As one of the most prominent of politicians in a newly de-Communized Eastern Europe, Slovak leader Vladimir Meciar (born 1942) has been called the "architect of his country's independence, " but has also faced criticism for his role in the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia.
Vladimir Meciar, a lawyer and onetime Communist, rose to political power after the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 that ousted decades of socialist, pro-Soviet leadership in Czechoslovakia. Held as a heroic figure among some segments of the Slovak electorate, Meciar has held the prime minister position for the majority of the years since its split into the independent nation of Slovakia.
Meciar was born in 1942 in Zvolen, Czechoslovakia-in the Slovak region of the country-into a proletariat family where his mother, even after the rise to prominence of her son, worked as a janitor in a factory. He attended Comenius University in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, and first became involved in politics in 1959 when he was appointed to a clerk's position at the District National Committee for the community of Ziar nad Hronom.
From 1962 to 1968, he rose through Communist Party ranks in a number of bureaucratic jobs with the Slovakia Union of Youth. During this era, Meciar, like many young Czecholovaks, became a staunch supporter of the democratic reforms of Alexander Dubcek, the Communist Party's extremely popular reformist leader. That spirit of change was crushed when Russian tanks rolled across Czechoslovakia's borders in 1968 and Dubcek was ousted.
Meciar, too, was ousted from the Communist Party after a purge in 1968 that targeted liberal-leaning communists. At this point, he began studying law, and worked at an industrial job, as many similarly-fired bureaucrats were forced to do during the 1970s. After 1973 he was employed as a clerk, then a lawyer, for a firm called Skloobal, located in Nemsova. It was a post he held until his re-entry into politics in 1989.
Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution occurred not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ousting of Communist leadership in East Germany. During the tumultuous weeks that followed, Meciar became active in a Slovak group called Public Against Violence, one of the two main organized forces behind a peaceful change in government for Czechoslovakia. The once-jailed playwright Vaclav Havel, along with other prominent artists and writers who were members of the other main opposition group, the Civic Forum, stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum left by the ouster of the Communists.
In 1990, Meciar became a deputy in House of Nations for the new-era Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, and was also appointed Minister of Interior and Environment for Slovakia, which at this point was still one-half of the nation now known as the Czechoslovak Federation. When the first free elections were held in June of 1990, Meciar campaigned for and won the post of Slovakia's prime minister.
As its top statesperson, Meciar soon became the point-person for the Slovak state's long-simmering problems with the neighboring Czech republic. The two Slavic ethnic groups were closely related by language, but divided culturally, and Czechoslovakia itself had only been in existence as a nation since the end of World War I. For centuries the Czechs had often tied their fortunes to the rest of Western Europe, especially to Germany, their next-door neighbor. Its capital, Prague, was a Baroque treasure and center for the country's spirited intellectual and artistic movements.
Slovakia and its people, on the other hand, were more closely allied with the rest of the true Eastern Europe. It possessed rich agricultural lands, and during the years of Communist rule was sometimes treated shabbily by the leadership in Prague. The landscape of Slovakia was heavily industrialized during this era, but still retained its "peasant" character. Indeed, Slovaks were often the butt of Czech jokes, while the Czechs were viewed by Slovaks as arrogant and untrustworthy.
These long-simmering tensions came to a crisis point in the early 1990s, when Meciar and other politicians from each side tried to chart a course for their new nation. The Czechs wished for faster de-communization and heartily welcomed Western-style free-market capitalism. They were also eager to lure lucrative foreign investment, which some patriotic Slovaks were loathe to see in their part of the country.
By this point Meciar had began to earn criticism for his sometimes heavy-handed political style that mimicked the excesses of authoritarian Communist rule. It was alleged he had ties to right-wing movements, and had been able to have his internal-security police files destroyed during his stint as interior minister. Later, when the man who succeeded him in the post moved to eradicate the secret police-counterparts to the Soviet KGB-Meciar told him to resign, and when he refused, Meciar sharply curtailed the minister's authority. He also threatened to step away from his prime minister's post, but received an outpouring of public support.
Still, Meciar's opponents voted him out of power in April of 1991, but he won a resounding share of votes in the 1992 elections as leader of a new political party, Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za Demokraticke Slovensko, known as HzDS). This party campaigned for independence from Czechoslovak Federation, and found fault with the new Prague-based Czech leadership-an administration viewed with suspicion by less-politically aware Slovaks. With their arms factories closing and many out of work for the first time in their lives, the Slovaks faced economic hardships as a result of the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union. This was highly in contrast to the heady new Prague, where Western advertising agencies were opening offices and sports bars catered to a large American expatriate community. The idea of self-determination, for an independent Slovakia, grew in power over the next year. The Czechoslovak Federation came to an end officially on January 1, 1993, when the Slovak Republic came into being.
Another important zone of Slovak politics that has served Meciar's political career well is the country's border with Hungary, which is home to most of the ten percent of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia. "In Slovak politics, nationalist prejudices and ethnic tensions are never far below the surface, " wrote Bruce Wallace in Maclean's. "Meciar knows exactly how to fuel those emotions."
Tensions between the two lands had existed for a thousand years, with the Hungarians usually prevailing, but during Meciar's era Slovakia seemed to be collecting a past-due debt. The Hungarian populace in Slovakia was a legacy from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prior to the empire's fall in 1918, neither Slovakia nor Czechoslovakia existed as independent nations, but were simply subjects of the Empire; the Hapsburg leaders in Vienna had instituted a "Magyarization" plan in the decades prior to that as its authority slid into decline. Under this homogenization program, the Slovak language was forbidden.
A peaceful co-existence and tolerance was apparent in the actual Slovak towns and villages that were heavily Hungarian, but Meciar's agitating of dormant ethnic rivalries ended that era. During Meciar's 1992-94 term, he forbade the use of the Hungarian language on any official documents, and even ordered that Hungarian road signs be removed. Furthermore, the region's desire for less inference in local affairs from Bratislava-the government seat of Slovakia-was sometimes seen as a push for increased autonomy there.
Meciar has also slandered the Gypsies, a common target of ethnic prejudice in Eastern Europe. These and other actions caused him, once again, to be ousted from his prime minister position in March of 1994 by a coalition of his political foes. The anti-Meciar block then fell apart, leaving a leadership vacuum by which Meciar again profited. In October of that year, he and the HzDS received a majority of the vote in the general elections. He campaigned under the slogan, "Slovakia-Go for It, " and the party made a music video that featured he and other HzDS candidates singing in a type of "We Are the World" anthem called "Vivat Slovakia." Despite the MTV-style television ads, Meciar's biggest support base lies with Slovakia's older generation; political analysts have even dubbed his most ardent fans the "Democratic Grandmothers"-babushka-clad women who turn out in full force at his public appearances. Once, a few of them even attempted to thrash some liberal journalists who had written unfavorably about Meciar.
A member of the renowned human-rights group Charter 77 told Maclean's journalist Wallace, that Meciar "has an excellent, evil, political mind." In 1996, the son of his political foe, Slovak president Michal Kovac, was kidnapped, and it was suspected that the Slovak Intelligence Service was involved, which one of Meciar's top aides is also the head of. Yet Meciar's HzDS party retains firm control of Slovakia's state-run television network, and its news reports aired allegations that the whole abduction was a publicity stunt by the Kovac family when it was verified that the kidnapped had landed in legal trouble and was the target of a fraud investigation in Germany.
Meciar's authority has also extended into attempts to censor media outlets that have criticized him and the HzDS. In 1997 he tried to increase the value-added tax on magazines and newspapers-except for those that carry less than ten percent advertising in its page content, such as his party's organ, Slovenska Republika. That same year, the independent station Radio Twist went off the air for a day after its transmission was halted by the state-controlled telecommunications agency. The agency asserted that Radio Twist was behind in its transmission fees-but the state-run television station was in far greater arrears.
That same year, Meciar proposed to his Hungarian counterpart that minorities be exchanged, a move that was roundly criticized by the international community. Because of these engineered tensions, Slovakia was not asked to join the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Still, such actions do not appear to diminish Meciar's popularity at home. He has won more general elections than any other new-era leader in post-communist Europe, a remarkable accomplishment in a part of the world where newly-democratic citizens are still testing out their political clout at the ballot box.
Meciar's autocratic style has seemed to be an increasing thorn in Slovak politics, however, and his popularity may be on the wane. He attempted to consolidate his power by taking over the presidential post in March of 1998 after Kovac resigned. The Slovak Parliament voted for a number of candidates to succeed Kovac, but none received a majority. In the intervening weeks Meciar held presidential power himself, and fired most of the staff of the executive office. Another of his presidential decrees granted amnesty to the suspects jailed for the kidnapping of Michael Kovac Jr.; this and other acts were protested in peaceful street demonstrations.
Detroit Free Press, January 15, 1997.
Economist, November 15, 1997, p. 54; February 7, 1998, p. 55.
Interpress Service, May 21, 1996.
Maclean's, October 10, 1994, p. 28.
New York Times, October 12, 1997.
Prague Post, April 8, 1998.
Sydney Morning Herald, March 7, 1998.