Optimism that preceded Slovak independence now often replaced by gloom

August 21, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Special to The Sun

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Two years ago, Eva Saskovicova thought independence was the best thing for her country: It would allow Slovaks to put their house in order, step out of the shadow of their Czech brothers and undertake economic reforms that would address Slovakia's unique problems.

Now, she's not so sure.

"The split is no good. We're worse off than we were before," the 23-year-old bank employee said of developments in her country since the division of Czechoslovakia Jan. 1, 1993, three years after the Communists were ousted. "We didn't know what we were getting into."

She's not alone. A recent survey found that 56 percent of Slovaks now believe partition was a bad idea, and only 35 percent said Slovakia should remain independent.

While no referendum was ever held on the split, and many Slovaks opposed it, most were ready to give independence -- and the new government -- a chance. Now, after 19 months of chaotic leadership, many Slovaks are tired of waiting for the promised benefits of sovereignty.

"Nobody ever asked us if we wanted a split," Mrs. Saskovicova's husband, Jozef, said with disgust. "The government didn't do anything before, and they don't do anything now."

After gaining independence, Slovakia saw 15 months of near-constant fights and feuds among members of the country's first government, led by Vladimir Meciar, the father of independence. Meanwhile, the economy foundered, unemployment rose to nearly 15 percent and living standards fell.

In March, Parliament toppled Mr. Meciar and brought in a coalition of Christian Democrats, former Communists and defectors from Mr. Meciar's party. The coalition has scheduled elections Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

Many Slovaks are concerned about what will happen after the elections. Mr. Meciar is down, but the former boxer is far from out.He remains the country's most popular politician, and his party may well win a plurality in the elections.

"We will win in September. The only question is by how much," a confident Mr. Meciar said. "There are two reasons people will vote for us: One group likes us, and the other says we're the lesser of two evils."

Since stepping down, he has largely skipped out on parliamentary work and has concentrated on organizing his supporters.

In order to limit Mr. Meciar's appeal, the government is doing all it can to accomplish concrete results before the voting. It has made privatization, which Mr. Meciar brought to a virtual standstill, its first order of business.

"We want privatization to be an irreversible process," said Gabriel Palacka, state secretary in the privatization ministry. "Without privatization, it's not possible to continue with our economic reforms."

Government officials also have been traveling widely, trying to persuade the West that Slovakia is serious about economic reform.

Not everyone is convinced that the split was bad. Igor Uhrik, an immigrant to the United States who returned to Bratislava after 1989 to work for Slovak independence, said the disillusionment can be attributed to the same factors that have returned former Communists to power throughout the region, most recently in neighboring Hungary. The benefits of independence, like the benefits of capitalism, will be slow to manifest themselves, and Slovaks will have to be patient, he said.

"It's part of the post-Communist blues that are happening in different countries," he said. "You see a swing to the left, a nostalgia for the past. And maybe nostalgia for the federation is part of the general nostalgia for the past."

Still, signs of uncertainty about the split remain. People in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic often slip and say "Czechoslovakia" when talking about their homeland.

Nonetheless, few in either country believe the federation can be revived, and both have clearly established their sovereignty. Each is a member of the United Nations, has its own currency, flag and anthem, and -- not least -- maintains its own border police.

Even if Slovaks formally asked for a reunion, there's little chance their former countrymen would have them. A spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry said that the government has no official policy on reunification, and with the Czech economy surging ahead, many Czechs fear that rejoining Slovakia would only spoil their success.

"When we said goodbye to Slovakia, we didn't feel any loss," electrician Rudolf Vancura, 45, said over a beer in a Prague pub. "To reunite the Czech Republic and Slovakia wouldn't make any sense."

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