IMAGINE that Prince Charles has been kidnapped at gunpoint, forced to drink a bottle of whisky and dumped outside a French police station, and that the man responsible is suspected to be John Major. The stuff of fantasy? Not in Slovakia, where a scandal along exactly these lines has erupted in the past two weeks.
On 31 August Michal Kovac, the 34-year-old son of Slovakia's President, also named Michal Kovac, was stopped in his car after he left his home in Svaty Jur, near Bratislava, by two cars with Slovak plates. Eight men dragged Mr Kovac out, threatened him with a gun, blindfolded and handcuffed him, forced him to drink whisky and gave him an electric shock.
Injured and bleeding, he recovered consciousness in his car near a police station in the Austrian town of Hainburg, where he was arrested for possible extradition to Germany on suspicion of fraud. Curiously, the Hainburg police were alerted to his presence by an anonymous phone call from Slovakia.
Learning of the kidnapping, several Slovak politicians and commentators voiced the suspicion that it must have been instigated by Slovakia's pugnacious Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, a mortal political enemy of President Kovac.
As the President said in a televised address last Sunday: "We are all asking who is behind this abduction. Everyone, even those with no legal education, are asking the classical 'cui bono?' - 'to whose advantage?' "
The President forced Mr Meciar's dismissal in March 1994, only to see his rival return to power after elections six months later. For his part, Mr Meciar wants Mr Kovac to resign and, in what critics regard as proof of his dictatorial instincts, has proposed combining the roles of prime minister and president.
Rumours of Mr Meciar's involvement in the kidnapping grew stronger last Thursday, when the police officer heading the inquiry, Jaroslav Simunic, was abruptly taken off the case. Mr Simunic had called a news conference to publicise the fact that he had established a possible link in the crime to the Slovak Information Service, the state intelligence agency. This agency is run by Ivan Lexa, a Meciar ally.
Mr Simunic said he had discovered "grave" facts about the kidnapping, including intimidation of witnesses. He said he was so worried that, for the first time in his 20-year career, he had started to carry a pistol. Mr Meciar has denied arranging the kidnapping. But he has pointedly ignored requests from President Kovac to intercede with Austria's authorities and seek his son's return.
When the president delivered a "state of the nation" speech to the Slovak parliament last Wednesday, Mr Meciar refused to attend. Meanwhile, the parliament, where Mr Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia is the largest party, rejected an opposition proposal to set up a commission to investigate the kidnapping.
Was the younger Kovac simply a victim of organised crime? Prosecutors in Munich issued an international arrest warrant for him last March in connection with a fraud case involving Technopol, a Slovak export company. The President, however, pointed out in his speech last Sunday that no charges had been brought against his son. Trembling with emotion, he added: "It is neither ethical nor humane to attack a person who has been dragged abroad in a gangster-like manner."
Whatever the truth, the scandal has done nothing to enhance Slovakia's international image, already tarnished by Mr Meciar's perceived lack of enthusiasm for reform and his hostility towards the country's Hungarian minority. If it emerges that Mr Meciar in fact masterminded the kidnapping, the damage could be incalculable.
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