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EDITORIAL

US political aid in Slovakia: Refereeing or playing?

BY MANY people's lights, September elections produced the best result possible - a homogenous coalition of pro-Western, reformist parties, and the rejection of authoritarian and populist political alternatives.
The more we learn about the tactics used to encourage this result, however, the less confident we are that the contest was fair, or that Slovaks were able to make their political choices without impediment.
Many Slovaks and foreign (largely European) observers noticed how outspoken the United States became this year on the topic of former leader Vladimír Mečiar and the implications for the country if Slovaks put him back in power (ie no Nato membership). While the baldness of the US statements at times caused shudders, like fingernails on a chalkboard, the argument that Nato was just making membership conditions clear was eventually accepted.

BY MANY people's lights, September elections produced the best result possible - a homogenous coalition of pro-Western, reformist parties, and the rejection of authoritarian and populist political alternatives.

The more we learn about the tactics used to encourage this result, however, the less confident we are that the contest was fair, or that Slovaks were able to make their political choices without impediment.

Many Slovaks and foreign (largely European) observers noticed how outspoken the United States became this year on the topic of former leader Vladimír Mečiar and the implications for the country if Slovaks put him back in power (ie no Nato membership). While the baldness of the US statements at times caused shudders, like fingernails on a chalkboard, the argument that Nato was just making membership conditions clear was eventually accepted.

It then came out that US ambassador to Slovakia Ronald Weiser had advised some Slovak political parties not to cooperate with the HZD non-parliamentary party in the event it got enough votes to win seats in the legislature. When questioned, Weiser was reluctant to discuss his initiative, saying he felt it was a dead issue given that the HZD in the end did not get into parliament.

In the past weeks, The Slovak Spectator has spoken with members of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), both US organisations that provided pre-election aid to chosen Slovak political parties. They provided the assistance apparently contrary to a Slovak law that prohibits parties from accepting any kind of aid from foreign organisations, apart from foundations and partner political parties.

We say 'apparently', because it is likely the NDI and IRI will find a legal argument to put them on the side of the law.

But this isn't about legal niceties. It's about one country interfering in another's political life to get an election result that is in its own foreign policy interests. It's about double standards, with the Americans insisting that Mečiar's HZDS party be held to account for its past behaviour, but the US ambassador reluctant to account for his own. And it's about the need to respect the choices of other people, no matter how wrong we feel those choices to be, and no matter how well-intentioned our attempts to steer them right.

To put the issue in a different light, one might ask what the diplomatic community's reaction would have been if the Russian government in 1998 had sent 'organisations' to Slovakia to conduct polls and do political development work, or if the Russian ambassador had gone around telling Mečiar government parties not to work with the then-opposition SDK after elections. What would the US reaction have been, for that matter?

This is far from a black and white issue, and involves some thorny questions. It's impossible to say, for example, how much influence the IRI/NDI work had on voter behaviour, but even if it were decisive, would it have been preferable to let people elect Mečiar and ruin Slovakia's Nato and EU entry bids? And how much difference is there between such organisations and foreign-owned newspapers like The Slovak Spectator, which in its editorials this summer clearly backed the parties of the current coalition, and argued against the return of Mečiar?

While thorny, however, those questions do have answers. Yes, if Slovaks wanted Mečiar, they should have been allowed to choose him without hindrance, no matter what the consequences. No, a newspaper and a government-funded organisation are not the same, especially because the latter carries an authority the former can only envy, and is supported by taxpayer dollars besides.

And no, you can't preach democracy and self-determination while at the same time trying to determine the outcome yourself. You can't referee matches in which you also play for the home side.

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