OBITUARY: Michal Kovac, Slovakia's first president and guardian of democracy

OBITUARY: Michal Kovac, Slovakia's first president and guardian of democracy
Michael Kovac (right) talks with his nemesis Vladimr Meciar (left).
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 6, 2016

Michal Kovac, Slovakia’s first president, died on October 5, aged 86, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Michal Kovac, as Slovakia’s first president, played a courageous role during the country’s difficult re-establishment of democracy in the early 1990s. Handpicked by then prime minister Vladimr Meciar to be a stooge president, Kovac instead stood up to his autocratic party leader and became the main focus of political opposition when Meciar was consolidating power and leading the country into international isolation. This led to an extraordinary open war between premier and president throughout Kovac’s 1993-1998 term, which included the kidnapping of his son by Meciar’s secret police.

“Kovac's presidency was a time when a ruthless and brutal fight was being fought for the character and future of Slovakia... He helped keep Slovakia on the path that eventually led to the European family of free nations and states,” President Andrej Kiska said in a statement.

Kovac, who was born in the village of Lubisa in eastern Slovakia in 1930, studied at Bratislava’s University of Economics, joined the Communist party and became a finance professor and banker, before being expelled from the party in 1970 after the Russian invasion for reformist sympathies. He was demoted to be a bank clerk, but was later able to work at a research institute during the 1980s.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution against Communism, his political background and economic expertise helped him get elected to the Federal Assembly in 1990 as a member of the Slovak pro-democracy movement People Against Violence, where he later became co-chairman, and to be appointed Slovak finance minister, a post he held between 1989-1991.

In 1991, together with Meciar he co-founded the nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which became the country’s largest party until 2006. Kovac also played a key role as a member of the Slovak delegation in the negotiations with the Czech side on the split of the Czechoslovak federation, which took effect on January 1, 1993.

With this background and because of his better contacts with opposition parties, he was the obvious candidate for Meciar to pick as the country’s first president after parliament had rejected his first choice.

Yet once he took office in 1993, Kovac turned against his party leader and made himself the gatekeeper of the country’s reform drive towards Nato and EU membership.

Dirty tricks

After Meciar’s government lost a vote of no-confidence in 1994, Kovac encouraged the formation of an opposition-led government under Jozef Moravcik, leaving him exposed to the HZDS leader’s wrath when he returned to power after the September elections.

Kovac twice rejected Meciar’s attempt to appoint Ivan Lexa, later head of the secret police, as a minister, vetoed bills and spoke out at home and abroad against the country’s drift towards dictatorship.

In retaliation, Meciar slashed the presidential budget, blocked his appointments and staged a series of symbolic votes of no-confidence in the president.

Lexa’s secret police mounted dirty tricks operations to blacken the president’s name, firstly with falsified Austrian bank account records, and then by kidnapping his son in 1995 and dumping him at a police station in Austria, in the hope that he would be extradited to Germany, where he was wanted for questioning on fraud charges. Michal Kovac Jnr was beaten up, forced to drink two bottles of whisky, and given electric shocks by his captors.

Not only did the scheme fail to work, because the Austrian police released Kovac junior, but the case became a cause celebre at home and abroad, becoming a rallying point for the opposition and a justification for why Slovakia was blocked from starting negotiations to enter Nato and the EU, a major foreign policy defeat.

The government obstructed any investigation of the case, and a key witness Robert Remias, a former police officer, was assassinated by a car bomb in 1996. Meciar himself gave amnesties to all those involved in the case when he temporarily assumed presidential powers when Kovac stepped down in 1998.

Meciar’s supporters erected a ticking clock billboard opposite the presidential palace to count down the end of Kovac’s term, which led to an impasse and forced a change to the electoral system.

Kovac himself then stood in the country’s first direct presidential elections in 1999, but ran out a poor ninth, as he lacked any significant party backing.

Although the opposition parties who had won the 1998 election respected what Kovac had done, he was seen as yesterday’s man, and they had their own candidate, Rudolf Schuster, leader of the Party of Civic Understanding. But as the tributes this week have shown, he continued to command great respect as a decent man who had bravely stood up for democracy during its darkest hours in the country’s short history.