In a startling coup de theatre, armed police in black combat gear and ski masks used explosives to raid the home of former premier Vladimír Mečiar in Trenčianske Teplice, on the morning of Thursday 20 April. The leader of the country’s most popular political party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), was arrested, and has since been charged with corruption. The charges relate to the payment of illegal bonuses totalling SKK (Slovak Koruna) 13.9 million (USD 315,000) to cabinet colleagues, during his two terms in office in the 1990s. Mečiar had been holed-up in his family-owned penzion, the Elektra Inn, for four weeks. He was also fined SKK 10,000 (USD 225) for refusing to answer questions in connection with the 1995 abduction of Michal Kováč Jr, the son of the former President.
Police units took up positions around the Mečiar property, just after eight o’clock in the morning. The house was stormed after repeated calls to open the door were ignored. The police blew open one door with explosives and used axes to open the second. They then ordered those inside the building to lie down. Mečiar did not resist arrest, and as he was led away he called to a small crowd of supporters, "Don’t be afraid, I also am not afraid." One Mečiar supporter is reported to have shouted at police, "You seized him just before Easter. Just like Jesus Christ."
Vladimír Mečiar was released after two-and-a-half hours of questioning at a police station in Bratislava. Chief Investigator Jaroslav Ivor told reporters, "The investigator has charged Vladimír Mečiar with abuse of power by a public official and fraud. This concerns criminal activity where the law assumes jail terms of three to ten years."
A pro-Mečiar demonstration in front of the government office on Freedom Square in Bratislava attracted between 1500 and 6000 protestors, with estimates varying according to the political hue of the sources. The Czech Press Agency, ČTK, reported that demonstrators chanted the slogan, "Pittner (the Minister of the Interior) is Hitler." The chairwoman of the Slovak National Party, Anna Malíková, made a speech at the rally demanding the resignation of the government. Parliament will debate the police action against Mečiar, in an extraordinary session to be held next Thursday. It will also consider an opposition proposal to dismiss Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner. A small bomb was thrown into the compound of the Interior Ministry on Thursday night, according to ministry sources. No sone was injured, but there was some damage to a car.
The day before his arrest, Mečiar called on his fellow citizens to take to the streets to protest against the government. "It may be the right time to take to the streets and tell the government we do not want it. It is the first opportunity to say through slogans and our presence: We are fed up! We do not want (Premier Mikuláš) Dzurinda!" he said in an interview on Hviezda Radio. In January of this year, members of the current government coalition agreed to return almost SKK three million (USD 700,000) in bonuses paid to cabinet ministers in December 1999, after it was discovered the payments had been made illegally. [for the UK media's reaction to Mečiar's arrest, click HERE]
Luxembourg has introduced mandatory visas for Slovak citizens, as of Thursday 20 April. This follows Belgium’s introduction of visas earlier this month (see last week’s Slovakia News Review). A spokesman for the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry’s visa department said, "It was more or less a preventive measure, as we have not registered many (Slovak) asylum-seekers."
The Netherlands could be the next Western European country to introduce a visa requirement for Slovaks, in a bid to curb asylum-seekers. The country’s Justice Ministry has said it was monitoring the situation carefully, although the signs are that the numbers are abating.
On Tuesday, the Belgian authorities began giving notice to Slovak asylum-seekers that their applications had been turned-down, and they would have to leave the country. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said this related to around 1500 people, all of them of Romani origin. Premier Mikuláš Dzurinda admitted that the Luxembourg decision was "annoying." Dzurinda said Slovakia would continue to co-operate with the EU in solving the Romani "problem." He went on to say: "It is one thing to eliminate the possibility of abuse of the asylum system and another to solve this problem in its essence."
The great fear for the government is that the issue of asylum-seekers will damage or delay Slovakia’s bid for membership of the European Union. Last week, the EU Commissioner for Integration, Gunter Verheugen, said Slovakia was catching up with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and could be in the first group of former communist countries to join. He was speaking after a meeting in Brussels on Monday with Slovakia’s Vice-Premier for Integration, Pavol Hamžík. Verheugen expressed a hope that the Visegrad Four countries could join the EU as early as 2003, although he could not guarantee that this was a realistic target date. "I am really happy about the Commission’s support for our catch-up strategy," Hamžík commented, "Our goal is to join the EU in the first group." Slovakia dropped behind its Central European neighbours in 1997, when the Commission issued a report criticising the then government of Vladimír Mečiar and put the country’s application on the back burner.
The political fall-out from the recent failed parliamentary no-confidence vote against Premier Dzurinda continued to reverberate through government circles. Several members of the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), including the SDĽ Chairman and Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš, joined the opposition in voting against Dzurinda, despite the SDĽ being a member of the Government coalition (see last week’s Slovakia News Review for more on this). A meeting of the national committee of the SDĽ on Saturday 15 April reaffirmed its confidence in Migaš, rejecting earlier calls for his resignation. The Speaker continues to call for a cabinet reshuffle, opening a clear division within his party. An opinion poll by the Polis agency suggested that 51.4 percent of SDĽ voters would like to see Migaš stand down as Speaker.
The origin of much of the dissension within the ranks of the SDĽ lies in the party’s disastrous performance in recent opinion polls. A poll published this week by the Institute for Public Opinion research shows SDĽ support down to 5.9 percent, which is less than one percent above the five percent qualifying threshold for representation in Parliament. Even the country’s most popular party, the HZDS, has seen its support dropping by five percent over the past month, to 25.5 percent. One man holds the key to this apparent volatility. Former SDĽ member Robert Fico’s Smer party was launched only last year but now attracts the support of 23.2 percent of Slovak voters, if the poll is to be believed. Premier Dzurinda’s Slovak Democratic and Christian Union polled 13 percent, the Hungarian Coalition Party 8.3 percent and the Slovak National Party 7.4 percent.
The reliability of such polls has often been questioned in the past, but they come thick and fast, attracting a great deal of coverage in the Slovak media. In a comment on Smer’s showing in the polls, the tabloid Nový Cas wrote this week, "It seems that Fico’s tactic bears fruit. Slovak voters let themselves be charmed by his shallowness, obscurity and unlimited populism."
The Slovak National Bank (NBS) has suspended the board of the Slovak Credit Bank (SKB) and placed it in the hands of a caretaker administrator. The NBS blamed the bank’s deteriorating financial situation, which has resulted in liquidity problems. SKB will now be restricted in handling deposits, providing loans and other services. It is the third Slovak bank to be put under a caretaker administrator in recent years.
Robin Sheeran, 21 April 2000
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