BRATISLAVA The first president of independent, post-communist Slovakia, Michal Kovac, died on Wednesday aged 86 after suffering from Parkinson's disease, President Andrej Kiska said.
Kovac, an economist and banker, was elected by lawmakers after the amicable break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, four years after the Velvet Revolution toppled socialism.
He became a symbol of resistance to authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Under Meciar's rule Slovakia rejected an initial invitation to join the EU and NATO along with its central European post-communist neighbours, and Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State, called the country "the black hole of Europe".
The animosity between Kovac and Meciar escalated in 1995 over the kidnapping of the president's son, at that time subject to an international arrest warrant for financial crimes, allegedly by the secret service that Meciar controlled.
The kidnapping of Kovac's son and his removal to Austria was never fully investigated, as Meciar proclaimed an amnesty on all crimes linked to the event after taking over as acting president when Kovac's term expired in 1998.
A police investigation hinted at the secret service's involvement in the case, but the probe was interrupted when Meciar issued the amnesty.
Kovac spent the last few months of his presidency in sight of a giant clock - installed by Meciar's party at a building facing the presidential palace - counting down his remaining time in office.
Meciar was only in power for a few months. His party lost its majority in a 1998 election and was ousted by a centre-right, centre-left coalition led by Mikulas Dzurinda, putting the country back on track to join the EU and NATO in 2004.
"Kovac was a key partner for foreign diplomats during Meciar's authoritarian rule so that they didn't completely shut Slovakia out. He has always emphasized Slovakia's place in the EU," said Marian Lesko, a columnist at the Trend weekly.
"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.
(Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Hugh Lawson)