Slovak Republic Hit By Economic Woes, Political Struggles

SOVEREIGNTY GONE SOUR

FIFTEEN months after their country's ``velvet divorce'' with the Czech Republic, Slovakians have little cause for joy.

While the neighboring Czech Republic has made giant steps in reorienting its economy for the market age, Slovakia has lagged far behind in dismantling its Communist-era planned economic system.

Slovakia's problems have been compounded by a bitter political struggle that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in a parliamentary no-confidence vote March 11. He was replaced by his former foreign minister, Jozef Moravcik, one of the leaders of a centrist group of politicians that bolted from Mr. Meciar's Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) in February.

The possibility of on-going political confrontation, along with further economic deterioration, could have explosive social consequences, some foreign observers warn.

Slovakian observers hope that Mr. Moravcik's fragile caretaker government - made up of HZDS rebels, conservative Christian Democrats, and the Democratic Left Party, which was formed after the Communist Party dissolved - can govern until parliamentary elections are held Sept. 30.

Moravcik told the Slovak parliament on March 17 that his government would concentrate on reviving the reform process, but economic indicators underscore a daunting road ahead.

The unemployment rate is projected to rise in 1994 to about 18 percent, while inflation will hover between 20 percent and 25 percent, according to a forecast prepared by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition, privatization efforts are faltering and foreign investment is scant - only about $350 million in all since 1990 - due mainly to the political uncertainty.

Economic policy changes may be difficult to implement in the six months before elections because the current parliament is deeply divided and generally wary of change. Parliament's no-confidence vote was widely considered more a matter of governing style than reform substance. Before the vote, many legislators accused Meciar of trying to build an authoritarian government.

As for Meciar's HZDS, the party is promising to put up spirited resistance to the new government. Meciar has also said he will wage a campaign to discredit President Michal Kovac, who played a key role in engineering the no-confidence vote.

The immediate danger of the political wrangling is that it will fuel voter apathy, experts say. Recent polls show that roughly 50 percent of the Slovak population either does not know who to vote for, or may refrain from voting in the September election.

Low voter interest, in turn, could play into the hands of Slovak nationalists, who are at odds with the 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority living in southern Slovakia. The ethnic Hungarians in recent months have agitated for greater autonomy. Slovak nationalists, who appear to have had the tacit approval of the Meciar government, fiercely resist such moves.

``What is required above all in the present situation is a reversal of the negative trend that began under the Meciar administration,'' said a Hungarian Foreign Ministry statement, sent to the Monitor. ``There remains a danger of nationalism among the political forces constituting the new Slovak government.

``The political message conveyed by the fall of Vladimir Meciar to the new government is that failure is in store for every force that engages in politics on a nationalist basis,'' the statement added.

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