The Slow Strangulation of Democracy in Slovakia

"Invitations to NATO are open to all countries that have democratic systems of government, market economy, civilian control over military, and where there is a sign that the democratic system is working."

~ U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

NATO and the European Union (EU) have invariably approached the subject of admitting new members by making a lot of official noise about the level of democracy and "free market" economics in candidate states. NATO admitted Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary amid great fanfare concerning each country’s progress toward the rule of law, the market, and so forth. The fourth country in line for consideration, Slovakia, was left out, ostensibly for failing to live up to NATO’s high standards. In reality, most Slovaks evidently opposed both NATO membership and "privatization" on Western terms. In return for an expression of popular will that swam against the tide of Western strategic designs, Slovakia received a heavy barrage of accusations from Western capitals that its government was undemocratic and "anti-reform."

In light of NATO’s mutation from an anti-Soviet defense pact to a warmongering bully, Slovaks should feel proud they were left out. However, the current pro-Western regime in Slovakia has pursued closer ties with NATO and the EU, something the previous government, led by the nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, had been reluctant to do. The present government came to power after the West had politically isolated Slovakia for several years as a "problem child" in the heart of Europe.

In the 1998 elections, although HZDS received a majority of votes and remained the biggest and most popular party in Slovakia, the government of its leader, Vladimir Meciar, was brought down because none of the other parties would join with HZDS to form a government, obviously fearing Western indignation. These smaller parties joined together in coalition, and a new, more pro-Western government was formed. The West hailed the change as a step in the right direction. Yet, since the replacement of the nationalist Meciar government, Slovakia has witnessed a pattern of developments all too familiar in the domestic affairs of former East Bloc states that have turned geopolitically toward the West. The Slovak government’s policies are steadily creating the opposite of the political and economic ideal the West sanctimoniously claims to stand for, while the West maintains a silence that must be deafening to the residents of the small republic. Far from being a place where, in the words of Madeleine Albright, "democracy is working," Slovakia is quickly degenerating into the sort of squalid, Carpathian parody of a socially just state that typified the region during the period of Soviet occupation.


From 1994-1998, Slovakia was led by Vladimir Meciar’s government. Meciar had been expelled from the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1969 for protesting against the Prague Spring and the ensuing crackdown. In mid-1990, Meciar became prime minister in the new Slovak government, falling from power in 1991, then returning in 1992. His HZDS repeatedly proved the most popular political party in Slovakia, winning a majority of seats in the parliament in 1992, in spite of wide-scale Western-backed propaganda effort against him.

Meciar had survived a serious libel campaign in Czechoslovakia prior to the break-up – but not unscathed. Once it became clear that Meciar was pursuing a nationalist agenda for Slovakia that did not fit with the EU’s vision for Central Europe, rumors began circulating that he had once collaborated with the regime of Communist Czechoslovakia. Operatives of the Communist Czechoslovak secret police (StB) and Ministry of the Interior made the allegations which, although unsubstantiated, harmed Meciar’s reputation. He sued in the courts in Prague, winning in the lower court, but losing in the court of appeal.

The Western-sponsored media campaign against Meciar shifted into high gear shortly after Czechoslovakia broke into two separate states. A number of Western-financed newspapers in Slovakia accused Meciar of dictatorship, corruption, censorship and racism. Meciar again lost the premiership in March 1994, but bounced back to power when the HZDS won the most votes in the Slovak parliamentary elections of September that year. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), usually quick to condemn parties and candidates who refuse to toe the West’s line 100% in their geopolitical stance, could find little to seriously criticize about the campaign. The HZDS formed a coalition government with the right-wing Slovak National Party and the Slovak Workers’ Party.

By 1998, the Meciar government’s resistance to Western-prescribed privatization had earned it universal Western condemnation. In other ex-Soviet Bloc countries, privatization had brought tremendous profits for Western investors, who often ended up on the boards of new ventures formed from privatized enterprises. In the case of Slovakia, preachy Western castigation of Meciar’s economic policies did not enjoy the benefit of inordinately high inflation rates or stagnation. Slovakia’s inflation rate was comparable to Hungary’s and the Czech Republic’s, and markedly lower than Poland’s, while economic growth had exceeded 5% a year for four years. In reality, Western governments undoubtedly made Meciar a pariah for his reluctance to sell Slovakia’s assets at bargain-basement prices to Western investors at the expense of ordinary Slovaks. The EU and NATO accordingly denied Slovakia consideration for membership.

Another unfounded Western accusation against Meciar concerned the rights of Slovakia’s ethnic minorities. No widespread discontent with Meciar was evident among the significant Hungarian or other minorities under Meciar’s tenure. Conversely, one of the most prominent opposition figures of the 1998 parliamentary election, former Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee member Rudolf Schuster, had engineered blatant ethnic segregation as mayor of Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city. Schuster, whose Society of Civic Understanding (SOP) party has experienced no shortage of funds from mysterious sources, was already notorious for having forcibly rounded up the Roma inhabitants of central Kosice and herded them into an old military compound called Lunik 9. The objective was to separate the Romanie from the "white" population, and the victims rightly blamed Schuster, not Meciar, for their suffering. Strangely, despite universal condemnation of the pre-Mandela regime in South Africa, Western governments said nothing about Schuster’s Slovakian "apartheid" after he became head of state.

Despite endless foreign criticism of Meciar and the consequent defections from his camp, the HZDS won a plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections of 1998. Far from attempting to cling to power or employ "dictatorial" methods, as many foreign and Slovak opposition figures predicted, Meciar resigned from office, peacefully handing power over to the new coalition of smaller parties. The Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) received just over 26% of the vote, and its leader, Mikulas Dzurinda, became prime minister.

The array of parties forming the new coalition after the 1998 elections claimed under 59% of the vote. The coalition included the former Communist Party, renamed the Democratic Left Party (SDL), one of whose leading figures had said of Meciar: "It is impossible to think that he will leave office quietly." Meciar remained the most popular politician in the country, having received over half a million preference votes on the ballot. Oddly, a poll conducted on behalf of the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava showed 72% of Slovaks regarded Schuster, whose SOP had garnered just over 8% of the vote, as the "most trusted" politician in the country.


No sooner had the new government assumed power than it began dismissing hundreds of civil servants from their posts around the country. New Justice Minister Jan Carnogursky (one of the breed of Soviet-era dissidents who, like Vaclav Havel, mysteriously managed to live relatively well by the standards of the day) dismissed all district and regional court chairmen, claiming his actions would ensure an independent judiciary. Yet, as has been the case in many ex-Soviet Bloc states where the judiciary has been purged, this branch of government has become beholden to the ministerial organs, because the new "independent" judicial functionaries have become rather jittery about the prospect of losing their jobs.

The new government reopened a closed case involving the son of a former Slovak president, Michal Kovac, and opponent of HZDS. The former chief of intelligence (SIS) from the HZDS-led government, Ivan Lexa, was accused of having assisted in removing young Kovac (wanted by Interpol and the German police in connection with fraud and conspiracy charges) to Austria during the period of the previous government. The police investigation produced no substantial evidence or arrests, yet Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner made clear he would reinvestigate the case.

In December 1998 the Slovak government removed amnesties Meciar had granted to suspects in the Kovac kidnapping case in spring of that year, thus initiating the derailment of a rule-of-law state in Slovakia. Political revocation of amnesties – whatever the weight of evidence against suspects – paves the way for stripping elected legislators of parliamentary immunity, a cornerstone of the Western legal systems. Respect for amnesties is critical, therefore, to the integrity of a justice system. Once a recognized head of state has amnestied an accused citizen, violation of such amnesty by a subsequent government puts civil society on the slippery slope toward political arrests and show trials. The government of Slovakia seems content to overlook this fact, and at the end of 1998 Acting President Dzurinda canceled the amnesties of all suspects in the Kovac case. Lexa’s parliamentary immunity was also taken away in April 1999, prior to his arrest a few weeks later.

In February 1999, members of parliament from HZDS filed a motion with the Slovak Constitutional Court demanding a ruling on the constitutionality of Dzurinda’s revocation of the amnesties. In June 1999, the Court issued its ruling: the cancellation of amnesties indeed violated the Constitution. Even Justice Minister Carnogursky issued a statement the following month that Ivan Lexa would not be prosecuted, pursuant to the Court’s ruling. However, a few days later, the Chief Investigator of the Prosecutor-General’s Office declared that criminal proceedings against Lexa would continue anyway.

The new regime in Slovakia quickly set about purging ministries and official media, despite the fact that no such political firings of civil servants took place when Meciar’s government came to power in 1994. The Ministry of Culture was stacked with anti-Meciar functionaries to compensate for the broad support enjoyed by the ex-premier among the most prominent Slovak figures in the arts. Pro-government stooges were put on the television and radio boards to broadcast cheap Western programs. Thousands of people suspected of sympathy with the Meciar government were removed from their jobs in the year and a half since the Dzurinda government came to power. In the four years of the Meciar government’s tenure, the number of civil servants who lost their jobs numbered perhaps two hundred or so. The government now controls all economic and fiscal organs in the country, and can easily foil the business activities of political opponents or their friends.


The climate of fear created by the current government in Slovakia has resulted in an absence of opposition structures and institutions required for democratic government. Slovakia is merely one of the recent victims of the West’s hypocritical tendency to brand states whose populations have not voted the way it wanted them to as "undemocratic." Austria is only the latest example. Once the West has decided that the people of a particular country has voted in a way that – to quote US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger – reflects "shared values," it then turns a blind eye to what is going on there.

Recently a lawyer for Ivan Lexa, Juraj Trokan, was in Washington to bring attention to events in Slovakia. "The Slovak government is ignoring the rule of law," said Trokan. "Mr. Lexa’s basic human rights are not only being violated, but the government is waging a campaign against him." Trokan asked members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign a letter requesting that Prime Minister Dzurinda honor Lexa’s amnesty. Trokan is not an HZDS partisan. In fact, he was a member of the Democratic Party of Slovakia, until his expulsion for representing Lexa.

In July 1999, six members of the House submitted Concurrent Resolution 165 to the International Relations Committee stating, among other things, that the Slovak government was to be commended "for its efforts to address the issue of proper treatment of its citizens." In light of what is going on in Slovakia, the resolution constitutes little more than empty symbolism. One of the signatories of the resolution, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, has been a courageous critic of U.S. policy in Yugoslavia. It remains to be seen whether he will be as brave regarding Slovakia.

Whether or not the U.S. government decides to take a principled stand on Lexa’s case, the bigger picture – in Slovakia and elsewhere – will remain grim. Washington is busy praising the Slovak government for political "reforms," just as it has done with other republics that are political and judicial basket cases. The judicial abuse and witch-hunting in Slovakia is similar in many ways to what can be witnessed in the Republic of Georgia, described by Republican Senator John McCain as a "plucky little democracy" during one of the GOP presidential debates. In Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze has imprisoned and put on trial ministers from the previous, democratically elected government – using flimsy evidence and a callous disregard for procedural law. Americans and other Westerners hear nothing about these cases because they never visit the countries in question, and their media couldn’t care less.

And so Western governments continue their romance with ex-nomenklatura politicians everywhere, at the expense of democracy and the rule of law. In the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, photos of American diplomats in cheery poses with Rudolf Schuster long predated the former Communist’s rise to the presidency in 1999, giving Slovaks a little taste of the Animal Farm to come. This should be a source of shame for Americans as they look at what their leaders are doing in the former Soviet Bloc. But then, perhaps if Americans did take the time to look at what is going on overseas, they would be unable to make much sense of things anyway. For several years now it has been increasingly difficult – when looking from one to the other at Western political leaders with their ex-communist colleagues – to say which is which.

Chad Nagle is a lawyer and writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. He has observed the political and human rights situation in several countries on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

Author: Ira Glunts

Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, N.Y., where he operates a used and rare book business.