WORLD

Return of the old guard

A Communist-turned-populist is poised to regain power

BRUCE WALLACE October 10 1994
WORLD

Return of the old guard

A Communist-turned-populist is poised to regain power

BRUCE WALLACE October 10 1994

Return of the old guard

ASSIGNMENT

A Communist-turned-populist is poised to regain power

BRUCE WALLACE

Like the Western politicians he so despises, Vladimir Meciar arrives for his political rally in the northern Slovak town of Zilina riding in a speeding cavalcade of black sedans, screeching to a halt just inches from the waiting crowd. His entourage, bodyguards in Italian-cut suits with slicked-back hair, spring from the cars, their Ray-Bans swivelling to catch any signs of trouble. But campaigning in the Slovak heartland, Meciar, architect of his country’s independence and the frontrunner to regain the prime minister’s office in this month’s elections, is among friends. Pens are pressed into his hand for autographs, girls kiss his ruddy cheeks, and one middleaged woman is so overwhelmed by Meciar’s presence that she cries uncontrollably.

“Only he can protect us,” sobs Anna Wilikova, a 44-year-old construction worker.

From what? “From the Hungarians and the Gypsies,” she explains, a sneer curling her lips as the tears are wiped away. “They are here. Soon, we Slovaks will be a minority in Slovakia, and they will have more rights than us.” How does Wilikova know that? Is that what Meciar tells her? A look of scorn crosses

her face at the naïveté of the question. “Everybody knows that,” she says bluntly. In Slovak politics, nationalist prejudices and ethnic tensions

are never far below the surface. And Vladimir Meciar knows exactly how to fuel those emotions. “He has an excellent, evil, political mind,” says Zuzana Szatmary of Charter 77, a prominent human rights organization, at her office in Bratislava, Slovakia’s dilapidated cap-

ital. Opinion polls bear her out. Heading into the Oct. 1 election, Meciar was the country’s most popular politician by far, expecting to win about 25 per cent of the vote. The current government—a coalition of Meciar’s enemies that mustered enough nonconfidence votes to expel him from the prime minister’s office

last March, before falling apart itself—will be even harder pressed to form a government without him.

Meciar remains the single most powerful

force in the 21-month-old Slovak Republic— the survivor of countless backroom battles and political splits. His Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is little more than a vehicle for his personal cult: “Meciarbrand” coffee is handed out at rallies, and he stars in the music video of his theme song, Vivat Slovakia, a shameless knock-off of We Are the World in which he and several HZDS candidates sing along, headphones pressed to their ears. Older women, now known as “Democratic Grandmothers” after an incident where some of them physically attacked journalists critical of Meciar, are among his most fervent supporters. A Communist-tumed-populist, Meciar, 52, has profited from the authoritarian temptation that survives in the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe. “Young countries like ours need strong leaders,” says 27-year-old stockbroker Juraj Ondris. ‘Too much democracy can tie up important decisions for months.”

In many East European countries, where living standards fell along with the Berlin Wall, that has meant a second life for former Communist politicians and others who held powerful positions in the Cold War era. Even in the bustling Czech Republic next door, where there is a true believers’ rush to the free market, politics is dominated by one personality: Prime Minister Václav Klaus, a domineering strongman whose senior aides include a number of members of the old guard. The question of whether the gospel of democracy can take hold in Eastern

Europe is far from settled. “You cannot change the attitudes of millions of people in a couple of years,” says Dr. Peter Huncik, a Bratislava psychiatrist and political activist. “The previous system turned out the Socialist Man. We are still not comfortable taking individual responsibility for our lives. When things go bad, we think about the good old socialist times and look for a leader similar to the authoritarianism of the Communists.”

Inside Zilina’s sports complex, a nationalist celebration shows just how Meciar plans to fill the postCommunist void and restore a sense of purpose to the lives of his fellow Slovaks. “Slovakia—Go for it” is his campaign slogan, and the evening begins with a lounge singer belting out Vivat Slovakia. That is followed by two women in national costume offering Meciar the traditional greeting of bread and salt, the reading of a poem urging listeners to protect the land of their grandfathers, and the singing of another patriotic song with pastoral images of mountains, streams and birdsong. Finally,

Meciar is presented with roses by a toddler described as “the first girl born in a free Slovakia.” When Meciar tries to cuddle the girl, she pulls away, and he uses the moment to point out to the crowd that, like Slovakia, “she doesn’t want to be in strange hands.”

The rally shows why the country’s Hungarian minority, roughly 11 per cent of Slovakia’s 5.3 million people

and concentrated along the southern border with Hungary, is nervous about the possibility of Meciar returning to power. Over the next hour, Meciar hammers home his theme that Slovakia needs stability and unity if it is to prosper. Only he can deliver those conditions, he says, because his opponents are ready to make an alliance with the coalition of Hungarian parties, which are expected to tum a tribal-based vote into one per cent of the seats in the new parliament.

Meciar will not kowtow to the Hungarian minority’s demands for more local autonomy, even though it was similar Czech intolerance towards the Slovaks’ desire for more power that led to the breakup of Czechoslovakia. The last time he was in power, Meciar banned the Hungarian language from official documents and declared public signs for Hungarian place names illegal, bulldozing down any that violated the law. Resentment of Hungarians is rooted in the region’s history. Slovaks were under the sway of Hungary for nearly 1,000 years, and they remember their own poor treatment as a minority. But the current generation of Slovaks has a “panic disorder towards Hungarians,” says Huncik.

Invoking the duplicity of enemies has

always fuelled Meciar’s political career. His targets include Gypsies, whom he once suggested were “socially unadaptable and mentally backward.” And his rise to power after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which he played a minor role, was based on his crusade against Czech dominance. In 1992, he found an ally of convenience in Klaus, who seized upon Meciar’s independence drive as an opportunity to rid the Czech Republic of Slovakia’s subsidy-dependent economy of largely outmoded heavy industries. Unlike the Czechs—who have rushed into the arms of Western commercialism with an alacrity that alarms such critics as dissident playwright-turned-president Václav Havel— Slovaks remain comfortable gazing eastward to Russia, Ukraine, and even China. Meciar wants to slow the privatization of the Slovak economy, arguing that foreigners should not be allowed to buy up the country’s assets at fire-sale prices.

That hostility to opening the Slovak market has been a drag on foreign investment: such multinational icons as McDonald’s may be well-established elsewhere in the region, but they have yet to gain a toehold in the Slovak market. And in many parts of the country, particularly outside the capital,

Meciar’s refusal to court Western money men strikes a powerful chord. “As a businessman, I want to see privatization push ahead,” says broker Ondris, adding that a $5-million deal he is now negotiating with a British investor will be cancelled if Meciar returns to power. “But as a Slovak, I often think Meciar may be right. The Czechs rushed to sell everything and now the Germans own huge parts of their economy. Maybe in the long run we will be better off.” For now, however, Slovaks are paying the price of their political confusion, well aware that their international reputation lags behind the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians. “Even Slovak hockey has declined in quality since independence,” says Dusan Kralik, a former national team defenceman who keeps a photo of himself with an Edmonton Oiler-era Wayne Gretzky on his office desk.

Meciar uses that image of a tiny, embattled nation to his advantage. But the political divide in Slovakia does not simply pit nationalists against Europeans, or reactionaries against reformers. It is also a lesslofty power struggle in an insular society—one in which personal rivalries, grudges and shifting alliances are all at play and may, in fact, result in a coalition that keeps Meciar out of power. But his campaign, with its intolerance and paranoiac appeals to ethnicity, illustrates the difficulties democracy faces in taking root amid the ashes of the Iron Curtain. □