It's difficult to accept people's apologies if you don't hear sincere contrition in their voices. It's impossible to believe anyone regrets what they did if you sense they don't understand why it was wrong.
Apologies, regret and contrite understanding is what both the West and most Slovaks demand from former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar before they believe his claim to have seen the light. To be heading for Nato and EU integration after having sabotaged Slovakia's chances from 1994 to 1998. To be interested in solving crimes he did his utmost to conceal while in government.
Unfortunately for Mečiar and his HZDS party, sincerity is signally absent from all of the former PM's answers to questions the West still wrestles with.
This lack of honesty is most clearly evident in Mečiar's explanation of why then-Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči ignored a Constitutional Court verdict in a 1997 referendum and struck a question on direct election of the President from the referendum ballot. The court had ruled two days before the plebiscite that the President had called the vote legally, and the court's senior justice added the comment that no one was allowed to change the ballot, including Krajči and President Kováč himself. Mečiar to this day maintains his government was entitled to do so (it wasn't), and faults the opposition and the President for making a dog's breakfast of the referendum (they didn't).
Mečiar is also unrepentant and unforthcoming regarding the 1995 kidnapping of the former President's son, a crime to which a former Slovak secret service deputy director confessed in 1999, only to have his prosecution halted by a blanket amnesty Mečiar himself had issued in 1998.
Nor does he appear to understand the doubt his party continues to sow by appointing suspect people to important, western-oriented positions. "I don't know her", and "no one had any objections" are answers that betray a fragile understanding of what it really takes to remake the HZDS chairman's image as a threat to democratic values.
So what, then, to do about Mečiar, this charismatic and enduringly popular author of some of the worst news to come out of Slovakia since independence in 1993?
If you are a western diplomat or politician, the answer is to keep telling Slovaks that in electing Mečiar to power in 2002 they can forget about Nato and EU membership until they stop putting their faith in autocrats. That even if the HZDS is incapable of understanding the effect of its behaviour, voters themselves should try to grasp what values the world they aspire to join endorses, and why Mečiar remains unacceptable.
If you are Slovak, the answer is far more complicated. If you don't belong to either the rabidly pro- or anti-Mečiar camps, you may be confused by the fact that no crime allegedly committed by a member of his government or its secret service has resulted in a conviction. You may be further distracted by the fact that the corruption allegedly intrinsic to the Mečiar government has continued merrily under the Dzurinda administration. You may wonder whether attending 2002 elections, or attempting to separate the merely venal candidates from the downright criminal, will affect your future whatsoever.
It is, of course, the Slovaks who matter, for they will choose their next government, and as Mečiar quite rightly says, no foreigner has any right to doubt the will of the Slovak people.
But the Slovak people also want their lives to improve, a process which even the HZDS now says is bound up with foreign investment and integration. Acquiring both involves understanding who has more to offer - the current government, with its ridiculous missteps and its acknowledged foreign track record, or the previous administration, which courted both international isolation and economic collapse.
Mečiar, for many Slovaks, still has the sweet voice of a Siren, with which he would beguile the West and his own compatriots: "Security, stability and investment" as he told this newspaper October 3.
To which we add: Tiso Villa, Nafta Gbely, the 1994 parliamentary 'night of the long knives', Lexa as Privatisation Minister, the FNM taken out of government oversight, Lexa as SIS head, no SIS reports since 1996, the 1996 Protection of the Republic draft, the campaign against President Kováč, Blažena Martinková as 'advisor for everything', the Kováč Jr kidnapping, the Remiaš murder, the 1997 referendum, the 1998 Election Law changes, Klaus with "the Czech crown up his arse", and the maudlin "I never hurt any of you" song on STV September 1998.
It's a record that requires both a truthful explanation and a convincing expiation. Neither are likely to arrive in time for coming integration decisions. Neither would likely make any difference, for in this post-September 11 world, why would western governments waste their time with politicians who so clearly don't understand western democratic values?
22. Oct 2001 at 0:00