IN THE blizzard of comments foreign diplomats have made about who they do and don't want to see in government after fall elections in Slovakia, the name Vladimír Mečiar has come to stand in the press for everything in Slovak politics that the West disapproves of.
In reality the West has misgivings about a number of other Slovak political leaders who still employ some of Mečiar's methods: populism, authoritarianism and subterfuge.
While Mečiar's record in politics is indeed tarnished, the West has been careful to say all along that it is the style of politics practiced by the 1994-1998 Mečiar government that is objectionable, not just the man himself.
The problem the media have with this message is that it is too equivocal. The job of a reporter is to obtain concrete information, to explain and define what diplomats mean when they say "Slovaks should vote with their eyes open", and that they should elect a government "consistent with Slovakia's integration goals". The easiest way to clarify this message is to finger a politician and a party, and to present readers with the simple equation: electing Mečiar means waving good bye to the EU and Nato.
While true, that's only part of a far more complex story. Neither the EU nor Nato are entirely comfortable with Smer party leader Robert Fico, for example, who is running second to Mečiar in the polls and seems to have a good chance of becoming prime minister after elections.
One of the main problems with Fico is that he's not legible. He has been on several trips to Moscow to try and drum up funding for completing Slovakia's Mochovce nuclear plant, which he has made one of his main political planks. The possibility that Smer is partly funded from Russia, in return for which it may owe its backers a political debt, is deeply disturbing to Western alliances who don't want Russia involved any more deeply in Slovakia than it already is. Not to mention that the completion of Mochovce would represent another 30-year, $1.2 billion Slovak contract for Russian nuclear fuel rods.
Fico's recent promise to reopen negotiations on some deals Slovakia has already reached with the European Union in entry discussions is also difficult to fathom. If it's an appeal to Slovak national pride ("I refuse to be a politician who nods his head at everything") it's an extraordinarily irresponsible one, although it makes for a bracing change from his anti-Roma and anti-Hungarian rhetoric.
If Fico's populism, bravado and Russia-snuggling are reminiscent of Mečiar, so is his campaign advertising (a shoe said to have been made in Slovakia that was actually Portuguese; a dog Fico claimed was a fúzač but that was actually a bradáč; a 'Mister Order' ad stolen from Serbia). But that too is hardly surprising, given that Fico's campaign manager is Fedor Flašík, who served Mečiar's HZDS in 1998 and got the party in trouble for presenting a picture of the Swiss mountains as Slovakia, "The country of your heart".
One thing Fico lacks is his own media, which brings us to another worrisome 'democrat', Ano party leader Pavol Rusko. Rusko's use of his Markíza television station to promote Ano and its politicians is so gross it's almost funny, while his Národná obroda national daily seems to carry an Ano interview in every issue.
When one remembers how Mečiar and his cronies abused the public STV station in 1998 to get themselves re-elected, however, it's difficult to see Rusko's manipulative behaviour in any other light than "inconsistent with Slovakia's integration aims".
But even Dzurinda, whose reputation abroad is perhaps the best of the political leaders mentioned so far, is apt to resort to Mečiar-style tactics when it suits him. While the HZDS leader simply changed party statutes in March 2000 so that he himself nominates all candidates for election to party vice-chairs, Dzurinda recently allowed his SDKÚ party members to vote on a candidates list - and then switched two candidates on his own bat.
Dzurinda has long been known as a bit of a martinet where party discipline is concerned, but this dictatorial act apparently dismayed even his closest political supporters, and was opposed by party secretary and longtime ally Ivan Šimko. Along with his political maneuvering to destroy the parties which brought him to power, and his inability to tolerate criticism, Dzurinda has been watched with steadily increasing disquiet by western diplomats.
While the West would rather see virtually anyone in power than Mečiar, that doesn't mean Fico as prime minister would elicit a yodle of approval from the EU. Hard as it may be to explain to people, that message - don't elect people who aren't committed to democratic principles - is about behaviour instead of personalities. It's also a reminder to politicians that Vladimír Mečiar is not the only practitioner of Mečiarism, and that just because you aren't Mečiar, that doesn't make you a democrat.