IRASCIBLE former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has finally agreed to appear before police for questioning as to whether he paid businessman Ján Ďuriš Sk41 million ($870,000) in 1999 for construction work connected to the overhaul of his Elektra villa.
Mečiar had avoided police questioning for a month in what a local bank had identified as a "suspicious transaction", given the size of the sum involved.
Mečiar's decision has failed to quiet claims by his critics that the leader of the strongest Slovak party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), has further discredited himself in the eyes of the West by defying the police.
On the other hand, the case has also fuelled opposition claims that the police are being abused by the government for political gain.
"Political intolerance in this state has resulted in extreme forms of abuse of police armed forces to aid in the fight against people with different opinions," said Mečiar in an interview with the Nový Deň opposition newspaper on June 10. "A lack of sense and skill is being concealed behind police batons in the hands of special forces."
After almost a month of unsuccessful attempts by police to issue Mečiar a summons, police corps vice-president Jaroslav Spišiak said on June 10 he hoped Mečiar would present himself for questioning "so we don't have any pointless lowering of Mečiar's dignity", while vowing that "no one is going to make a fool of the police."
The statement was apparently in reference to a Swat team raid on Mečiar's house in 1999 to bring him in for questioning on another case. In the raid, the front door of Mečiar's Elektra villa was blown off with explosives.
The day after Spišiak's veiled warning, Mečiar's office called to say he would come in for questioning on July 8.
While Mečiar construed the police behaviour as politically motivated, with Slovakia fast approaching crucial September elections, political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank said Mečiar himself was trying to extract what political capital he could from the situation.
"Given that political elements are at play here, the police have tried to behave as carefully as possible," he said, referring to the 10 attempts by police since May 15 to issue Mečiar a summons in person, as well as to police willingness to let Mečiar set the time and place of his appearance on his own.
"It appears, however, that Mečiar himself was prepared to see a police action using force, in order to be able to use it for his own political ends," the analyst concluded.
A week before Mečiar agreed to appear, police managed on their tenth attempt to deliver a summons to him in Košice, requiring the ex-PM to appear for questioning the next day in Trnava. Mečiar, however, failed to appear, calling the summons "not serious" as it left him only 21 hours to comply.
When again approached by two fraud squad officers with a summons in the northern Slovak town of Spišská Sobota, Mečiar reportedly said "leave me alone" and departed for a press conference.
Lawyer Ján Gereg, who has defended infamous clients such as Mikuláš Černák, a Slovak underworld boss sentenced in 2000 to eight years for extortion, noted that because Mečiar was to appear only as a witness in the construction bill case, the police had less call to use force than they had in 1999.
In that year, police had brought Mečiar in for questioning as the accused in the allegedly illegal payment of bonuses to members of the 1994-1998 Mečiar government. The charges were never proven.
"He's now in the position of a normal citizen being asked for an explanation. It's a question of a lower level of [legal] importance," said Gereg, who also defended three Irish terrorists seized in Slovakia in July 2001 and recently sentenced in London to 30 years.
Legal experts have noted that Mečiar need not reveal to police the source of the Sk41 million he allegedly paid Ďuriš, as he did not use the money to commit a crime or to privatise state assets. Slovakia has no law requiring public officials to document the origin of their property.
The case was recently brought to light when the Sme newspaper claimed to have a copy of an invoice on the payment by Mečiar to Ďuriš. After it was found that anti-fraud police under then-unit chief Jozef Stieranka had not acted on the information in 1999, new anti-fraud boss Július Molnár launched an investigation. He also denied Mečiar's claims that the police had questioned him on the case in 1999.
Milan Polák, head of the anti-fraud police in the Trenčín region, which has jurisdiction over Elektra, resigned in late May.
Mečiar has denied any links with Stieranka that might explain the police inactivity. "I don't know which scoundrel claimed that I had personal ties to Stieranka," he said. "Police who want to act towards me in accordance with the law are being undermined.
"Two years ago, for the first time since [the end of the second world war in Europe on] May 9, 1945, eight machine guns were aimed at my chest in my home. Every blessed spot on my chest was a place for a bullet. Should I be angry that the constitution was violated, or should I be happy that no one shot me?"
Mesežnikov, on the other hand, said that the ex-PM's refusal to appear had simply confirmed the stance of western governments that were Mečiar re-elected to power this fall, Slovakia would not receive an invitation to join Nato.
"The fact that the police acted legally, and that Mečiar still refused to cooperate, confirmed foreign convictions that he is not a standard politician, and gave concrete proof that the HZDS is not a reliable partner," the analyst said.