THE PRESIDENCY of Rudolf Schuster is nearing its end. Despite his many mistakes and low popularity, future generations are likely to remember Slovakia's second head of state as playing a positive role in the nation's history.
Schuster, inaugurated on June 15, 1999 as Slovakia's first directly-elected president, will leave the presidential palace for good exactly five years later. At the same time, Ivan Gašparovič, his replacement, will be sworn in.
Schuster has had a colourful political past. Despite being a top communist potentate who held a seat in the party's national central committee and a number of top posts in the Košice region before the overthrow of the oppressive regime, he was able to defeat velvet revolution leader Ján Budaj in a fight for the position of Speaker of Slovak Parliament in November 1989.
After leaving the top seat in the local legislation at the end of June 1990, Schuster ventured to Canada, where he served as Czechoslovakia's ambassador. In the 1994 elections, he was elected Košice mayor, returning to a seat he had left some eight years earlier.
Although Schuster ran as an independent candidate in those elections, the then-ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), headed by Vladimír Mečiar, did not introduce its own nominee, thus increasing Schuster's chances.
His first years in mayoral office were in no way characterised by disharmony with Mečiar's party, of which Schuster Jr eventually became a member.
As Košice mayor, Schuster was able to pull off a series of wild public relations stunts which brought him nation-wide popularity - he had 70,000 people dance the macarena on the city's main square, hosted them with what was allegedly the world's longest apple pie, and orchestrated a huge outdoor simulation of a naval battle.
On top of that, a reconstruction of the city's centre was paid for from city coffers. Schuster succeeded in giving the impression of a skilled, if eccentric, manager and politician. Very helpful in promoting this public image was the massive support of private TV station Markíza, owned by media mogul and current Economy Minister Pavol Rusko.
Only later, when he was already enjoying life in the presidential residency, would inhabitants find that he brought Košice financial ruin. Today, the city is still struggling to find ways of repaying its enormous debt.
Speculation that Schuster could become Slovakia's next president first surfaced in 1997. At the beginning of 1998, Schuster, who had in the past been lured to join numerous parties, announced his plans to launch his own - the Civic Understanding Party.
The primary task of the was clear from the start - to propel its leader into the presidential palace. After general elections in September 1998, the party agreed to join the ruling coalition under the condition that Schuster become its common presidential candidate.
The coalition upheld its promise to voters to amend the constitution and introduce direct elections, and it also stuck to its word to make Schuster its exclusive candidate.
In the first round of elections, Schuster received 47.4 percent of the votes, almost gaining a majority - which would have made him an immediate winner. Instead, Schuster had to meet with Mečiar in a second round, in which 57.2 percent of the voting public supported him.
Upon entering office, Schuster was a fairly popular figure. In September 1999, over 21 percent of Slovaks found him to be the most trustworthy politician, according to a survey done by the Independent Slovak Centre for Market and Public Opinion Research.
That number was enough to make him the most-liked public representative of that time.
The reasons were simple enough. Schuster was a relative newcomer to top politics, unstained by previous large-scale scandals. He had gained a good reputation for his work in Košice. The new head of state came across as a so-called "good communist" - a person who was in the party only to help his region.
Moreover, Schuster claimed he had been a practicing Catholic throughout his career as a communist functionary. In short, Schuster tried to please everyone. As time went on, all of that changed drastically.
In June 2000 came Schuster's serious illness, which brought him to the brink of death. After recovering, Schuster started accusing other top officials of being anxious to take his powers and decided to sue the local doctors that fought to save his life.
His animosities with other top country representatives had a strong impact on Schuster's public appearances and agenda, and made him appear to be very much self-absorbed.
His adventures, such as visiting Brazil to film anacondas and being taken hostage by a local Indian tribe, ceased to be amusing and gave many an uneasy feeling about the man representing their country.
The end of Schuster's presidency was marked by his apparent effort to position himself for re-election, betting on a strategy of opposition to the government's rightist and reformist policy.
It failed. Schuster received only 7.4 percent in the first round of elections on April 3, which meant a definite stop to his presidential ambitions. He is trusted by 3.4 percent of Slovaks, according to a survey of the Statistics Office released on April 21.
All figures indicate that Schuster, now 70, is unlikely to make a political comeback.
However, history rarely remembers details such as indebted cities or political quarrels. History tends to remember key moments, and in this respect Schuster will come out well.
In 1999, Schuster prevented Mečiar from returning to high state office and thus left Slovakia's progress towards democracy and international acceptance undisturbed.
Under his presidency, Slovakia held a successful referendum on EU entry, its only successful referendum ever. And the country eventually joined not only the union, but also NATO.
Perhaps Schuster did little to help achieve those crucial aims, but he certainly did nothing to stand in their way. By Slovakia's standards this is an excellent legacy. And for that, Rudolf Schuster deserves a respected place in Slovakia's history.
7. Jun 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila