- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Former Slovakian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, whose comeback bid could torpedo his country's hopes of joining NATO, says he is the victim of double standards.

In an interview at the start of a weeklong U.S. visit, the nationalist ex-boxer who dominated his country's politics in the 1990s said Western critics are targeting him unfairly while overlooking others with anti-NATO records.

"Of course this is a concern to me because in this case it seems that you have the overall power of NATO put against one individual," said Mr. Meciar, whose opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS) is by far the country's most popular party in the polls going into September's election.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Meciar, 59, told The Washington Times that former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, now the European Union's foreign policy chief, was critical of the alliance when he was a practicing politician in Spain.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu, a former communist, "had some of the same things written about him that they say about me, and today everyone appears highly satisfied with him," Mr. Meciar complained.

U.S. and NATO officials have made it increasingly clear, however, that they still harbor deep doubts about Mr. Meciar.

His stints in power before being ousted in 1998 were marked by continuing strife over his government's treatment of minorities, its respect for the courts and the press, and the reported use of intelligence services to harass political opponents. Several scandals related to Slovakia's privatization campaign after the end of communist rule also exploded during Mr. Meciar's terms in office.

Mr. Meciar's opponents at home, including the shaky coalition government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, essentially hold him personally responsible for Slovakia's failure to be invited into NATO in the first round of enlargement at the 1997 summit in Madrid.

"We have been foes since 1990," said Slovak State Secretary Jan Figel, who is in charge of his government's efforts to join both NATO and the EU. "We don't trust him."

Despite Mr. Meciar's repeated statements in support of NATO membership for Slovakia, the distrust is shared by the Bush administration.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, on a visit to Bratislava late last month, bluntly warned: "The former government, we believe, did not demonstrate a clear commitment to democracy and the rule of law. … There is no evidence that the leadership of that party has changed and that remains the fundamental concern of our government."

Slovakia holds elections Sept. 21. A month later, the EU countries will vote on expansion, and a month after that, NATO holds a summit on enlargement in Prague.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has been only slightly more circumspect, saying Slovaks "voting in the parliamentary elections must do so with their eyes open and take into account that just a few weeks later, NATO will be taking another decision in Prague."

In the interview, Mr. Meciar made few apologies for his record in government, saying charges by human rights groups that he abused his power and curtailed democratic freedom were unfounded.

k Meciar was dismissive of the current Slovak government, saying the unwieldy collection of anti-Meciar parties had mismanaged the budget, failed to push through needed economic reforms and left unemployment far higher than when he was in office.

Pollsters say Mr. Meciar's party controls just less than a third of the electorate, but political analysts note that the most likely outcome of the September vote would be another coalition of smaller, anti-Meciar parties.

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