The ghosts of governments past

IT TURNS OUT Europe's memory is not as short as Vladimír Mečiar had hoped it would be. The leader of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Mečiar helped push Slovakia to the brink of international isolation as prime minister in the 1990s.

IT TURNS OUT Europe's memory is not as short as Vladimír Mečiar had hoped it would be. The leader of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Mečiar helped push Slovakia to the brink of international isolation as prime minister in the 1990s.

His political record has not been improved by the passage of time or ameliorated by fading memories.

And his unconvincing metamorphosis into a true democrat has done little to help.

The HZDS has been knocking at the door of the European liberals' grouping, begging for some crumbs of international legitimacy. But in June it was rebuffed, being denied fully-fledged membership of the European Democratic Party (EDP).

The reason is Mečiar and his past.

Some representatives of the EDP suggested that without the historical baggage that Mečiar carries it would have been easier for them to accept the HZDS.

There is no easy solution to this situation for the HZDS. The obvious answer would be to force Mečiar to retire. Withdrawing from politics would also appear to be the kindest thing that he could do for his party.

But neither the HZDS nor Mečiar will take this course of action.

Many people associated with the HZDS have tried to push Mečiar aside and persuade the party that its boss is, in fact, replaceable. But instead they have been replaced, while Mečiar remains. The rest have taken heed.

Mečiar's political identity is so tightly intertwined with that of the HZDS that separation appears to be surgery too complicated to contemplate, even if many times in the past it has looked like the only way to revamp the organisation and turn it into a party with a real political programme rather than just a vehicle for its leader. Instead the party has resorted to twisting in the wind, grasping any policy that promises some short-term political gain: it now, for example, embraces leftist ideals somewhat at odds with the conservative values it espoused until just a few years ago.
The HZDS spin-doctors have been earning their pay, trying to cast a positive light on the EDP decision to grant the HZDS the status of associate member, one step below the full membership which had been the party's goal.

The way that HZDS sources talked up the party's 'success' and the 'end of its isolation' following the EDP meeting on June 6 in Bilbao, anyone would have thought Europe had finally embraced its prodigal son.

But Mečiar's actions have proved the EDP is right to remain cautious about granting his party full access to its councils.

The HZDS boss was the very first politician to make use of the controversial new Press Code, which grants a right of reply to anyone who feels hurt, damaged or insulted by anything published about them, irrespective of whether it happens to be true and or how much damage it has actually caused them.

Less than 48 hours after the law took effect, Mečiar's first request for a correction landed on an editor's desk. It was not investigative news reporting he took exception to, but an opinion piece.
Commentator Marián Leško, writing in the Sme daily on June 2, described the HZDS's failed attempt to install its nominee at the Slovak Information Service, the country's main intelligence agency.
The HZDS boss's actions were exactly what critics of the Press Code predicted it would lead to: efforts by a politician to 'correct' a journalist's opinions. And Mečiar wasted no time, not even bothering to pretend that the code would serve regular citizens, as its apologists had assured.
Mečiar is one of the two main political partners of Robert Fico. The other, Slovak National Party leader Ján Slota, enjoys a similar degree of international opprobrium to Mečiar.

At the time when Fico was shaping his ruling coalition in 2006, he turned a deaf ear to concerns voiced at the time: that Mečiar and Slota would never really gain international acceptance, no matter how his choices were interpreted.

Twice in the space of a few weeks, Slota has courted international controversy with controversial comments aimed at neighbouring Hungary. In his latest, boorish outburst he referred to Kinga Göncz, Hungary's foreign affairs minister, as "this lady with the dishevelled hair" who "could take more care of her appearance."

Earlier this year Slota referred to the Hungarian king St Stephen as a "Hungarian clown on a horse from Budapest."

Slota's statements were impolite and inappropriate, regardless of their context or their impact, and have no place in a civilised political environment. It is naive to think that the international community would overlook these verbal eruptions and consider the man responsible a serious political partner.

The same goes for Mečiar. The abduction of then-President Michal Kováč's son in August 1995, which allegedly involved the intelligence service; the unconstitutional expulsion of MP František Gaulieder from parliament in December 1996; and the failed referendum on whether Slovakia would join NATO are all blemishes that will remain for future generations to recall. And hopefully they will.

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