Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Political ghost from the past haunts Slovakia

PARTY POOPER Instead of proudly celebrating its international coming of age after being admitted to NATO, the country reels under a former tyrant's return

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA

For this upwardly mobile Central European country, still in its gawky adolescence as an independent state, this spring should have been a proud coming of age.

Slovakia was admitted to NATO this month, after a delay of several years. On May 1, it will join the EU, along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and six other countries. But a ghost from its political past has reappeared, casting a pall over the celebration and reminding Slovaks of the intractable pull of history.

Vladimir Meciar, the autocratic former prime minister who led Slovakia after its split with the Czech Republic in 1993, has unexpectedly become the favorite to be the country's next president. On April 3, he won the first round of an election while the candidate of the governing party failed to attract enough votes to qualify for a runoff election on April 17, which sets up Meciar for a victory.

Meciar, a hulking former boxer with a charismatic speaking style, turned his country into a near pariah state in the mid-1990s with his virulent nationalism and trampling of human rights.

Crony capitalism rotted the economy, driving away foreign investors and leaving Slovakia impoverished.

Disaster

"This is a disaster for our country's image," said Grigorij Meseznikov, the president of the Institute for Public Affairs, an independent research organization in Bratislava, the capital. "He represents people who are anti-capitalist, isolationist and nostalgic for the past. He's not a politician of the future."

Monica Benova, a member of Parliament from a leftist populist party, likens Meciar, 61, to Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria, whose past as a Nazi officer, and his subsequent amnesia about it, consigned his country to a political purgatory while he was in office.

"How can we be sure he won't abuse the powers of his office, like he did the last time?" Benova asked. "He's trying to sound different, but it's just a mask. He's still the same person."

Meciar won 32.7 percent of the vote in the first round. In a surprise attributed to a low voter turnout, the governing coalition's candidate, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, finished third, narrowly beaten by a former close associate of Meciar's, Ivan Gasparovic. The runoff, commentators here say, is a choice between two evils. Meciar declined a request for an interview.

In Slovakia, as in Austria, the presidency is mostly a ceremonial job. The president can hold up legislation passed by the parliament, which can override his veto. While he appoints ambassadors and senior military officers, he is supposed to stick to the prime minister's recommendations.

As head of state, however, Meciar would be a symbol. It is a role he would no doubt relish, having virtually personified Slovakia's birth as a nation.

In one of history's wrinkles, the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, was the prime minister with whom Meciar negotiated the Czechoslovakian divorce.

Euroskeptics

Now the two leaders, each known for his bruising manner and deep skepticism about Europe, may find themselves together on a dais, celebrating the integration of their sister lands into Europe.

It is unlikely, however, that Meciar will be invited to the White House. The US is inclined to spurn him, said a Western diplomat here, who spoke anonymously as is standard practice when dealing with such issues.

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