Slovakia lurches from bickering to bungling in unsteady infancy as nation

August 12, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- One of the few things every Slovak seems to agree on, eight months after Slovakia's birth, is that the nation is short on one key ingredient: stability.

"Whether we like it or not, on Jan. 1 first Central Europe's weakest country was born," said Karol Jezik, editor of Sme, the country's leading opposition daily. "And as a weak country we need stability."

The instability has been brought on largely by months of bickering and bungling at the highest levels of government. While the economy falters, the ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia has lost its majority in Parliament through defections and is seeking to shore up its power by finding a coalition partner.

"Slovakia needs this coalition because we need political stability for the government," said Igor Kosir, an economic adviser to the government.

"Stability is necessary for economic development," added Roman Zelenay, Slovakia's state secretary for culture. "And stability in Parliament will bring stability to the government."

Finding agreement on anything beyond the need for stability, however, is more difficult.

Those who opposed Slovakia's split from the Czech Republic -- and even many who supported it -- say that the government lacks vision and hasn't implemented the economic reforms necessary to get the country headed in the right direction. Government leaders respond that their direction is right, that only the pace of change needs to be picked up a bit.

Clearly, Slovakia has more problems than its erstwhile sibling, the Czech Republic. The Czechs, under the firm hand of Premier Vaclav Klaus, are rapidly transforming their economy and privatizing state-owned industry. They appear to be on the fast track to membership in the European Community.

The Slovakian government has almost halted privatization and appears to spend more time grappling with personal disputes than economic reforms.

Four government ministers have quit or been fired since January, and seven deputies have split off from the ruling party to form their own bloc in Parliament.

Before independence, Slovakian Premier Vladimir Meciar had promised a new era of prosperity once Slovaks took over control of their economy from the Czechs. Although few expected miracles, most were hoping to see more progress than has been made.

Mr. Meciar, meanwhile, often seems to do more harm than good, especially to the country's international position. In May, he intimated that he could easily cut off the Czech Republic's main supply of fuel, a pipeline running through Slovakia from the former Soviet Union. Last month, he scuttled an agreement on patrolling the Czech-Slovak border that the Slovakian and Czech presidents had negotiated.

The government's muddling and Mr. Meciar's unpredictability helped the premier's popularity rating to plunge to about 12 percent in the polls before rebounding slightly in recent weeks.

In elections a year ago that led to the partition, Mr. Meciar and his movement took more than 35 percent of the vote.

"With this government, the crises will never end. It's constant turmoil," Mr. Jezik said. "The government is working, but they don't know what they want."

The problems Slovakia faces are compounded by the fact that the country came into being without many of the organs necessary to run an independent state. Although both Czechs and Slovaks had republic-level governments before the split,the power center was the federal capital, Prague.

While the Czech Republic's Prague inherited most of the federal structures and simply removed "Slovakian" from the names of ministries and agencies, Bratislava has had to build much of its own civil service, Foreign Ministry and supporting organizations.

Slovakia also ended up with more economic problems. Unemployment was four times higher than in the Czech lands, and the most inefficient heavy industry was concentrated in Slovakia.

The Slovaks have seen some successes.

The country has diplomatic relations with more than 120 countries and, in spite of plummeting trade with the Czech Republic, is registering a positive trade balance.

"I think we've solved a lot of problems," Mr. Zelenay said. "I'm not saying that we have no problems. Of course we do, but we also had problems when we were in Czechoslovakia, maybe even more."

The economy, however, continues to slide deeper into recession, with the unemployment rate standing at about 12 percent and expected to rise, gross domestic product expected to fall by some 5 percent this year and the monthly inflation rate running at 1 percent to 2 percent.

The government budget deficit is approaching $400 million, or more than 4 percent of GDP, and recently the central bank's hard currency reserves fell to less than two weeks' supply. This led to a 10-percent devaluation of the Slovakian crown, which was seen as a blow to national pride.

Mr. Zelenay, Mr. Kosir and others remain confident that Mr. Meciar will find a coalition partner. And if he can't, even those in the opposition doubt they can get enough votes to force new elections soon.

"Most of the people currently in Parliament believe their political careers would end," said Frantisek Sebej, a deputy in the Czechoslovakian days, "and they won't give up power so easily."

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