Velvet divorcee who dominated post-revolution Slovak politics, 1942-
Vladimir Meciar holds a singular place among the post-communist figures of Central and Eastern Europe. The colorful ex-boxer was the most powerful, popular Slovak politician through the first decade of transition – despite presiding over an economic free fall, inciting ethnic tensions and so alienating Western allies that the country’s NATO and the European Union entry was threatened. He remains an influential figure, thanks to his unswerving base of older rural voters unhappy with the changes since 1989, and for the last three years he has been a junior partner in the country’s ruling coalition.
Ambitious and boasting strong anti-regime credentials – part of Prague Spring reform leader Alexander Dubcek’s circle of supporters, he was purged from the Czechoslovak Communist Party after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion – Meciar rode the Velvet Revolution to prominence as an active member of the Slovak opposition movement Public Against Violence (VPN). At Dubcek’s recommendation, he was appointed to a cabinet post, then won election as premier in June 1990. Within a year his increasingly authoritarian behavior led VPN to oust him, but he formed a new party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), and returned to power in 1992 as bitter disputes flared over the future of the Czechoslovak federation. Meciar’s demands of the Czech side, coupled with the intransigence of his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, sealed the Velvet Divorce of January 1993.
During his two spells as prime minister of independent Slovakia, Meciar periodically played the nationalist card, culminating in his brazen 1997 proposal for a mutual repatriation of ethnically Hungarian Slovaks and ethnically Slovak Hungarians. Meanwhile his international standing plummeted amid allegations that his government orchestrated a kidnapping, stifled the media, and sabotaged a referendum on NATO membership. Meciar was deeply disliked by the EU, which put the brakes on Slovakia’s accession talks, but his uplifting campaign ads helped keep him popular at home.
His reign ended in 1998 when, despite winning a plurality in national elections, Meciar’s HZDS was unable to form a coalition. The next eight years saw him relegated to the opposition bench (and twice defeated as a presidential candidate) as Slovakia boomed economically and joined the EU and NATO. But the pugnacious Meciar might yet have the last word. In 2006 HZDS was invited into new PM Robert Fico’s government, and, with the next election looming, populist winds are again blowing through Slovakia.