BRATISLAVA, Czechoslovakia -- In the wake of the Slovak nationalist victory in parliamentary elections last month, Slovaks are beginning to realize they will soon live in an independent state, and they are becoming worried.
Last Thursday after weeks of negotiations with Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus, Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar finally acknowledged what he had long been denying: that the Czechs will not accept his vision of a looser union with the Slovaks, and that the two parts of the country will separate.
Polls indicate that most people in the country oppose splitting into two independent nations, with only 16 per cent in each half favoring it, according to one poll released Friday.
Of the Slovaks who would give an opinion, 30 percent said they backed a loose confederation and 27 percent a federation. People in both halves of the country overwhelmingly said they wanted a referendum on the issue. None is planned.
"If the split really comes, all we can do is hope. I don't see how it could be good for us economically or politically," said Andrea, a high school science teacher.
Like many of the people interviewed, she was hesitant about giving a name, saying she hadn't voted for Mr. Meciar. Communism hasn't been gone that long.
"I don't think the split is good. We will just go backward [economically]," said a businessman.
Ladislav Valebny, a bricklayer, said, "Ordinary people are not happy about it [the split]. We have the feeling we would be freer in a bigger country."
Many Slovaks say that while a common state would be better than a split, the parting of the ways should be done quickly.
"I was 60 percent for a split," said Igor Dedinsky, an engineer at the local Volkswagen factory. "But now that we are splitting, we should do it 100 percent and we should do it quickly, even if it means hardship."
Mr. Meciar will have a hard time selling his countrymen on the independence he has brought them. He has said repeatedly said Slovakia is not ready for a full divorce, and he says the Czechs are backing him into a corner. But his policies -- including Slovakia's recent declaration of sovereignty, and calls for international recognition for Slovakia and creation of Slovakia's own central bank -- all mean Czechs and Slovaks would effectively be living in two separate countries.
Mr. Meciar won only a third of the votes in this June's election. He rules with a minority government. But the combined opposition, which outnumbers him by only two votes, has been unable to unite against him or his policies.
Decoupling Slovakia from the Czechs will not be easy for Mr. Meciar, as his opponents are only too happy to point out.
"The split will mean great troubles for Slovakia, rising unemployment, social unrest [as] a consequence of the economic collapse, and political tensions in Slovakia over the status of the Hungarian minority," said Jan Carnogursky, the Christian Democrat Movement leader who lost the premiership to Mr. Meciar.
Mr. Meciar's political victory came largely from the many Slovaks who saw themselves paying a higher price than the Czechs for the take-no-prisoners, free-market reforms that Mr. Klaus introduced when he was the federal finance minister.
Slovak factories -- many of them the main source of income in gray, concrete-block towns -- were shut or scaled back. The search for Western markets and the collapse of East-bloc trade left dozens of large Slovak companies with mountains of uncollectible debt. Unemployment in Slovakia hovers around 12
percent, three times higher than in the Czech Republic.
Reforming the economy will be Mr. Meciar's toughest problem. His government says it wants to ease Mr. Klaus' reforms, giving the state more authority over privatization and spending more state money to restructure enterprises before selling them off. But no details have been unveiled.
"The present government's program is full of contradictions. They criticize the current transformation program, but they have no concrete alternative," said Ivan Miklos, the former Slovak privatization minister.
Former federal Premier Marian Calfa estimated that a split would leave Slovakia's currency worth only a third of the current Czechoslovak crown.
An independent Slovakia also is going to face a potentially explosive domestic political situation.
The 570,000-strong Hungarian minority -- over 10 percent of the population -- fears rising Slovak nationalism, including a law making Slovak the republic's official language. And growing nationalism in Hungary is fueling the minority's demand for regional autonomy in Slovakia.
Already, Mr. Meciar is building a new security apparatus with former Communist-era secret police who will report directly to him, ready to keep tabs on a new breed of dissidents.
Mr. Meciar's first term as Slovak premier ended in April 1991 when he was dismissed after allegedly trying to blackmail cabinet colleagues with the contents of their secret police files.