Case of the PM and an exploding car

A vicious power struggle is destabilising Slovakia, reports Tony Barber
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It was the evening of 29 April, and Robert Remias, a former police officer, was driving his BMW through the outskirts of Bratislava. One hour earlier, he had visited the apartment of Peter Toth, editor of Sme, a newspaper critical of Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia's Prime Minister.

Suddenly, an explosion shattered Mr Remias's car, killing him. Was it an accident caused by engine failure, as the authorities insisted? Or was Mr Remias's death the first political murder in Slovakia since the formerly united Czechoslovakia threw off Communism in 1989?

Mr Remias was no ordinary ex-policeman. One of his closest friends was a man so far identified in the Slovak media only as "Oskar F", 26, a former employee of the Slovak Information Service (SIS), Slovakia's intelligence agency.

Last year, "Oskar F" confessed to police that he had participated in the kidnapping of the son of Slovakia's President, Michal Kovac, 34. Moreover, he said the abduction had been directed by Ivan Lexa, the head of the SIS and Mr Meciar's political right-hand man.

The allegations caused a sensation in Slovakia, because they lent weight to suspicions that Mr Meciar, who has been locked in a power struggle with President Kovac for four years, had somehow inspired the kidnapping of the head of state's son. Though as yet unproven, the allegations have damaged the international image of Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, and dented its chances of joining Nato and the European Union.

Soon after making his confession, "Oskar F", fearing retribution from the SIS, went into hiding, apparently abroad. Yet President Kovac clearly believed his story, because he granted him a pardon.

It is unclear if Remias knew the hiding place of "Oskar F", but he had a reputation in Bratislava as the ex-SIS agent's link to the outside world. This may have attracted the interest of the security service, because, as Mr Toth said on the day after the explosion: "I often met Robert, and we found out that the same cars were following us."

The editor is no stranger to trouble. On 31 October last year he was attacked near his home in Bratislava. Mr Toth's newspaper has courted the wrath of Mr Meciar's government and the SIS by interviewing "Oskar F" in hiding and by assiduously investigating possible SIS involvement in the Kovac case.

After Mr Kovac had been kidnapped, his captors had dumped him outside a police station in Hainburg, Austria. The police, alerted to his presence by an anonymous phone call, detained him because a prosecutor in Munich had issued an international warrant in 1994 demanding that he testify in a pounds 1.5m fraud case involving a Slovak company called Technopol.

However, last February a court in Vienna ordered his return to Slovakia, saying he had been brought to Austria illegally and that there was evidence that the Slovak authorities had been involved in his kidnapping.

That evidence included the fact that a white Mercedes van seen parked outside the younger Mr Kovac's house for two days before his abduction was traced to the SIS. Air-conditioning equipment had been installed in the vehicle at the request of the Slovak interior ministry.

Mr Meciar, Mr Lexa and the pro-government media have suggested that Mr Kovac arranged his own kidnapping in order to discredit the fraud charges against him. Mr Meciar said on Slovak radio last May that President Kovac had probably known in advance about his son's abduction.

The handling of the investigation has convinced Mr Meciar's political opponents that the SIS was behind the kidnapping. First, three detectives leading the investigation were sacked for making clear that they suspected SIS involvement. Then, on 20 May, the new government-appointed investigators suspended their inquiries, ostensibly for lack of evidence.

One sacked investigator,Jaroslav Simunic, said: "Every 'normal' dictator has to liquidate his enemies and uncomfortable witnesses. Where it will all end, I ask myself?" It is a question to which many Slovaks, and Western governments, would like an answer.