in the Czech lands and Slovakia. These were outlined in a Charter for Human and Citizen's rights for which I prepared the legal language. This had been a goal of mine since 1968. When it was incorporated into the constitution, I had such a great feeling that I had done something that benefited people. But after this great moment what next? On this foundation we had to build new state structures. This isn't so easy, and continues today.

DJS: Are you referring to the building of the Slovak state?

VM: No, I mean political parties, a democratic system, democratic culture, self-government, economic organs, everything. Only in 1990 did the question of Slovakia's co-existence in Czechoslovakia come up. This finished in 1992 with the result of two independant states.

DJS: When you were in the VPN, what did you think of Alexander Dubček?

VM: I had had indirect contact with Dubček for a few years. I knew what he thought because his next of kin was my good friend, a fellow-conspirator. This friend was the main person who brought information to and from Dubček. I tried to meet him, and one time we were close to meeting in the forest before Dubček cancelled. In 1989-90, memories of the Spring of '68 came back with the emergence of Dubček. We met, and I think our politics were very close. But I have to say that his ideas after these 20 years were a little different. He was a little afraid, cautious, not quite sure, and this revolutionary time needed firmer decisions to be made. Had Dubček lived, he would have been the new Slovak president, and he would have helped us a lot with his authority. I respected him a lot for his deeds and his human goodness. Everybody is different.

DJS: The VPN turned into the HZDS. How did this come about?

VM: In 1990, the VPN broke into fragments. The first crack came when the leaders of the VPN, such as Fedor Gál, recognized that they didn't have the ability to lead this social movement, so they announced that they were going to abandon their duties in the movement. This left open the question of who would lead. Most interest focused on me.

The second crack came as a result of different developments in the Czech and Slovak Republics, where the social and economic dimensions of transformation were different. In Slovakia there was 13% unemployment, while in the Czech lands there was none. In Slovakia industry crashed; in the Czech lands it boomed. We couldn't agree on the basic ideas of the transformation process.

The third problem was that the VPN and President Václav Havel initiated an attempt to solve the Czecho-Slovak question, but no solution was ever found. They brought this problem out into the open and destroyed the federal structures of government. But an agreement was never found.

Our standpoint was to find some workable arrangement inside Czechoslovakia for the Slovaks. Then the question became how to make just laws under which the two states could co-habitate. This led to the reality of two independant states.

Other reasons why the VPN fell apart included the fact that the leaders were unsuited to lead, that there were bad characters, and that they resembled the people who ran the communist party - responsible to no one for anything. They wanted to be in charge of everything, but to remain behind the scenes. They didn't know how to direct anything. For these reasons, the VPN was discredited, lost the 1992 elections and died a quiet death.

Today, most of these people who led the VPN are inclined towards the Democratic Party [DS, a right-wing platform within the ruling SDK party].

DJS: What became of the other group?

VM: The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) was the part of the VPN which had reservations about its leaders' plans for the economic and social transformation of Slovakia.


DJS: When the HZDS came into existence, was the goal an independent Slovakia?

VM: The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia came into existence as a people's movement which was for something. The Public Against Violence was against something. Our founding idea was to develop democracy, and from the very beginning we have always been sensitive to the living standards of citizens. This is why we attracted people who could play a positive role.

We were faced with a dilemna on how to build our movement. Should we focus on developing good international ties? Or should we build a movement that would be without international ties for a short time, focus on building a strong position at home, then look to belong to international organizations later? We chose this second model, which gave us a dominant political position at home.

This made us strong enough to carry out the neccessary changes. On the other hand, we now have to fight for a place in the international political scene, which we lack. It's not easy.

DJS: What was the relationship between the Slovaks and the Czechs at the time?

VM: Surprisingly, the relationship between the Czechs and Slovaks was badly damaged by Václav Havel. He opened up a lot of problems but he didn't understand what they meant. Havel was a political dilettante .

DJS: For example?

VM: For example, he started the whole problem about the hyphen [as in Czecho-Slovakia]. He made problems between the Czechs and Slovaks that had never existed before. In the 1990 elections, when the federal government was preparing its programme, thanks to his input the dominant question became the relationship between the Czech lands and Slovakia, again with no prospect of an answer.

DJS: Did Havel believe in a single Czechoslovak nation, or did he believe in the existence of two nations, Czech and Slovak?

VM: He opened this question with the idea that the president would have the same power as the United States president. But he didn't think how Czechs and Slovaks were meant to cohabitate.

DJS: So he didn't want a strong Czech Republic and a strong Slovak Republic?

VM: He couldn't imagine it. He had no idea how to make it work. He opened the question which then was hotly debated. My idea was to make an arrangement where Czechs and Slovaks were equal. I have to say that to a certain degree he accepted this. But where we diverged was when we insisted that Czechs and Slovaks would have equal federal organs. He was for majority rule, and for the unity of the Czech and Slovak peoples. But this reduced Slovakia's voice to one-third, which meant that if the Czechs agreed to do something, Slovaks were helpless. Of course, he wasn't alone - Czech intellectuals agreed with this model. But this eliminated a confederation between two nations. The communists had the same idea.

Then came [Czechoslovak Prime Minister] Marian Čalfa, who proposed that there be a triple constitution. Then [Slovak Premier and current Justice Minister] Ján Čarnorgurský came up with the idea of a triple contract. I wasn't in this debate because I was forced out as premier in April, 1991. Until the 1992 elections we took a middle position. The Czechs forced the debate, saying there would either be one unified Czechoslovak parliament, which meant one Czechoslovak citizenship, or the two states would break up. Our strategy was somewhere in the middle.

When we evaluated what condition the federal state was in after the 1992 elections, it became clear that it couldn't last as it was for another year. We couldn't make a budget for the year 1993. The paradox was that while Klaus and I made the final agreement, the divorce was really the result of Václav Havel.

DJS: There was no other possibility for you?

VM: Under Havel's leadership, all state structures were disintegrating. Czechs and Slovaks didn't have a mutual interest in living together. He could never put such an idea on the table. In fact, Havel resigned before the whole divorce process started. On the Slovak side, the protagonist was Ján Čarnogurský. These two brought the confederation to its crisis.

DJS: So you are saying that Čarnorgurský didn't want an independant Slovakia?

VM: Čarnogurský wanted and didn't want independance. Čarnogurský's politics at this time consisted of saying 'yes but no.'

DJS: What was your relationship with Vaclav Klaus?

VM: Klaus had a coalition agreement with the Democratic Party in Slovakia. He was the only Czech politician who came to Slovakia during the elections. He tried to keep the federation intact, but unsuccessfully. He was the winner in the Czech Republic, and I respected him. As a politician he was an unusually skilful negotiator - very dignified, and a very strong partner in debate. To a degree, I think it was lucky for the Czech Republic that it was Klaus in this debate. Havel tried to enter into the debate, but I didn't accept him.

In a short time, Klaus and I found a solution for the Czecho-Slovak relationship based on an equal partnership. In 1992, we agreed to the form that federal structures should take - what we couldn't do in 1918 [during the building of the first Czechoslovak Republic], we did in one month. Still, we recognized that this wouldn't stabilize the situation. Our nations had moved so far apart that we couldn't stop what was already in motion. The only solution left was independance.

DJS: Did you feel that independance had to be achieved quickly?

VM: In fact, I wanted the exact opposite. I was the only one who wanted the process to go slowly. The night we agreed, our vice-chairmen agreed to divorce that same night. I gathered everyone present around the table to say that it couldn't be this way, and I demonstrated why not. I said that we needed a minimum of half a year to organize the divorce, because the process was very important and needed to be done right. But around this table, maybe only two of us understood what it meant to split the state. Everyone else had no idea. This is why it was agreed to split by the end of the year.

DJS: What is your opinion of Havel and Klaus today?

VM: These two characters are incomparable. I understand that Havel's affectionate image in the international community reflects positively on the Czech Republic. This has no doubt helped the Czechs. However, I'm sorry to say that I don't respect him. I knew him in situations that other people have never seen. I know about some of his decisions that have never been spoken or written about. In reality, Havel is absolutely different. He is a person with a made image.

DJS: What about Klaus?

VM: Klaus is different. He is a technocrat who created a model for the transformation of socialism to capitalism with no theoretical precedent. He became significant internationally. He put this project on the table. As a politician and a scholar, he built a model, and while it had its faults, it was a model for a quick transformation. The difference between Klaus and I was that he wanted shock treatment for the economy and I wanted a gradual transformation.

Klaus went naked into the market, but he defended his idea. He had the political responsibility. In effect, all those who fought against him are like children next to their fathers compared to him.

Translated by Daniel J. Stoll and Renata Stoll

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