NEGOTIATIONS resume today on the forming of a new federal government in Czechoslovakia, but the chances of holding the country together in its present form do not look good.
It is not yet the beginning of the end, says one Western diplomat in Prague, but he admits that the outlook for the Czechoslovak federation is "pretty dark." The two strongest parties to emerge from last weekend's general election are talking about the formation of a new federal government. President Vaclav Havel is also talking to the parties in an effort to keep the country intact, according to Reuters.
But Jiri Schneider, spokesman for Prime Minister-designate Vaclav Klaus, said in a phone interview yesterday that there will be only one real item on today's agenda: whether the federal government will consist of ministries with a true mandate or de facto "liquidation commissions" whose job is to phase out the federal government.
"We want to clear up this point as quickly as possible," Mr. Schneider said. "It would be dangerous to let the negotiations go into weeks and months, because the state must function."
Schneider said that the first round of negotiations between Mr. Klaus, a conservative economist who favors a federation, and Vladimir Meciar, a nationalist Slovak who wants to slow economic reform, showed that Mr. Meciar's pre-election demand for a sovereign Slovakia was no bluff. "It was an illusion to think that he would change his position after the election," Schneider said.
Klaus, whose Civic Democratic Party was the top choice of Czech voters last week, is willing to cut the number of federal ministries by more than half, perhaps down to six or eight.
But even a greatly reduced federal government will not interest Meciar if Slovakia does not gain its sovereignty and "emancipation" from Czech dominance, says Augustin Marian Huska, a vice chairman of Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.
"Our election goals remain the same: the emancipation for Slovakia and the possibility of a new arrangement between the Czech and Slovak Republics," Mr. Huska said, also in a phone interview. This "arrangement" could be a confederation or it could be a "free union," he added.
In Prague, the Slovak proposal is being interpreted as a kind of mini-European Community, a loose economic and defense union. "It's very strange," says Schneider, adding that the only thing acceptable to Klaus will be a federal government with ministries that have "real power."
At a press conference on Tuesday, Klaus said he would rather be prime minister of a strong Czech republic than of a disintegrating federal government.
President Havel holds a similar opinion; he says he will not run for reelection if the country seems headed for a split. But if he runs, his reelection could be prevented if Meciar and his supporters in the newly elected federal parliament carry out their threat and vote against Havel on July 3.
MECIAR, meanwhile, has laid out a series of steps which he is going to stick to, Huska says. These include a declaration of Slovak sovereignty and a Slovak constitution, both of which could be accomplished by the end of August, he says.
After that, possibly by the end of the year or the end of the first quarter of next year, Meciar's plan is for a Slovak referendum on independence. Klaus said that if the Slovaks have a referendum, the Czechs will also have one.
The wording of a Slovak referendum would be tricky. Polls indicate that a majority of Slovaks favor a common state with the Czechs, although they also want more decisionmaking power.