Brno, Czech Republic – The “Slovak Putin”, “the Trump of Slovakia” or “the actual head of Slovak organised crime”…these are only a handful of the ways commonly used to describe Slovakia’s former Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar who, after years of retirement, has decided to make a come-back to politics and create a new party.
One Slovak reporter from the local Sme daily concisely summed up Meciar in this way: “He was a thief, a liar and a criminal. Other than these, he was also a politician”.
Former Slovak PM Meciar eyeing political come-back
To understand why the news of Meciar’s possible return to politics has made such a fuss around Slovakia, one must understand just how controversial his past political career has been. During the chaotic post-communist years, Meciar took the reins of the country – at three occasions between 1990 and 1998 – at a critical and pivotal time in the history of Slovakia, overseeing such significant decisions and issues like the dissolution of Czechoslovakia (without a referendum nor any kind of popular vote), the application to NATO and EU memberships, the worsening of Slovak-Hungarian relations, and many more.
Meciar was part of the old political elite, a former member of the communist party of Czechoslovakia who graduated as a lawyer. Under the communist years, he was at times an outspoken critic of the Soviet regime, including following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. He came into the spotlight after 1989, when he became the Minister of Interior and Environment of Slovakia (a rather strange position). Being picked out and recommended by Alexander Dubcek (the father of the 1968 Prague Spring and a popular figure in Slovakia), many people were hopeful that Meciar would bring about some important changes for the future of the country.
The controversial 1993 split of Czechoslovakia
The first controversy and to this day, the one large parts of the population will never forgive him for (along with Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus) was the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Although he promised a referendum through which people could voice their opinion, this never happened. According to most of the polls at that time, most Czechs and Slovaks were in favour of safeguarding Czechoslovakia, albeit acknowledging that a number of reforms were needed, leading to a widespread observation that the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was a top-down decision made behind closed doors by two single politicians deciding of the fate of more than 10 million people.
According to analysts, the leaders of the two largest parties tried to avoid any public interference, arguing the federation would have dissolved anyway because of entrenched social, economic and political reasons and brought apart by an alleged mutual dislike between Czechs and Slovaks. As it turned out, this was more of a populist rhetoric than a real fact-based assessment of the situation at the time. The truth is, both Meciar and Klaus wanted to rule alone… which they sure did.
Meciar’s autocratic rule in the late 1990’s
After the dissolution, Meciar became the Prime Minister of Slovakia from 1994 to 1998. Those years are now known as the Meciarizmus days, when Meciar and his party had a majority in parliament and ruled in complete disregard for the opposition and rights of minorities. Let’s be blunt: in the second half of the 1990’s, Slovakia was on the verge of becoming an autocratic country, in a similar vein to Orban’s Hungary nowadays. Meciar’s rule was authoritarian, nationalistic and radical.
Meciar attempted to change how electoral rules before the 1998 election (thankfully, that didn’t happen), didn’t shy away from utterly illegal practices (the kidnapping of the president’s son, his political amnesties ,the murder of Robert Remias and more). Human rights and freedoms, basic tenets of democracy, liberalism… all of those were more or less ignored by Meciar, leading Slovakia into an illiberal state of affairs that blocked, for years, any hopes for the country to join the Western alliance (and the reason why Slovakia didn’t join NATO at the same time as Visegrad allies Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, but only a few years later).
Meciar’s return to politics is dangerous for Slovakia
To this day, Meciar denies any wrongdoing and claims he didn’t do anything wrong. Even when he stole the documents of the StB (the Czechoslovak secret police) in order to throw out or rearrange files that mentioned his name and his actions when he was a member of the communist party. Even after the kidnapping of the president’s son, the mistrust he sowed between the Czechs and Slovaks, his manipulation of the political system and authoritarian tendencies, he still denies any sort of wrongdoing. This sort of rhetoric is often used by current populist politicians, and Meciar could have in some way heralded the rise of illiberal politicians we witness today, from Budapest to Moscow or even Washington.
Which is why his return to politics is dangerous.
The icing on the cake is the fact that one of the members of his new party will allegedly be his close friend from the Slovak intelligence agency (SIS), Ivan Lexa, the former head of the agency who allowed Meciar to get away with his illegal behavior in the late 1990’s, including the kidnapping and murder of key witnesses to the kidnapping.
Slovakia during the 1990’s was a dangerous place, including due to the strength and power of organized crime. But this situation was allowed from the top by Meciar and his connections, prompting many Slovaks to describe the former PM as the actual boss of the Slovak mafia and underworld. My own hometown of Dunajska Streda was no exception and was rocked by horrific crimes, such as the mass killing in 1999 (a year after Meciar lost the elections and shakedowns started), possibly the largest mass murder in Slovak modern history.
There is so much more to say about Vladimir Meciar and his rule. But to be concise, it was a time when liberalism and democratic values took a backseat to authoritarianism and illegality. It should be a stark reminder for everyone just how fickle a democracy can be, as what can be observed today in Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
Slovakia has been much better off since Meciar, since then joining NATO and the EU and reintegrating the democratic and liberal European order – even though the roots of corruption, cronyism and authoritarian tendencies haven’t been completely torn off, as last year’s events have shown us. Although Meciar was part of a ruling coalition in 2006, his persona was overshadowed by Prime Minister Robert Fico and Jan Slota (a notorious nationalist and anti-Hungarian politician).
Who knows what Meciar’s party might bring into Slovak politics if it truly takes off. He might take away votes from other extremist parties (like Kotleba’s neo-Nazi party or the nationalist SNS), balancing the political spectrum and giving more room to other more progressive or centrist parties. On the other hand, he might attempt to create another populist monster that would dominate the other side of the political spectrum, endangering the tenets of democracy in Slovakia again. The only thing a voter can do is to think rationally before voting because, in a democracy, every vote matter.
Written by Mark Szabo
An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. To check out his latest articles, it’s right here!