Czechs, Slovaks Headed For Weak Federal State

Klaus opts for leadership of Czech rather than federal government

THE new federal government taking shape in Czechoslovakia will be too weak to do more than oversee the breakup of the country.

"We do not put much faith in the functioning nature of the state we are now constructing," Vaclav Klaus said Wednesday, after another round of talks with Slovak leader Vladimir Meciar.

Mr. Klaus's actions spoke even louder than his words. Although his conservative Civic Democratic Party has the most seats in the newly elected federal parliament, Klaus on Wednesday rejected the premiership of the federal government, which he described as "self-liquidating."

Instead, he will become prime minister of the smaller Czech Republic, which accounts for two-thirds of the country's population and would become an autonomous state if the country split.

Klaus and Mr. Meciar, the nationalist leader of Slovakia, will meet again today to try and work out the program of the new federal government. But this will be difficult since the two are on an ideological collision course, with Klaus favoring quick and deep economic reforms while Meciar wants a slowdown in reforms and more state intervention.

On Wednesday, the two men agreed on the form of the new Cabinet, paring down the number of ministers from 16 to 10, evenly divided between Slovaks and Czechs. The job of deputy minister will also be based on ethnic balance: If the prime minister is a Czech, then the deputy will be a Slovak, or vice-versa.

Further, the ministries will be twinned in the following sets, with a Czech and a Slovak in each pair: prime minister and foreign minister; finance minister and economics minister; and interior minister and defense minister.

WHAT Czechoslovakia is getting are "caretaker ministers who won't be able to take any actions," says a Western diplomat in Prague who asked not to be named. He said he could envision the federal government "coming to a total standstill." Although the Czech and Slovak Republics already have a fair degree of autonomy, they won't be able to function if budgetary and authorization matters are "jammed up" on the federal level, he said.

"This government will definitely be weaker," said Jiri Schneider, spokesman for Klaus, in a phone interview. While Mr. Schneider maintains that the new government will not be paralyzed, he concedes that "it will be very, very difficult to maintain the basic pace of reform."

A crucial issue now is how quickly a new legal arrangement will take shape between the Czech and Slovak republics.

According to the Czechoslovak Constitution, the only legal way to a split is through a referendum, either nationwide or in one of the two republics. It may also be possible to change the Constitution so that political leaders can come up with a new structure between themselves. (Meciar, for instance, favors a loose confederation of the two republics).

Either way, Klaus and his party want a definitive answer about splitting the country as soon as possible. "We have no objection against cooperation between independent states, but a slow erosion of the federal government is dangerous," says Schneider.

Meciar, on the other hand, is in no hurry. He wants to wait until the end of 1992 or beginning of 1993 to hold a referendum.

Political observers speculate that Meciar is worried that the public will surprise him and vote in favor of a common state. Opinion polls show a majority of Slovaks still favor a common state, although they are unhappy with the present arrangement.

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