- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

He has been a prime minister three times, and held presidential powers twice. Twice, his career has been marred by corruption scandals. He has been accused by the State Department of thwarting democratic principles and imposing biased election law prior to elections in 1998. And now, as in 1997, Vladimir Meciar has been accused of being the main reason Slovakia would be barred from being invited to join NATO in November. But his party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, is enjoying the highest popularity in the polls and appears the most likely vote-winner just ahead of the Sept. 21 elections, which could make him prime minister for a fourth time. Unfortunately, Mr. Meciar may be the sweet opium that lulls his people to sacrifice their standing in the international community for a return to a destructive past.

What is the attraction of the populist leader for the Slovaks? To understand this, one must return to the political fallout following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when communism was defeated in Czechoslovakia. While the Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus was advocating free markets, Mr. Meciar was calling for a slower journey toward capitalism. He and Mr. Klaus negotiated the division of Czechoslovakia, and Mr. Meciar became the father of independence for his people. What the current 20 percent unemployment rate under Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda is causing the people to forget, however, is what the economic policies of the Meciar government were based on during his previous administrations. According to the State Department, Mr. Meciar's "crony capitalism and irresponsible fiscal policies" caused public and private debt and trade deficits to drastically grow, and privatization efforts were marked by corruption. High unemployment and a corruption scandal caused him to lose power in 1994, but months later he was reinstated with the help of a coalition government that included many former communists.

Now Mr. Meciar is back in the political scene touting a new identity. Despite the fact that he had only negative things to say about the current Slovak administration, his own platform echoes Mr. Dzurinda's at least while he's in Washington. Two years ago, when Mr. Dzurinda was busy privatizing the Slovak economy, Mr. Meciar said privatization had little support among the people, but that foreign pressure was making it inevitable. Now, he says, it has support, and he and his party will continue the privatization reforms of Mr. Dzurinda. He is also calling for integration into NATO and the European Union, stability of Slovakia's currency and economy, increase in foreign trade and investment and the support of small and medium-size businesses.

But even if he has been able to make himself sound more enthusiastic about capitalism, he hasn't been able to lose his martyr complex. In a recent visit to Washington, he told The Washington Times what he felt he was up against: "I am the only human being in Slovakia whose house has been blown up by government forces," he said, referring to a government raid in the morning of April 20, 2000, on his house, about 80 minutes from Bratislava. They came to take him away for questioning because he failed to respond to a subpoena on charges that he misused his authority as prime minister to pay bonuses to members of his Cabinet. The investigation has since been halted on the grounds that such pay-offs could not be considered criminal, and Mr. Meciar says that now "the only thing I am afraid of is God." But despite his claims that he hasn't heard the accusations that his leadership of Slovakia did, and could again, prevent his country from joining NATO, he has to face the fact that he and his party do not enjoy favor with the West.

"We are under the impression that someone has stolen from us the revolution," he said. Or perhaps it is his three poor performances so far that have stolen the Mr. Meciar of Velvet Revolution fame.

Slovakia has come a long way in the last four years under Mr. Dzurinda. Democratic and economic reforms have been able to make significant headway, and U.S.-Slovak relations have flourished under his administration. Slovakia went from 90 percent of the population against NATO ascension under Mr. Meciar in 1997 to a majority of the population supporting NATO membership under Mr. Dzurinda now. It would be a shame if Slovakian nostalgia gets in the way of giving Slovakia a prominent place in the international political and defense community.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. E-mail: smeans@washingtontimes.com.

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