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ANALYSTS AND CONTEMPORARIES SAY VLADIMÍR MEČIAR'S CONFIDENT FIBBING EXPLAINS MUCH ABOUT HIS ENDURING POPULARITY

The lie as working method

HALF WAY THROUGH a televised debate October 13, opposition leader Vladimír Mečiar disputed a claim that his HZDS party had been rejected politically following last month's elections, saying the HZDS had actually held talks with the Smer party on forming a government.
Smer boss Robert Fico, one of three other guests on the show, reacted as if stung. "That's a lie. I don't know where he gets that stuff," Fico said.
Fico's charge is one Mečiar has heard many times during his 13-year career at the fore of Slovak politics, first from colleagues and contemporaries, later increasingly from political opponents and analysts. His ability to lie convincingly - to appear to believe everything he says even when it directly contradicts known facts or his own previous statements - has even been called the secret to Mečiar's enduring popularity and to his three terms as the nation's prime minister.


MEČIAR HAS BEEN an expensive but valuable lesson for Slovakia, his contemporaries say.
photo: Peter Brenkus

HALF WAY THROUGH a televised debate October 13, opposition leader Vladimír Mečiar disputed a claim that his HZDS party had been rejected politically following last month's elections, saying the HZDS had actually held talks with the Smer party on forming a government.

Smer boss Robert Fico, one of three other guests on the show, reacted as if stung. "That's a lie. I don't know where he gets that stuff," Fico said.

Fico's charge is one Mečiar has heard many times during his 13-year career at the fore of Slovak politics, first from colleagues and contemporaries, later increasingly from political opponents and analysts. His ability to lie convincingly - to appear to believe everything he says even when it directly contradicts known facts or his own previous statements - has even been called the secret to Mečiar's enduring popularity and to his three terms as the nation's prime minister.

"Mečiar is an impressive talker precisely because he lies without inhibition and himself believes what he's saying," said Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science at Comenius University, after watching Mečiar's weekend talk show appearance.

"There again he was lying confidently, openly, bluntly. I can imagine the audience, after hearing both Mečiar and Fico, wondering who was telling the truth. This ability of his in part explains why he's had such a successful career."

Early doubts

Rising to prominence in 1990 as Interior Minister and then prime minister, Mečiar built up a record 85 per cent approval rating as a decisive, straight-talking leader in a country ruled largely by intellectuals and former dissidents.

With such support behind him, Mečiar carried out perhaps the most important act of his career - taking Slovakia out of the Czechoslovak federal republic and turning it into an independent state. By the time Slovakia achieved independence on January 1, 1993, however, Mečiar's methods had created deep unease among both Slovak and Czech politicians.

The first incident to arouse wide suspicion occurred on December 6, 1990 when Mečiar visited Prague with a Slovak government delegation. The Slovak PM told a Czech cabinet group that while he himself wanted to preserve Czechoslovakia intact, his hand was being forced by Slovak nationalists, and that if the Czechs didn't agree to all of the Slovak demands for a power-sharing agreement, the Slovak parliament would immediately declare sovereignty.

Members of his own delegation later said that not only was Mečiar's threat untrue, he also had no authority to make it

"The members of the Czech government were shocked, while we, on the other hand, were frozen and horrified at the prime minister's words. He was not authorised by any organ to present such a statement - neither by the government, nor by the parliament, nor by the VPN [party that Mečiar belonged to]. It was just his personal opinion, and he was presenting it as the position of the Slovak government delegation," said Vladimír Ondruš, who at the time was the Slovak deputy prime minister.

Czech President Václav Havel and PM Petr Pithart the next day told Czech citizens what Mečiar had said - that the Slovaks would declare independence if they didn't get the federal powers they wanted. The federal parliament soon after passed the Slovak version of the competence law.

Back in Slovakia, however, when challenged as to the means he had used to achieve his goal, Mečiar said "I would like it if one person could be found who could prove that I ever said anywhere that Slovak laws would be approved as superior to federal laws. This is all untrue, and I never said it."

The Czech government office immediately issued a statement contradicting Mečiar's words.

VPN boss Fedor Gál appeared shocked by Mečiar's devious tactics, and said in a public statement: "I am deeply disturbed at the way politics are done in this country. I am deeply disturbed that top members of the executive branch are spreading unrest, uncertainty, rumours and - I'll say it openly - untruths."

But the "untruths" spread by Mečiar continued, and were to become an integral part of the Slovak leader's drive for independence.

On October 28, 1990, Mečiar and other Czech and Slovak officials signed a declaration stating "our firm will to maintain and further develop the federative character of our joint Czech and Slovak state." After the signing he warned those in favour of an independent Slovakia that "everyone should understand that in Europe they want us to stay together."

Later the same month, Mečiar said that "we want the federation, and I hope this has been clear from my approach."

By September 1991, however, the Slovak leader had changed his tune. "The HZDS openly says that the best form of state would be a confederation," Mečiar said, meaning an arrangement in which both the Czech and Slovak Republics would have their own international identities as nations, as would Czechoslovakia.

The Czech side regarded the HZDS proposal as a camouflage for the party's true aim of independence, as Czech PM Václav Klaus explained in 1992. "Debate on some kind of union or confederation of two sovereign states is a debate on division, and thus on the destruction of our common state, and not on its preservation." The Czechs were willing to talk about either preserving Czechoslovakia, with certain changes, or independence for the two nations, but not about a "confederation" which claimed to achieve both ends.

Mečiar responded by telling the French daily Le Monde in July 1992 that "we don't want independence - they're pushing us into it." On July 24, 1992, however, Slovak and Czech papers announced that Mečiar and Klaus had agreed to do just that.

As far as a referendum on the topic went, Mečiar said early in 1992 that the HZDS would offer Slovak voters in a plebiscite five possible options for the future of Czechoslovakia, and that the HZDS would pursue whichever option drew the most support.

In July 1992, after becoming prime minister for the second time, Mečiar vowed that voters would decide the future of Czechoslovakia. "If you tell us to become independent, we'll take the path to independence. If you give us another command, we will respect that."

A month later he was still promising a referendum "that will be free and binding... but not today, today it would be politically irresponsible."

In October 1992 he said the referendum would be held at the beginning of December, but a month later explained that the party had failed to organise the vote because it lacked political support.

"All Slovak political parties have refused to support us in this effort. We have only 74 votes in parliament [two short of a majority], so a government [referendum] bill would likely not succeed."

And thus it was that Slovakia became independent without a referendum which Mečiar claimed he couldn't have got approved by parliament - even though his government enjoyed a de facto majority with the support of independent MPs Ivan Hudec and Peter Brňák, both of whom later joined the HZDS.

The working method

By the time Slovakia became independent, Mečiar's apparent dishonesty had attracted deep and bitter criticism. Szomolányi, who sat on the VPN party council with Mečiar, said that one of the prime minister's most damaging fabrications had occurred almost two years before, and had helped destroy the VPN and launch Mečiar as a force unto himself.

On March 3, 1991, then-Mečiar henchman Milan Kňažko appeared live on the STV public television channel to say that VPN head Gál had given orders that Mečiar's scheduled public address was to be censored, and that the PM had thus refused to appear on TV. Given the nation's recent communist past, the claim that a backroom political clique was censoring the PM proved hugely emotive and damaging to the VPN, and while Gál and the rest of the VPN council publicly denied having issued any such orders, the damage was done.

After Mečiar showed signs of leaving the VPN and setting up his own party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Gál distanced himself from the popular PM.

"Prime Minister Mečiar has crossed a border that you must never cross in politics. A politician must never lie and deceive, must never act like a cheap populist. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Mečiar has done all of these things."

The cry was soon taken up by other disillusioned Mečiar colleagues. Kňažko, after being forced out as deputy PM by Mečiar in 1992, told a HZDS party conference that "Vladimír Mečiar uses lying as a working method."

Many of Mečiar's more incredible assertions, however, appear to have had little to do with achieving his political goals, and more with simple lack of judgement or control of his tongue.

On a TV talk show in 1990, for example, Mečiar scourged Jozef Markuš, head of the Matica Slovenská cultural body, for his support of a language law that would have made Slovak the country's only official language. Markuš, said Mečiar, was "a demagogue of the darkest stripe who has no other goal than to arouse passion in people."

Nine months later, in an interview with the Slobodný Piatok weekly, Mečiar said his criticism had not been prompted by Markuš' demagoguery, but by concern for Slovakia's security against Hungarian aggression.

"During the debate I received information that the Hungarian army had moved up to our border. Slovakia had no combat-ready units. I asked the border [patrols]... apparently you could hear some noise coming from the Hungarian side. What would you have done in my place? What was I to do? I criticised Markuš to prevent the worst."

At a political rally in March 1991 he told a crowd of 10,000 that he had recently been to Russia to hold "secret talks with Russian generals so we can keep on making the weapons we make in [north Slovakia's] Martin." When the statement caused a scandal, however, Mečiar told journalists "I never held secret negotiations of this kind."

In July 1996, when asked by a man in a crowd why the government had rejected an offer by General Motors to buy engineering firm ZŤS Dubnica, Mečiar said it was in fact GM that had rejected an offer from the government to buy ZŤS for one Slovak crown because GM managers felt they wouldn't have adequate housing. GM responded through a spokesman that the opposite was in fact true, and that the firm would not have "spent 10 months in talks with the Slovak government [in 1990] if we hadn't been serious about wanting to carry the project out."

Even as late as April 2001, when Mečiar claimed in an interview with Playboy magazine that he had been offered political asylum in the US, the American State Department was forced to issue a denial.

Good training

With so many denials and accusations of lying against him, many have marvelled that Mečiar has remained so popular. Following the HZDS leader's third election victory in 1994, television humorist Milan Markovič said "he's not a prime minister, he's a boomerang."

Szomolányi said that the press was largely to blame for not having taken the former PM to task sooner. "I think many Slovak journalists were fascinated by Mečiar, and it proved very difficult to challenge the stereotype they created in the early 1990s of this strong and charismatic leader," she said.

"On the other hand, professional politicians who opposed him were handicapped because they couldn't compete, couldn't believe anyone could lie so brutally. Even his supporters, the many old women in the countryside, who were probably very decent people in their private lives, couldn't believe someone so important could do such things," she added.

Others have explained that Mečiar's popularity also had roots in the need of Slovak people following deep and bewildering changes after 1989 to find security in a strong leader.

Political commentator Marián Leško cited Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in explanation of the phenomenon of Mečiar's support.

"Jung wrote that 'nothing is more convincing than a lie that someone has created and which he believes himself', and that when a nation is threatened by poverty [as Slovaks may have felt after a 30 per cent fall in real wages in 1991], 'it is on the best path to becoming a flock of sheep waiting for a shepherd to lead it to better pastures.' These clinical findings are relevant today," wrote Leško in his book Mečiar a Mečiarizmus (1996).

As Slovakia approaches the 10-year anniversary of its independence, the nation's love-hate relationship with Mečiar appears to be cooling off. While the former leader won the most individual votes in the September 2002 ballot, his HZDS party took only 19.5 per cent, its lowest-ever election result, and found itself in opposition for the second time in a row.

Szomolányi credited the change to the very style that had won Mečiar such popularity in the 1990s.

"His arrogance and permanent lies gradually contributed to civic emancipation and accelerated the political education of at least 60 per cent of the population," she said. "Mečiar was a valuable lesson for Slovaks, if a rather expensive one."

Mečiar himself, who told Playboy that "99 per cent of what is written about me never happened, especially the negative bits," agreed the country had him to thank for the present maturity of its politics.

"The people who are today in politics... either matured around me or on the other side [of parliament]. One way or another they were trained in my presence. If it weren't for this schooling, I don't know..."

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