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Independence: The Mečiar Years

 Photo: TASR

If Slovak independence initially enjoyed only lukewarm support amongst the populace, "within a few years, it was a development that few would consider reversing," Henderson writes.

Yet the decade since independence has not always gone smoothly. Two dramas have dominated headlines: the mercurial political fortunes of Mečiar, who quickly became premier of the new republic; and the nation's haphazard struggle for European Union membership. Often, the two storylines have seemed inversely related: when Mečiar's stock rises, Slovakia's EU prospects fall, and vice versa. That's because Mečiar has been an abrasive figure who has often shocked the international community with his antics.

By early 1994, Mečiar's coalition government began to wobble, rocked by high-profile defections. With the Czech bogeyman gone, Henderson argues, real political differences rose to the fore. No longer could politicians merely take a potshot at Prague when, say, an unhappy unemployment figure emerged. Worse, the new Slovak president, Michal Kováč, rankled Mečiar by daring to pursue an independent agenda. Their relationship soured completely when Kováč vetoed Mečiar's choice for the key post of privatisation minister.

The Mečiar government collapsed in March 1994 after Kováč delivered a bluntly critical "state of the nation" speech. Mečiar resigned to avoid a vote of no confidence. But he wasn't finished.

A broad left-right coalition, including many HZDS renegades, quickly formed an interim government. But it couldn't create sufficient political force to stop the relentless Mečiar. In the September elections, his HZDS won 35 percent of the vote and 41 percent of the seats in parliament - enough, by year's end, to form his third government. Presenting itself as centrist, the HZDS was forced to ally with the right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS) and the far-left Association of Workers of Slovakia (ZRS). Together, the three parties had won just 48 percent of the vote.

Even before it officially formed a government, the new coalition began to behave dodgily. At a post-midnight meeting of parliament boycotted by all the other parties, Mečiar's ragtag coalition voted to oust the opposition from all key posts in state and parliament. Not amused by the spectacle of a coalition without majority support moving to monopolise power, the European Union - to which Slovakia was applying along with other former Eastern Bloc nations - issued a démarche, or rebuke.

In 1995, things deteriorated. Mečiar openly feuded with President Kováč, and launched a high-profile campaign to drive him out of office. The prime minister initiated a failed vote of no confidence against Kováč in May, demanded he resign in September, and slashed his budget mercilessly. But the most bizarre episode came on August 31, when Michal Kovač, Jr., the president's son, was abducted in broad daylight from his village near Bratislava. He was knocked unconscious by a combination of electric shocks and alcohol, and found lying on top of his car outside of a police station just across the Austrian border.

Worse still for the victim, the German police wanted to question him regarding a fraud case, which led to his being held by Austrian authorities for six months. The fraud allegations eventually proved specious, but the bizarre events embarrassed Kováč significantly.

In the end, however, it was Mečiar who proved the loser from the incident. "The conduct of the Slovak police inquiry into the abduction raised grave suspicions of government and secret service (SIS) complicity," Henderson writes. Speculation about HZDS involvement in the incident mounted in April 1996, when a close associate of a key witness in the case was murdered by a bomb placed in his car. A year later, Mečiar, having just gained temporary presidential powers, brazenly granted amnesty to anyone involved in the case.

Meanwhile, Mečiar and his allies sabotaged a public referendum on whether the president should be directly elected or chosen by parliament (Mečiar desperately wanted to keep that power within parliament); they turned the privatisation process into a patronage vehicle; and they alienated the Hungarian minority by trying to make Slovak the official language and force Hungarian schools into bilingual education, despite EU insistence that minorities be allowed to use their own language.

As if all of this hadn't been enough, leading up to the 1998 elections, Mečiar and his allies rigged the constitution to give themselves maximum electoral leverage after it became clear they were losing public support; they imposed limits on election coverage in all but state-controlled media, which they proceeded to fill with bald pro-government propaganda; and they ran a lavish campaign using state money.

The European Union's immigration officials watched these spectacles in horror. After the fall of Communism, the EU had released criteria for prospective new members requiring, among other things, that "the candidate country has achieved a stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities." Clearly, Mečiar's government had defied each of these strictures.

So it wasn't surprising when, in 1997, the EU knocked Slovakia off the fast track for membership. It declared it would begin accession talks with former Communist nations Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic - but not Slovakia. Humiliatingly, Slovakia found itself in a "second group" of countries on a slower track to accession, where it joined such countries as Bulgaria, Romania, and Latvia. The reason for its laggard status was not economic, as was the case in its fellow "second group states," but rather its poor political showing.

However, in what must be seen as a remarkable affirmation of Slovak democracy, the HZDS was unable to form a government after the 1998 elections, despite its heavy-handed tactics. Mečiar and his cronies, isolated from the opposition parties it had worked so unscrupulously to defeat, could not find sufficient partnership to form a government, even though they had gained a slight plurality.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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