CAMBRIDGE, England — Slovakia is the eastern part of the old Czechoslovakia that left the federation in 1993. It came off worse economically in the break-up, unfairly so, but it won in the geographical carve-up, getting two-thirds of the wine country and above all, the Tatra mountains.
Although in a recent visit I saw derelict factories everywhere — victims of the loss of the captive Soviet market — that was probably no more than could be expected in a country undergoing a major structural transformation. It was clear that the basic infrastructure is sound. It was also clear that the largely well-educated people is capable of turning the country into a Western-style liberal economy — if they get the support of the Western democracies. There’s the catch. Slovakia is preparing for a general election next month, with more than the usual range of domestic issues at stake.
Slovakia is one of the 12 countries that are candidates for membership of the European Union. It is expected that the decision on membership will be made at the EU summit in Denmark in December. Unusually, the EU has let it be known that if the leader of certain of the parties contesting the election wins and thus becomes the democratically elected prime minister, or if he emerges as prime minister as the leader of a coalition of parties, then Slovakia will almost certainly be refused membership.
Slovakia is also likely to be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization later this year. NATO has already announced that it will locate a major training facility in the country, even before it has been admitted. There are suggestions that NATO membership will be withheld, too, if the EU’s bogeyman becomes prime minister.
This all looks like interference in the internal affairs of Slovakia by outsiders, so what is going on?
The politician in question is Vladimir Meciar, leader of the opposition party Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Meciar was prime minister in the early 1990s, and it was his decision to take Slovakia, in spite of widespread public opposition, out of the Czechoslovakian federation in 1992. It is unlikely, however, that the public would now vote to be reintegrated with the Czech Republic, enjoying as they do their first real independence for more than 1,000 years. Many see Meciar as the nation’s founder.
So why does the EU and NATO object to Meciar? Wasn’t he the man who pushed the economic reforms forward after the collapse of the communist regime, even accelerating the privatization process? Well, yes, and no.
The problem with countries in transition from communist regimes is that the potential leaders of the country have to come from the communist stock. Potential alternative leaders were systematically repressed and even exterminated. Many went into voluntary or involuntary exile and are no longer available as national leaders in their home countries. The result is that in the early years of transition it is the former communist leaders, such as Meciar, who have to be drawn on to be the political leaders, with all that that implies. Most of his competitors were also leaders of the old communist party.
It is sometimes difficult to see what the difference is between the parties in Slovakia, apart from their names, and even that is sometimes confusing. The latest party to be set up, by politicians thrown out by Meciar from the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, is called the Movement for Democracy (HZD). Apart from some smaller parties with a well-defined issue, such as the minority Hungarian ethnic party from the southeast, there does not seem to be much to differentiate between the parties.
According to the lively English language media, the main parties are formed by groups of crooks whose only interest is to maximize what they can get for themselves from the abuse of political power. Meciar just seems to have been the worst of such politicians, but then he was leader for longer, during a time when state assets were more or less simply given away in the privatization program, allegedly to his friends.
When asked by a court last month to explain how he managed to spend $880,000 for construction work on his villa out of his politicians’ modest salary, he refused to answer on the grounds that he had a right “not to squeal on myself.” Outside the court, when asked the same question by journalists, he replied, “if you don’t know you’ll be journalists until you die.”
When a law was proposed in the Parliament earlier this year that would put the onus on individuals to explain how they can live beyond their apparent means (rather than the courts having to prove that the lifestyle is being sustained illegally) more than half of the parliamentarians voted it down.
The main activity of politicians in Slovakia during the current election campaign appears to be arguing about who is most corrupt. In a sense this is comforting. In recent years we have seen a series of corruption cases among politicians and businessmen throughout the West and Japan. They tend not to boast about it. In the EU recently, the auditors who look over the EU’s own books estimated that 5 percent of the EU budget is lost to fraud, most of which is gotten away with.
It seems a bit unfair for EU leaders to threaten to deny Slovakia membership of the EU simply because one of its leaders is apparently a bit more honest about his dishonesty than the others. Maybe they are worried that he will get his hands on more than his fair share of the missing 5 percent.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.