Capturing the palace. The presidential standard was lowered for good on March 2, the day Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar inherited most of the powers of outgoing President Michal Kováč. Thousands of concerned citizens witnessed the spectacle.
"One cannot really rule out that a crisis will start today," outgoing President Michal Kováč's spokesman, Vladimír Štefko, said on March 2. But Mečiar's spokesman, Jozef Krošlák, fired back, saying that talk of a crisis was a gross exaggeration. "It's absolute nonsense," he said. "It's just opposition propaganda."
The next day, Mečiar showed what he had in mind, taking the Presidential palace by storm in a repeat performance of how he took Parliament November 3, 1994, in what became known as the "night of the long knives." Mečiar and his cabinet members held their regular cabinet session at the palace, showing journalists and the public who was now the boss.
Then he used two of his 13 freshly-acquired powers to recall 28 of 42 Slovak ambassadors around the world and to grant amnesty to the culprits involved in both the August 1995 kidnapping of former President Michal Kováč's son, and in marring last May's referendum on NATO accession and direct Presidential elections.
The cabinet also used other constitutional powers to cancel the already called referendum on NATO accession and direct Presidential election. According to a May 21, 1997 ruling of the Constitutional Court, no state authority, including the President himself, may cancel a referendum once it has been called by the President (see related story on page 3).
The opposition was furious about the decisions. "By doing this, the government wants to demonstrate that a new era has begun," said František Mikloško, a KDH deputy.
The new knights of the round table. Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar assembles his court in the vacated presidential meeting room March 3, wasting no time in making use of recently inherited presidential powers.
"Yesterday they stole. Yesterday they gave orders to the Mafia. And today they grant themselves an amnesty. Shame on them," said Jaroslav Volf, chairman of the Social Democratic Party.
"The granting of an amnesty signals the government fears the situation that may stem from the coming elections, namely that the law will be upheld and respected again," said Peter Tatár with the Democratic Party.
HZDS's coalition partners were not completely behind the amnesty. "I wouldn't want to address the amnesty," said Anna Malíková, Vice-Chairman of the Slovak National Party (SNS).
Unlike the SNS, the US State Department voiced its concerns about the amnesty quite loudly. "The March 3 decision of the Slovak government to grant amnesty to any persons who may have planned or participated in the kidnapping of Michal Kováč, Jr. ... is a further serious setback to the rule of law and constitutional government," State Department deputy spokesman James Foley told reporters. "In the case of the Kováč kidnapping, the Slovak government's action effectively precludes the resolution of a serious political crime."(For more background on Kováč Jr. kidnapping, please see story on page 2.)
"The amnesty for persons involved in the preparation of the referendum means that no one will be held accountable for actions which not only deprived Slovak citizens of their legal right to express their opinion, but also directly violated a ruling of the Constitutional Court."
But in a debate on state television STV, Mečiar tried to justify the amnesty decision by saying it was an act of reconciliation that should enable the country to overcome the wounds of the past and erase both the referendum and kidnapping from the national memory.
Mentioning that a number of lawsuits had been filed against various people in the referendum case, Mečiar justified the referendum amnesty by saying: "The government has decided: O.K., we're entering an election year of 1998. How [will it look]? With party chairmen taking each other to court? With mayors and deputies who will run for reelection being bothered by legal proceedings? Instead, the government said: Let's shake hands, dammit!"
Regarding the amnesty in the cause of Kováč Jr.'s kidnapping, Mečiar reasoned that there were no witnesses or evidence that would enable the state to prosecute. "Until this very day, there has been no evidence proving that the abduction really occurred... [therefore] it cannot be investigated."