Armed police arrest Slovakia's ex-prime minister arrested

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The Independent Online

The former Slovak prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, was arrested on corruption charges yesterday after masked police commandos blew the door off his villa.

Police units surrounded his house in the town of Trencianske Teplice just after 8am and repeatedly called for him to come out. After the calls were ignored, the commandos stormed the house. Police said later that Mr Meciar, 55, had been charged with abuse of power and fraud while in office, charges that carry potential prison sentences of between three and 10 years. Jaroslav Ivor, a police investigator, said Mr Meciar had knowingly paid illegal bonuses to his ministers during two of his terms of office in the Nineties. The sum of money involved was 13.9 million crowns (£196,000).

Mr Meciar was a driving force behind the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia. He tapped into a nationwide well of resentment at centuries of rule by foreign overlords but proved incapable of managing a transition from a one-party to a genuine multi-party state. His party, the Movement For A Democratic Slovakia, ruled the country from independence in 1993 until it lost power in 1998.

Under Mr Meciar, Slovakia became a near-pariah state, because of his government'shuman rights record, tolerance of organised crime and support for crony capitalism. Slovakia was excluded from the first round of accession into the EU and Nato, while Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic raced ahead.

During the autocratic rule of the former boxer, Slovakia was riddled with rival mafia networks who fought for control of lucrative rackets that brought in millions of dollars through prostitution, drugs and smuggling people into Western Europe. Organised crime was also believed to have penetrated, or have had links with, the secret service, so much so that Slovak officials were excluded frommeetings of the region's intelligence services.

Local analysts said many of the bombings that plagued post-independence Slovakia were never investigated because of the alleged links between criminal groups, the intelligence services and the Meciar government. In 1998 alone there were 28 bombings.

Since Mr Meciar was ousted from office, Slovakia has made rapid progress catching up on lost diplomatic time. The central European nation has recently opened talks on EU membership in Brussels and there are signs that it could join Nato in a few years.

Nevertheless, Mr Meciar's shadow still hangs over the land he once ran as a personal fiefdom. His party remains the largest and most stable group in a land that is still plagued by political in-fighting and parties that splinter and regroup. Mr Meciar is revered by his supporters with near-religious devotion. One shouted at police as they arrested him: "You seized him just before Easter, just like Jesus Christ."