JÁN SLOTA has done it again. His unique turns of phrase have conquered the news headlines once more.
He's in the news this time for much the same reason as on every previous occasion: cheap controversy. First, he issued a statement which carelessly injected another squirt of poison into the festering Slovak-Hungarian relationship. Then he proceeded to cock a snook at parliament by demonstrating that he regards attending its session as little more than a joke at taxpayers' expense.
Since neither of these acts deviates from Slota's usual behavioral patterns, one might ask what has been so newsworthy about this latest bout of insulting rhetoric or his perennial absence from parliamentary sessions.
This time Slota's obnoxious comments resulted in the indefinite postponement of a long-planned prime ministerial meeting between Robert Fico and his Hungarian counterpart, Ferenc Gyurcsány.
"Hungarian flags on the front, and here is some Hungarian clown on a horse in Budapest," the head of the Slovak National Party declared, describing the cover of a history textbook, featuring a picture of St Stephen, on May 9. Slota's misguided point was that Hungarian-speaking children in Slovakia are learning history from the wrong text book.
In truth, it was not really Slota's statement that further elevated tensions, but rather the silence of the prime minister, who was sitting next to him as he referred to one of the most respected figures in Hungarian history.
The Slovak Prime Minister can no longer dismiss Slota's verbal eruptions as an internal matter for the SNS or even for Slota himself: for, on this occasion, he was right there and by his silence did as much damage to Slovak-Hungarian relations as Slota.
St Stephen - the first king to rule and unite Hungary, between 1000 and 1037 - might be a figure from history, but that history is Slovakia's too (this country was then part of the Hungarian empire), and Stephen is not an obscure folk figure or a controversial character whose role in history is yet to be analysed.
What makes the situation serious is the fact that the same man who, during one particularly notorious inebriated outburst, once suggested that Slovaks should get into their tanks and level Budapest is now part of Slovakia's government. One of his nominees commands the education ministry, for example, giving him power to influence the content of school textbooks and the curriculum.
Earlier this year, Slota came up with a "grand plan" to build huge Lorraine crosses, the emblem of Slovak statehood (ironically, one which it shares with Hungary, though the irony was undoubtedly lost on Slota), across the country including, most importantly, in areas with a large Hungarian population.
"We will build Slovak Lorraine crosses all over Slovakia, even in the south, so that we do not have to see those idiotic Hungarian Turuls [a giant falcon from Hungarian mythology] flying over southern Slovakia," Slota said, according to the SITA newswire.
While Slota's sympathisers might not really mind his anti-Hungarian rhetoric, they should care about the other reason for Slota's recent celebrity: allegations that he has been using falsified signatures to qualify for tax-payer funded pay and allowances as an MP which amount to hundreds of thousands of crowns.
Earlier this month, the Sme daily captured on video one of Slota's MPs, Rafael Rafaj, forging the signature of his boss so as to make it seem that Slota had been present in parliament. He obviously was not. But despite his absence, Sme discovered that his signature had miraculously appeared on parliament's attendance sheets. The media's logical inference is that Rafaj was the miracle worker.
Slota has always been among the most frequent absentees in parliament. Earlier this year Sme reported that of 30 sessions of the human rights committee, of which he purports to be a member, Slota had attended just one.
Regardless of Slota's motivations, his absence from parliamentary discussions mocks the voters who elected him to represent them in parliament. The forged signature, however, transcends mockery: it is fraud. The general prosecutor was quick to explain that no laws had been violated, and the prime minister declared that the voters would punish Slota, in the process sidestepping any condemnation of the act, much less demanding any investigation of his coalition partner.
That an MP can forge another's signature in an apparent attempt to defraud the taxpayer and still not violate any regulation seems scarcely believable. But even if it is so, faking signatures and then faking stories about them (Slota has since reportedly assured the speaker of parliament that he was there all along) are all morally indefensible acts and should evoke a more powerful reaction from the country's leader than just a lukewarm statement suggesting that someone else should condemn the acts.
Ján Slota in May enjoyed the trust of 8.8 percent of those polled in a survey by the Statistics Office, down from 13.9 percent in March. Given Slota's track record, 8.8 percent, which makes him the country's third or fourth most-trusted politician, is still a pretty disturbing number.
The sad thing is that Slota has so rarely been associated in the news with any memorable legislation or initiative and one has to dig very deep to recall any statement which could be remembered for being anything other than controversial.
Still, Slota's hold over the ruling coalition is evident and Robert Fico seems likely to overlook further deterioration in relations with Hungary, running the risk that he will be free to set new standards for the political life of Slovakia.
26. May 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová