Czechoslovak Vote Could Decide Issue Of National Unity

IS Czechoslovakia - the common state of Czechs and Slovaks founded in the wake of World War I - destined to break up like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia?

The question will be decided at the federal and regional parliamentary elections today and tomorrow.

But after six months of heated debate and three weeks of equally bitter election campaigning among a fragmentation of center, left- and right-wing parties, the chance of any clear-cut outcome is remote.

On the eve of the polls a Czech political observer said he would make no prediction of the results. "Take a cross section of the population and you'll find a gut reaction of wishing to stay together. There are also many Slovaks who say if there is a split, they will emigrate to the Czech lands," he says.

But in Slovakia the ultranationalists have successfully exploited long-standing local feeling against the perceived greater weight of the Czech lands in federal affairs. They have also played on the fact that the transition to a market economy has hurt the Slovaks more than the Czechs.

If the nationalists get the 40 percent support suggested by polls, it would give them control of the Slovak parliament and almost certainly confront the federation with a major constitutional crisis.

Forty-two parties, movements, and coalitions created a confusing situation for voters as well as the pollsters. "It is very different from the 1990 elections," says the observer. "That was, in a sense, a negative election. The issue was anticommunist and people said what they didn't want.

"This time they're not sure what they want. Many even say there is `too much democracy' and they've looked in vain for simpler and clearer answers than all these parties ... offer."

Nationalist rhetoric has obscured really what is the key issue for the whole country: the economic reform which has made notable progress despite incipient public hardship.

The elections dates coincide, in fact, with the privatization of former state industrial enterprises - a centerpiece of reform everywhere in Eastern Europe - which got under way in mid-May.

SINCE then 8.5 million Czechoslovaks have been able to register for share vouchers giving them a direct stake in the government's sell off.

Federal finance and economic ministers have bluntly said break up of the federation is preferable to any slowing of the reform. And Czechs seem likely to vote for the present strategy to continue.

But the National Movement for a Democratic Slovakia - in the sort of alliance with former communists now common in Eastern Europe - has made enough impact both to jeopardize reform and to threaten future constitutional conflict.

Should it come out on top (as seems possible) it promises an immediate declaration of sovereignty - though apparently not independence - and stipulates a new constitution before Czech and Slovak talks on a new federal arrangement can begin.

President Vaclav Havel has fought strenuously for preservation of the Czech-Slovak union. Himself a Czech, he calls for "a just federation."

"Slovaks," he says, "no longer want to live in the shadow of the Czechs."

But he made his own second term conditional on continuance of strong economic reform and consensus on political and economic devolution in a looser confederate union. There is, in fact, enough economic and trade interdependence between the two regions to make that good common sense.

But a nationalist takeover in Slovakia must call all that - and Havel's personal position - into question and, unhappily, also portend a disintegration as unnecessary as that in Yugoslavia, had better counsels prevailed in that country a year ago.

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