THE THREE-time former PM says he faces a "dilemma" - to bow out, or soldier on.
In an interview with The Slovak Spectator on September 6, Slovakia's three-time former PM nevertheless said he would not accept a role in the next government even if offered, in order not to threaten the country's future acceptance to Nato and the European Union.
Unquestionably Slovakia's most controversial politician, Mečiar has been ostracised by both Western governments and Slovak political parties for his autocratic behaviour while in government from 1994-1998.
He remains, however, one of the nation's most trusted politicians, while his HZDS party until recently had led opinion polls for over a decade with at least 30 per cent support.
Apparently preparing to hand over the reins to a new generation of Slovak politicians, Mečiar still claims to have been misunderstood by much of the nation and his Western critics during his political career.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How do you think Slovak history would have been different had you not entered politics in 1990?
Vladimír Mečiar (VM): That's a question without an answer. In life, only what happens, happens. Any hypothesis about what would have occurred had certain events not taken place is detached from reality. The answer does not exist.
TSS: Ivan Gašparovič, your former colleague of 12 years who left your HZDS party in July to found his own, has said that you were exactly the type of decisive politician Slovakia needed in those years, even though not all that you did was entirely democratic.
VM: The early 1990s was a period of change that required certain things. It was not me looking for something, rather that the time found me. In a short period we made the transition from totalitarianism to democracy, laid the foundations of the state, transformed the economy and social relationships, while the system of values changed completely. It was a situation where something old was in place and something new was being born which needed support. The politics of such transitions are very complex, especially for those who have not experienced it and do not understand our starting point.
TSS: Still, 13 years after the revolution of 1989 and 10 years since gaining national independence, Slovakia certainly could be further along the path. What have been the main obstacles to development?
VM: The basis of change was in politics. The greatest obstacle was unwise politics. For example, we do not have a stable system of political parties. We could have been further ahead were it not for the egoism of political representatives who keep creating new parties, which are not really parties but quasi-parties. It leads to a lot of inner tension and holds up development, because appropriate decisions can't be made.
In the field of economic transformation the decisive mistake was made in 1998, when the newly established cabinet rejected continuity and declared a new beginning. Enormous losses [resulted].
The decisive changes in the social system have not yet taken place. We have communist-era laws, measures and systems in force, which absolutely contradict the needs of these times.
TSS: The Dzurinda government is considered by the West as one of the most pro-reform governments Slovakia has had so far.
VM: Here we have a clear contradiction between what they see abroad and what we see at home. This government has not transformed anything. It has not conducted one single transformation.
TSS: Has the government really done nothing positive?
VM: Very little. All important decisions were put off because of the lack of political agreement. The government was formed in opposition to me. It was not one based on a programme. Throughout its rule various power groups pushed each other out of control, meaning that now we have twice the level of unemployment we had before, our national debt is two and a half times higher, we have a trade deficit, a state budget deficit, a deficit in all areas of public finances. These deficits must be stopped. We can not live beyond our means any longer.
TSS: What you have said not only contradicts economic statistics but also the view from abroad that the government has managed to put huge chunks of public property in private hands, to win the approval of foreign financial markets and gain membership in the OECD. How do you explain the difference between the West's view of this government and yours?
VM: That's a matter for the West, not for me. I explain my standpoints and base them on facts.
TSS: You have named some mistakes you say other politicians have made. Is there anything you regret yourself?
VM: I don't like answering this question at all, because I have never consciously made mistakes with the intent of making them. It's always a matter of the specific decision, of the information available. My decision-making has been further influenced by several factors. First, I did not have a qualified state apparatus behind me. That was just being created. Second, there was no historical experience. That was also being created. Third, there are no rules for transition periods. There is no developed theory, and every practical step is an input [into such a body of theory]. So if we look at it [the early history of modern Slovakia] as a discovery process, it was not difficult to make mistakes. But when I look back at what I did, I have to say I never made a significant mistake, and I never intentionally harmed anyone.
TSS: Do you think the current government has harmed Slovakia intentionally?
VM: They knew and realised that they were not able to reach agreements. At the end of this ruling period, the parties that formed the ruling coalition denounced its activity, with the exception of the SDKÚ [of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda]. They blamed one another.
The parties that shaped this government have also split up and ceased to exist. Only one is left - the SMK [Hungarian Coalition Party]. At the end of this election period we have 14 new parties compared to the beginning, and 60 independent members of the 150-member parliament [the actual number is 30 - ed. note]. That's an massive disintegration of the political structure. When we further add the economic and social figures to that, the results are very bad.
TSS: But your party has also disintegrated several times, most recently six weeks ago.
VM: This is different. Even though we are in opposition, we have been a party that was a leading force in society, that had the greatest voter support, and we managed to maintain this position even in a situation when we were criminalised, isolated by the media, economically isolated, and under enormous pressure from abroad. We endured.
When decisive personnel decisions were made [in the HZDS] about the future, the party's political organs decided who would not be there. These people [who were dropped from the HZDS's plans] decided to establish a new party. There was no disintegration.
In order to talk about disintegration we have to look at the real numbers. Around 100 people out of 45,000 HZDS members left [for the newly established HZD under Gašparovič]. But at the same time, 400 new people joined us. So in this respect our political structure has been strengthened, leaving only the question of the impact on public opinion.
This [HZD] group will in the end not operate as a party. It was built as an elevator into parliament, perhaps to the presidency, then it will end. I know them all very well. If they had been any good, I wouldn't have let them go.
TSS: What does the HZD's choice of headquarters say about the party? They are in a building that houses 11 firms in the Harvard Group, which was founded by financier Juraj Široký and former senior communist Vladimír Lexa Sr. Have financial groups formerly supporting the HZDS withdrawn their support and started to finance other parties, which in their eyes have a better chance of making it into government?
VM: We never had strong ties to economic groups, although they existed. Following the years 1998-1999, when we were cut off, these groups found other [political] representatives, and today they fear the HZDS' return to power the most. We are dissatisfied with our [1994-1998] government's being scandalised over things it had no responsibility for or knowledge of. Those who are guilty of these things fear our return more than anyone else, so they'll always support other parties.
TSS: Whom exactly are you talking about?
VM: If you don't mind, I won't reveal this yet. They are people we have sent away. There are many of them.
TSS: How do you explain the fact that in the early 1990s you had over 80 per cent support among the Slovak population?
VM: It was a period of enormous change. Considering the complete lack of preparedness among the people who in 1989 entered politics, I was a one-eyed king among the blind.
TSS: So your popularity was not the result of some thought-through plan?
VM: My God, no one had ever dealt with these issues before in Slovakia. They were unknown, and for me to emerge from a position of virtual criminalisation [under communism] did not create the best conditions on myself for working.
TSS: Have you ever had the feeling that you are worshipped by some Slovaks, and that this worship has surpassed a certain reasonable limit?
VM: I wouldn't say that people worship me. I would say it's a relationship which in Slovakia is like that towards an extra member of the family. They don't worship me, these people adopted me, and that's a difference. They behave to wards me as towards a member of their families, which explains why this relationship has lasted so long despite all the negatives. It can't be destroyed.
MEČIAR says he has shaped a new generation of politicians to bear the HZDS mantle.
VM: My every speech was a rebellion, a rebellion against the communist regime, a rebellion against the state structures, a rebellion for civic and human rights, a rebellion for national freedom. In the eyes of many, this is my greatest sin.
I also rebelled against some economic changes. A large percentage of people always accepted this. It was my duty. It was perhaps my luck that during the period when I was the enemy of communism I studied more than others. That's all. During the time I've been in politics, since 1990, I have never given a previously written speech. I live from the essence of working on myself.
TSS: At the same time, your popularity is dropping, and recent polls put the HZDS at below 20 per cent support for the first time in memory. Do you feel that Slovaks are being ungrateful?
VM: No. Times change, people change, opinions change. I don't present myself in the media much, and during the last four years I've worked in the background rather than front and centre. Under these circumstances I have a stable 30 per cent support. Even if these people vote for someone else, they are still behind me. This is a given.
We have to acknowledge the fact that my sympathisers went through a great amount of brainwashing. Nonsense has been written about me, and things said which were completely unbelievable. Without a shred of evidence I was accused of co-operation with the KGB and the ŠtB [former Czechoslovak communist secret police], of being pro-Russian, of raping children and taking steps to restrict human rights and freedoms and so on. People were confronted with this daily. The fact that so many stayed with me means that the relationship is deeper than any media presentation.
TSS: How do you feel about the statements of foreign representatives, who say that your participation in the next government would bring a halt to Slovakia's Nato membership?
VM: I look at it through the eyes of a sober person. The first question that strikes me is, why isn't anyone afraid of the 18 per cent held in the Czech parliament by the communists, who along with the Social Democrats could form a majority?
TSS: In the case of the Czechs, this is no longer a question, as they are already members Nato.
VM: Does that mean that once we're in Nato anyone can be prime minister? That suddenly any force can reign in this country? This question has a logical flaw. Why should a country's admission be dependent on the status of a single person? This policy is not wise.
When I submitted our application to Nato, it was an application based on trust, not mistrust. We know that when specific mistakes are made, someone has to take responsibility, but no mistakes have been mentioned here. They have made a total scarecrow of the command - if this person, then no. And no for the entire country. What is this? Is it something good?
I see the issue from a directly opposite perspective. If a future union is to be formed, it has to be based on trust. They can't say to one third of the population right at the point of admission [to Nato], that because they think a certain politician is not good, this third is not good.
In 2003 we will vote on our entry into the EU. It will be impossible without this one third. Today support for Nato entry is over 50 per cent; again, that would be impossible without this one third of the population. We want nothing more than to be seen as a country where different opinions exist. We are not violating international obligations, international law. We dare to have different opinions on certain issues, but they are grounded in facts, because we lived under communism and we are taking a different path.
TSS: Did you put these questions to American representatives during your visit to the US this summer?
TSS: What did they tell you?
VM: That the American state administration can't be sure that our government [a future one possibly involving the HZDS - ed. note] will not violate human and civic rights, and that they will not change this stand before elections. They also had concerns about the independence of the judiciary. I told them that these issues could be solved by monitoring.
TSS: The British paper The Times recently wrote that voices in the West are starting to ask whether it is either wise or legitimate to take such an approach to your possible participation in the next government. What is your opinion?
VM: For me the question of being in government is not a key one, and it is not a significant object of interest for me. People have been fighting my presence in the government when since 1998 I have not declared interest in participating in the [next] government. Is this wise?
TSS: Do you mean to say you are still not interested in being in government, or that you would not take a government role in order not to threaten Slovakia's integration ambitions?
VM: Of course. Put your doubts to rest. Because what is this about? Someone keeps warning about what will happen if I am in the government, when I never said that I would be in the government.
TSS: So you are now not interested in being in government?
VM: I'm now not interested in being in government.
TSS: You aren't?
TSS: Won't that admission seem rather strange to your voters, who presumably will cast ballots for your party in order to have their interests represented in the executive branch?
VM: No. I'm in this party, and I fight for its position within Slovakia's political culture. There was a similar situation in Germany, when Willi Brandt was the party head and someone else was chancellor.
I have dedicated four years to selecting and preparing a group in the HZDS which knows what has to be done and is willing to do it. I did not choose ideologists but technocrats, people who know what must be done, although we are aware that the next period could destroy the party because of the unpopular measures that will be necessary. So, I don't have to be in the government, it's enough that the HZDS does what the country needs.
TSS: So you yourself would refuse a role in the government if offered?
VM: I would refuse.
To go back to your earlier question [about the legitimacy of the West's criticism], a union of people is being established [through Nato membership] which should last through the good and the bad. Hard times may come, and we may need each other. Should a new partner be accepted with a finger raised in warning, or with trust?
Everyone needs a stable partner. The question is whether parties which do not have the people's confidence will be able to stabilise internal affairs - whether the support of a foreign embassy is enough for an unqualified group to govern the state.
TSS: If the West continues to take this approach, could it lead to a loss of trust by Slovak citizens towards the West?
VM: Let me give you an example from the recent past. When the Russians came in 1945, they were generally welcomed. They brought freedom. When they came in 1968, they were hated. They brought oppression.
I was the one to organise the departure of the Soviet army from Slovakia [after 1989], and they left Slovakia one year ahead of schedule. They left without conflicts, but without farewells either. Something had gone wrong because of the manner in which politics were done.
Power has also been a factor, but so have history and common interests. The states which have endured have always left their allies a certain degree of freedom, and respected them. Rome survived a thousand years because of its tolerance of different religions and nations - the interests of local kings and local cultures.
TSS: Is the attitude of the West a suppression of democracy?
VM: In relation to me?
TSS: In relation to the Slovak voter.
VM: I think so. It's completely undemocratic, and it makes outsiders out of us. We would never dare to tell Hungarian, British or American voters what to do. We respect them. We want nothing more than not to be seen as people unable to take responsibility for their actions and unable to choose their own leaders. Even primitive tribal organisations, when they had a leader, the other side negotiated with him.
TSS: In addition to significant foreign pressure, many of your former co-workers have left you over the past four years, while other people close to you have died. Do you feel lonely?
VM: I don't. No one has left me. I sent some people away. On the contrary, they asked to stay. It was more convenient for them to be behind my back than working alone. I have never had the feeling of loneliness, I'm always among people.
I am, however, the first European representative since 1945 to have part of his house blown up with semtex and to be taken to the police station for non-existent crimes [the allegedly illegal payment of bonuses to members of his government - ed. note]. They sent 200 policemen and special commandos against an opposition representative.
I have been persecuted by the police eight times for unspecified crimes. Police action against me is now also affecting my 4-year-old granddaughter and my 86-year-old mother. And all my relatives. And the West is silent. This is democracy? What criteria exactly does the West have for judging democracy? Or is it as it was under the communist regime, that those who are on our side are allowed to do whatever they want? Or do we all have our own gangster, and our gangster can do whatever he wants?
TSS: But the police issued you several subpoenas, and you had the chance to come in for questioning without any fuss. So aren't you the author of your own misfortunes?
VM: This is just more nonsense which happens when no one cares to check the facts and has a pre-formed opinion. I never received any notice from the police that I was being investigated and that proceedings against me had resumed. When they dragged me to the police, the officer said: "We forgot to send it to you."
TSS: Former members and supporters of your government, such as former Economy Minister Ján Ducký, Transport Minister Alexander Rezeš, and your personal advisor Blažena Martinková, have all died since 1998, while businessman Július Binder recently suffered a stroke. How do you feel about what happened to these people?
VM: We have to distinguish between what is just part of life, and what results from human ill-will. Ján Ducký was murdered. That murder has from the beginning not been correctly investigated. My question remains - why? Why have the responsible institutions intentionally put the investigation on the wrong track and found no one guilty?
As far as Mrs. Martinková is concerned, this was a case of the persecution of someone never officially accused of anything. She was forced out of the country, suspected of everything, and forced to live a threatened existence abroad. There were threats that if she did not give up property in Slovakia, her hand would be brought to her husband on a plate. She could not deal with the psychological terror. There the human psyche failed.
In Rezeš's case it's different; the problem was physical. His heart was ill. No politics should be seen in this.
When we look at Binder, he is being accused by the media of non-existent acts. As an older person, he was unable to endure the public media attack against him. No one ever interrogated him. He ended up in hospital with a stroke.
This is not a question of the guilt of these people, but of the hyena-like nature of this society, when it attacks people whose guilt it can't prove, when it doubts their moral integrity and forces them to withdraw into themselves. No one can force me to withdraw into myself. I'm strong enough to resist.
TSS: Are you a man of the past?
VM: I look at it from the point of view of the total time I have available in this life. What's more important to me? To waste time in often silly political and organisational disputes, or to create and eternalise something for a person who will take over and go on? This is the dilemma I face today. But it's not one I'm solving based on other people's opinions. Views expressed by unqualified people from the outside have the same effect on me as the wind on the Sahara.
16. Sep 2002 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila