A MAJOR western newspaper has compared three-time former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar to Austria's discredited Jörg Haider, but has questioned western diplomats' practice of ostracising Mečiar ahead of September national elections in Slovakia.
British daily The Times on August 26 described popular opposition leader Mečiar, head of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, as a "former boxer" who "despite having learned to tone down his nationalist rhetoric, has had an immense polarising effect on everyday life in Slovakia."
The paper wrote that "pressure is piling up on the Slovaks to keep Mr Mečiar away from the prime ministership, even though he leads the field with about 20 per cent support. His closest rival, the left-leaning populist Robert Fico, is also unhappy about the terms of EU membership".
With a Nato summit nearing in Prague, at which the Alliance is to decide on the acceptance of new candidates, the West has piled warning on warning that the re-election of Mečiar could put a stop to Slovakia's integration hopes.
"How legitimate or wise is it for the West to state its political preferences so openly?" the paper asks.
In the Times story, the July arrest of Ivan Lexa, former head of the Slovak Intelligence Service and a member of Mečiar's HZDS, who is facing 10 charges including sabotage, is described as a triumph for the present government. On the other hand, Lexa's August release from custody through a ruling of the Supreme Court reflects the fragility of the country's democratic institutions.
"Courts are stuffed with politically appointed judges," the paper writes.
With Slovakia's capital only half an hour's drive from the Austrian capital, the story also draws a parallel between Mečiar and Austria's nationalist leader Jörg Haider, whose election to power in 1999 drew EU-wide sanctions and Haider's retreat from government.
"Mr Mečiar, who seems to speak for the poorest of the Slovaks, makes the Austrians nervous, yet he is in many ways the mirror image of Herr Haider.
"The EU seems to be making a similar assessment: the last time that the West grumbled so openly before an election was ahead of the Austrian vote that brought Herr Haider's Freedom Party into government," writes the Times.