LISTEN up. Dick Armitage, deputy US secretary of state, talks to PM Mikuláš Dzurinda.
"If I had known about this beforehand I would have protested," said Oľga Keltošová, a senior member of the party who has in the past come the closest of any HZDS member to criticising party leader Vladimír Mečiar.
Signs that the HZDS is out of step with the times are everywhere. Mečiar, who on Monday wrapped up a trip to the US to sport his democratic credentials, gave an interview in the party daily Nový deň on January 28 that began: "[Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda doesn't lie, he deceives like a gypsy".
His interpretation of calls from the West for self-reflection in the party on its tarnished past: "When translated into Slovak, 'self-reflection' in their use of the expression means the following - "Since we've accused you of being criminals but haven't been able to prove anything against you, we now want you to accuse yourselves."
A police raid on a car carrying four HZDS officials last week - sparked by an anonymous tip that the car contained drugs and weapons - was decried by a party official as "political terror and racism", which makes you wonder if the HZDS has grasped the world's new understanding of those concepts over the past seven months, and how people might object to their being hijacked to serve petty political aims.
At all levels of the party, from its temperamental leader to the minions who tiptoe awe-struck around HZDS headquarters, there are signs that the political opposition simply doesn't know what is required of it, and that it is betting that the one-third of the country that is similarly clueless is strong enough to return the party to power.
At the same time, Nato is clearly heading in the opposite direction, apparently willing to excuse lack of military preparation to join the Alliance as long as candidate countries have credible people in politics - people who don't talk about deceiving gypsies, who don't hand out booze at party conferences, and who admit that organised fraud and political oppression may have been wrong.
A conference of Nato aspirants in Bucharest March 25-26 confirmed the likelihood of a 'big bang' Nato expansion, involving the Baltic states and even Bulgaria and Romania. The Washington Post on March 26 quoted an unnamed Nato diplomat as saying "the big bang is real. I couldn't have imagined it possible, because I couldn't imagine September 11."
In the big push towards the Nato summit in Prague this November, Slovakia has been mentioned time and again as a question mark because of the possibility of Mečiar's return. The New York Times on March 26 called him "a strong nationalist", Reuters an "autocratic leader" (so much for Mečiar's US pilgrimage).
After a long period of uncertainty, in which Nato wouldn't say what its plans were and the HZDS maintained it was pro-integration, the two camps are now well defined. That means as well that the government's task is also clear - to get itself reelected by pouring all its resources into explaining that Mečiar equals international isolation.
It helps in this that the HZDS leader still believes racial insults will impress Western diplomats (the January 28 interview was translated into English, presumably for foreign consumption), and that Robert Fico, the leader of the non-parliamentary Smer party, is concentrating on trashing the personal image of his opponents. Smer's latest campaign billboard features three dogs - Dzurinda as a scrappy little 'fúzač' (a small, whiskered terrier), Mečiar as a bulldog and Fico himself as a proud Slovak čuvač (a national breed like a cross between a St. Bernard and a retriever). "Who can best protect Slovakia's interests?" the text reads.
The answer has to be the leader who focuses on what Nato and EU expansion is all about - the proliferation of democratic values and the elimination of ethnic hatred, autocracy and organised crime. One can only hope the Dzurinda government finds its tongue in time, and that Slovak voters are listening.
1. Apr 2002 at 0:00