Vladimír Mečiar: The man, the truth, the legend

Former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar told The Slovak Spectator October 3 that he felt he had been unfairly judged by western diplomats and that he, above all, represented no threat to Slovakia's Nato integration.
In this last installment of a two-part interview, Mečiar also explains mistakes his government made in the infamous 1997 Nato referendum and takes "political responsibility" for his decision to effectively halt prosecution of the 1995 kidnapping of the former President's son.

"I think no Slovak politician could be a danger to Nato, above all not Mečiar. It rather seems to me that someone is trying to create problems here out of nothing."

Pulling no punches. The former PM says his party is Nato friendly.
photo: Ján Svrček

Former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar told The Slovak Spectator October 3 that he felt he had been unfairly judged by western diplomats and that he, above all, represented no threat to Slovakia's Nato integration.

In this last installment of a two-part interview, Mečiar also explains mistakes his government made in the infamous 1997 Nato referendum and takes "political responsibility" for his decision to effectively halt prosecution of the 1995 kidnapping of the former President's son.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The stance of the HZDS towards Nato and the EU seems to have undergone a big change. Is it the world which is now different, requiring of you a different stance, or Slovakia itself?

Vladimír Mečiar (VM): We have to ask ourselves why such a question arose in the first place. We, after all, were the ones who took a stand against totalitarian power in 1989. We demolished the old value system and established a new one.

Of course, in doing so, we made mistakes as well. These weren't fundamental mistakes but they were errors that didn't need to be made and they arose also from mistakes made by my government, such as the unfortunate May 1997 referendum on Nato entry, which sprang from a good idea but was carried out very poorly. Political parties became identified with intelligence services, even though no secret service officer was a member of the HZDS party.

photo: Ján Svrček

The other thing we had to look at and draw conclusions from was whether problems arose from the methods of communication we chose and the signals we gave - particularly those coming out of the ruling coalition from 1994 to 1998, when my two coalition partners were against integration.

Many politicians who have lost real voter support today present themselves as the only guarantee of Slovakia's joining Nato. But the reason that support in Slovakia for Nato entry has risen from 38% to 50% is largely the result of our work. We are the only ones in the last year and a half to have criss-crossed Slovakia and convinced people of the need. For us there is no alternative to integration - Slovakia has no other path. That's why we got rid of people and political partners who didn't have the integration mentality.

And as far as what changed with us - we have reflected on our own mistakes. We are trying to win acknowledgment for this abroad, but doubt still remains. For that reason, we pose the following question - there are states who were at war and who are accepted, and there are parties who were on the other side and were accepted. Why is it precisely the party that I lead that is doubted, when its position is not just a matter of declarations but also evident in the work we do among people?

TSS: For starters, one thing that may have caused doubts is the fact that you have never admitted having done anything wrong during your time in power, beyond exercising bad judgement in letting 18 people into your party in the early 1990s who in 1994 supported a vote of non-confidence in you. But just a minute ago I heard you say that the thwarted 1997 Nato referendum, which really destroyed your reputation in the West, stemmed from mistakes made by your government. What mistakes are you referring to?

VM: Let's take it up. In an interview with former US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, I discovered that we were not going to be accepted to Nato. In talks with other European heads of state we learned that Slovakia's chances would not improve until we convinced the US of the sincerity of our efforts. That's when the idea of appealing to citizens was born, to demonstrate our resolution through a referendum.

photo: Ján Svrček

I don't think this was a bad decision, but it wasn't capable of being put into action. We needed support for it in parliament from our coalition partners and they, being against Nato, added to the main question on Nato entry two additional and controversial questions [asking if voters would agree to allow Nato to station troops and nuclear weapons in Slovakia - ed. note].

Then the opposition got involved, and added another question on whether to have direct presidential elections. It was basically a matter of two separate issues which should have been voted on separately.

Another mistake was made during coordination with the Constitutional Court, which truly said in its first ruling that combining these four questions in such a way was not in order. A further decision handed down after the referendum partly reversed this earlier ruling. Then-Interior Minister Gustav Krajči followed the first ruling and issued referendum ballots containing only three Nato questions, which was another mistake.

Finally, we were supposed to conduct a positive campaign before the referendum. I began it, and then-Speaker of Parliament Ivan Gašparovič closed it after a short time. We never discussed the basic issue - what Nato is all about. The only thing that was discussed was whether or not people should attend the referendum given that questions on two separate issues had been combined in such a way. So it ended in a failure of domestic politics.

TSS: You had in your hands two days before the referendum was to be carried out a decision from the Constitutional Court that President Kováč had combined the questions and ordered the referendum in accordance with the law, and a verbal explanation of the verdict from Constitutional Court Chief Justice Milab Čič that no one could change the questions on a referendum once called, not even the President himself. Was Krajči's decision to drop the fourth question on direct presidential elections and issue altered ballots just a mistake or was it an active disregard of the court?

photo: Ján Svrček

Allow me to disagree. That's not the way it was. We had a decision from the Constitutional Court, and Čič did not sit on the judicial senate that passed down the ruling.

TSS: Why should that matter? Wasn't his legal opinion as the foremost constitutional justice in the country something you should respect?

VM: He didn't make the decision, so he wasn't entitled to comment, even though he was the head of the court. He was entitled to his legal opinion, like anyone else.

As far as the decision goes, I think it was the second or third sentence of the earlier written ruling which dealt with the question of illegality. The government and the Interior Ministry acted based on this phrasing. Later developments led to a difference in viewpoints. And because in the whole referendum process there were many infractions made by parliament, by political parties and by the Interior Ministry, a court decided to shelve criminal proceedings in the case and leave its civil rights aspects up to democratic discussion. Today our approach to the matter is one which admits having made a real mistake.

TSS: Among other sources of doubt in the West, let's take your declaration for the Czech daily paper Mlada fronta dnes in 1999 during the Nato bombing campaign in Kosovo and Serbia. You said that you weren't sure if it was "right for Slovakia to be trying to join an organisation whose members congratulate themselves for the accuracy of their weapons, and who don't care that innocent people die during these air strikes." You made a number of similar statements during this period, which is perhaps why Nato leaders now doubt your sincerity.

VM: 1999 was about something different. For one thing, the action against Yugoslavia was a Nato action and we thought it should have been under the UN. Second, the Slovak government announced very late that it had given permission for Slovak airspace to be used in overflights.

As far as solutions in Yugoslavia went, we thought there were other ways, and in the end we saw that the Yugoslav people were willing to accept a different, political solution.

But we never doubted Nato as an organisation. During all our meetings with people we explained that the fact we didn't agree with the Kosovo bombings didn't mean that we didn't agree with integration to Nato. But there were also some very emotional discussions and some opinions were exaggerated. This period too has been reviewed within the HZDS and I guarantee you that Slovakia's approach to Nato will be not simply declarative but concrete.

TSS: Still, image matters a great deal especially when the image the HZDS projects still conflicts with its declared policies. For example, you picked Júlia Ondrejčíková-Sellers as your emissary to the US this past summer to drum up support for the HZDS' Nato ambitions.

A year before, however, in one of her articles for the Slovenská Republika daily paper, she had referred to Nato as "an excuse for the creation of multi-million dollar orders for the US arms industry." There's also the question of Rudolf Žiak, your party's shadow foreign minister, who used to serve as head of counter-espionage in the Slovak secret service and who was accused in 1999 by current secret service chief Vladimír Mitro of having organised campaigns to complicate the Nato entry of Slovakia's neighbours. How can the West possibly believe you are serious about joining Nato when you're still choosing such people to serve you?

VM: Júlia Ondrejčíková-Sellers is a HZDS employee whose husband and children are US citizens. I got to know her through her newspaper articles and through her desire to use her US contacts to spread information in the right ears that we had decided to pursue Nato membership wholeheartedly. But I don't know anything more about her, and can't characterise her as positive or negative.

It's true that Rudolf Žiak was the head of counter-intelligence with the SIS, but one has to take into account the fact that that section was formed in 1995 and there was a difference between real life there and the legends that were created. None of the steps that were said to have been taken by the Slovak Information Service were true.

TSS: The SIS counter-espionage 'special ops' department was accused by Mitro of having prepared Operation Vychod, which was to convince Slovaks of the advantages of falling again under the Russian orbit, Operation Omega to convince central Europeans that the US was favouring Hungary, Operation Neutrón to polarise attitudes towards Nato in the Czech Republic and Operation Dežo to increase regional racial tensions. You actually said for Hviezda FM radio in January 2001 that of the 15 things Žiak was accused of having done, he only intended to do 14 and actually executed one action - not that none of it was true.

VM: Not one action that Rudolf Žiak was accused of was actually carried out. In one case they did a survey of Nato attitudes in the Czech Republic by writing a few letters, about 20. No steps were taken. We were never anti-integration, nor did counter-intelligence have the task of working in a different area.

TSS: But I still don't understand why you would risk having such people occupy important positions in the HZDS, when as an opposition party your image is the only thing you really have power to improve.

VM: We had two weaknesses which dominated the behaviour of this party and of my government - a weakness in foreign policy, which means we lacked skilled and trustworthy people and a second weakness in creating an image. It took us a long time before we turned to foreign specialists for assistance.

As far as foreign policy goes, we have a group which prepares it. As far as Žiak goes...(pause)... wherever I could I asked before his nomination if anyone had any objections. There were no objections. My experiences with him were not negative.

TSS: Bruce Jackson, the president of the US Council for Nato, was reported October 1 by the Sme daily paper as having said "the Mečiar government was not just a barrier to [Nato] entry, it was a full stop, end of discussion... Slovakia can simply not afford to see a return of the politics of the past... we don't trust them [former politicians]." This kind of thing has also been said in the last year by other western officials, including Gunter Verheugen, the EU's Commissioner for Expansion. Do you understand why they don't trust you?

VM: I don't know Mr Jackson. This opinion comes at a time when similar opinions are beginning to spread from government parties. I take it as a continuance of the domestic political struggle, in which whenever we have over 30% support, people begin saying we are not accepted abroad.

As far as our acceptance or lack of it abroad goes, Mr Jackson is the chairman of the influential Council for Nato and we would be happy to have his support. But we would also appreciate if the fact he works for the aero-engineering Lockheed Martin firm didn't affect his view of the fact that we are against some defence projects in Slovakia.

But there are subjective and objective aspects to acceptance. The first question is why we are the only party which always shows stable voter support and yet is still rejected abroad. And are people in Slovakia really so ignorant that they can't make their own choices? And whether one does or doesn't like some country's elected officials, if they respect democratic rules, laws and international conventions, should it really be important whether we find them acceptable or not?

TSS: According to the SIS report from 1999, the secret service under the leadership of Ivan Lexa participated in acts which could be termed state terrorism against Slovak citizens. How does that make you feel, having been the country's leader during those years?

VM: I have my own experience of state terrorism. Last year I was kidnapped from my home like a common criminal by police for questioning [in an abuse of power case - ed. note]. It was against the laws of this country. It was also the first time semtex had been used to gain entry through an open door.

The second case is the murder of my former Economy Minister and government colleague Ján Ducký in January 1999. For two weeks there was no investigation of his murder. Many former Mečiar cabinet members have been accused of being criminals, even by members of the current government, but so far there has been no guilt proven.

The 1999 Mitro SIS report essentially wrapped up and legitimised a discussion which had started before 1998 elections but which hadn't been about concrete issues. The report contained many mistakes, and the paradox was that the media had it in their hands before parliament did. What I have read from the report makes me think I either didn't know what was happening in the secret service or I was living in another country. Things simply didn't happen that way.

As far as the accusations against the secret service of involvement in the kidnapping of the former President's son, Michal Kováč Jr, that was investigated during my government and did not result in finding the culprit. It was also investigated under the Dzurinda government, but the investigation was not done by the SIS. If we today sit back and evaluate who gained from the whole thing, then I would say this. Michal Kováč Jr is today employed by the foreign service; his father's position as Slovak president, which at that time in 1995 was very, very complicated, was strengthened by this event while the position of the government which found itself in this dilemma became very delicate.

In any case we have to say that whatever state body took part in this crime, the investigation of the case was objective, and was never influenced or hampered by me. I did issue an amnesty in the Kováč Jr kidnapping case, but it was the second amnesty to be issued. The first step was the amnesty issued by President Kováč who amnestied his son and his associates from fraud charges. The kidnapping of Kováč Jr was never solved and I never interfered with the investigation.

Later, however, other factors became involved. People arrived on the scene who were acting as intermediaries between President Kováč and certain witnesses abroad. These two people recorded a tape in Prague saying they were going to be murdered and that I would be responsible for their deaths. These two cassettes were presented to me, and given the state that Slovakia was in at that time, it wouldn't have been difficult to make some kind of political scandal out of them. So I decided then and there that things were getting out of hand, and I issued an amnesty on March 3, 1998 as acting president not to individual people but for the crime itself, in order that the crime not be prosecuted. I acted in accordance with the law and I took the political responsibility. During 1998 elections, and during the presidential May 1999 direct elections campaign this amnesty decision was the only topic used against me.

TSS: Your version of events differs quite substantially from other information western observers have been exposed to, such as the police testimony of former SIS deputy Jaroslav Svěchota that he had organised the kidnapping on Lexa's orders, and the several interviews Svěchota gave to the press saying the same thing. We also have the claims of the first two investigators on the case, Vačok and Šimunič, both of whom were taken off the case, that they faced huge pressures not to find the guilty parties. We also have the fact that it was only the amnesty which you issued which prevented the case from being tried and the guilty parties brought to justice. This is the evidence the West has in its hands.

VM: Legend and truth are different matters. I haven't spoken to Svěchota in person since 1994. He is a former ŠtB investigator. His testimony was controversial, especially at certain points. The first is the letter Svěchota wrote the Attorney General, saying he had been forced into testifying in such a way that the SIS was complicit in the kidnapping. The second is the fact that the interrogation took place while he was in psychiatric treatment and his lawyers were not allowed to be present. No one knows what medication he was offered during his interrogation. Third, Svěchota wrote the Attorney General that he had been promised to be released in return for the evidence he gave. He is the only one to whom the amnesty applied. He's the only person against whom the Interior Ministry halted prosecution.

We also have to find the truth concerning the case investigators. There was never one investigator in charge of the whole case but a group of investigators. With Šimunič things happened that are hard to believe. He was the only investigator to visit the President; after that meeting he visited the prosecutor on the case and said "a coup d'état is being prepared, the government will fall, I'm in line to be Interior Minister and if you support us, you will be made Attorney General." He stopped investigating, and began to conduct a campaign against the government through the media without proof.

As far as Vačok goes, I viewed him as a credible and qualified investigator. He alone decided that he was not going to continue on the case. He also had contacts with the President. The evidence from the beginning caused confusion among us in the government, particularly after the President said he had known such a thing as the kidnapping would happen, even though it had come as a surprise to us.

When we look back today in the fullness of time, Vačok should have finished his investigation of the case but he left the police saying he never wanted to return. He admitted that the prosecutor had never erected any barriers. After he left a third investigator took over and again no one hampered him. On the contrary we were interested to know the truth. The third investigator carried out all his tasks and shelved the case for lack of evidence. Thus, at the time I issued the amnesty, the case had already been closed.

Without regard to the amnesty I had issued the current government decided to continue investigating the case. No one in the HZDS had any power or influence we could use to halt the investigation. And again, the investigation results are ambiguous. I am above all interested in the truth, because today I view this step to continue investigating as a step against me personally. But I don't know if we will ever be able to find the truth, or if anyone will ultimately be willing to tell the truth.

There were too many disingenuous witnesses, too many disingenuous people brought into the case by both sides for their own ends, and many are not willing to return to Slovakia today and testify even though they need fear no harm. In any event I think it was intended to stop the machine of government at a time we were running at top speed. We had no reason to take revenge by using the President's son because we knew his prosecution in Slovakia was already being prepared. Just before a decision on taking him in to custody was due to be made, he wound up across the border. There are simply too many things here which don't make sense to me, who did it and why.

TSS: If we could move on to your government's foreign policy, even though you claimed to be western-oriented, the result of your 1994 to 1998 government was that Slovakia found itself more closely allied with Russia and identified with the Milosevic regime in Serbia. The two honorary doctorates you hold are from the Lomonos University in Moscow 1995 and the Braca Karica University in Belgrade 1996. Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin is famous for declaring on May 28, 1998 that "We want, we really, really want you to win elections. Our contacts with Slovakia are such that further contacts will be in the interests of both states. It greatly pleases us in Moscow that within Europe you are pursuing your security interests with tenacity through a friendship with Russia." How did you ever explain such words to the West? Did you honestly believe they would credit your claims to be interested in Nato integration?

VM: Again, let's put reality and image back together in the context of how things really were. In 1969 and 1970 I was prosecuted for acts hostile to the Soviet Union and its representatives. During a time when it was an advantage to be a friend of the USSR I was against them. So why, when the USSR had ceased to exist, was I suddenly seen as being in favour? Can anyone explain this shift in logical terms? I think it was nonsense.

The second thing is that when the transformation of Slovakia began we understandably had to stabilise the economy. This economy, whether you admit it or not, was and is dependent on natural gas imports from Russia, and not just for our own consumption - 80% of the gas sent to the West went through our country. We were then and we remain dependent on imports of Russian oil. Nuclear fuel and the export of spent nuclear fuel rods remain today an area of cooperation with Russia.

We had to stabilise these three things. In trade with Russia, furthermore, we had a huge deficit, with all our exports, production and privatisation being oriented towards the West. But still people suggested we were really trying to get closer to Russia. We would have been the first in history to reach Russia through western Europe.

Russian markets were certainly interesting for us in our need to revive industrial production. But we were unsuccessful, because the Russian market was unable to pay. For another thing, the division of the Russian federation left us with receivables of almost $2 billion, which is why we organised a successful system of debt settlement which brought these resources to Slovakia.

As far as Yeltsin's statement goes, I met many European government heads before 1998 elections, and they always wished us success. It was a matter of courtesy and in contrast to Yeltsin's forthrightness in saying what he said in the middle of a group of journalists the others always expressed these wishes behind closed doors.

And as far as that honorary degree from Moscow goes, yes, I received it, but if I remember correctly, Clinton received one before I got mine. Should we doubt him as well? The Braca Karica University is a private school that was set up based on educational models from the US. I was the first one to receive an honorary doctorate, but it wasn't because Milosevic had his fingers in it, rather for some things that had happened in the transformation process. So these things may appear related on the surface, but in truth they aren't significant at all.

TSS: It still must have been tough for you to explain these surface appearances away to the West, when Nato was being asked to entrust its secrets to a government which Moscow "really, really wanted" to defeat the democratic opposition in Slovakia.

VM: Again, have a look at my resumé. I left the Communist Party in 1969, and from 1970 I was declared an enemy of socialism, of the USSR. Why should I change my views 30 years later?

Yeltsin was also well-known in the West for his directness, and it needs no comment. We simply came to Moscow, said something in greeting and got down to negotiations. The fact he publicly wished me success doesn't mean he supported me in any way during my election campaign.

And as far as secret Nato documents go, we signed an agreement on classified material and I was present at the signing. Anyone who breaks this agreement knows they have to face the political and criminal consequences. I think no Slovak politician could be a danger to Nato, above all not Mečiar. It rather seems to me that someone is trying to create problems here out of nothing.

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