East European Reformists Wary Over Slovakia's Comeback Kid

Under ex-communist Meciar, privatization of firms grinds to halt

VLADIMIR MECIAR retired from boxing decades ago, but he still knows how to win a fight. He gets up after every fall, holds no punches, and relishes the spoils of victory.

Yet Mr. Meciar's attributes as a fighter bring him mixed results as Slovakia's prime minister. He has consistently beaten back the economic and political reforms that some in this rural country of 5.3 million people desperately want.

``His main aim has been to accumulate and maintain power and influence for himself and his colleagues,'' says Ivan Miklos, a former privatization minister who now works at the economic consulting group MESA10 in Bratislava, the capital.

Derailing Slovakian reforms may disrupt Central Europe's timid efforts toward regional integration. The four ``Visegrad'' countries - Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland - have established a weak free-trade zone and meet regularly to promote cooperation.

Though the smallest and weakest of the four, Slovakia is still the Czech Republic's most important trading partner and commands a critical geographical position that links Hungary to the rest of the group.

But Meciar's demagogic style and nationalist rhetoric strike a chord among the rural population, especially in his native central Slovakia. Since the ``velvet revolution'' swept the Communists from Czechoslovakia in 1989, he has been elected as Slovakia's leader three times.

In 1992, Meciar wanted Slovakia to secede from Czechoslovakia, a move most Slovaks opposed. Still, voters gave his party a solid majority in elections, and the tiny republic became independent in January, 1993.

``He has a real ability to communicate with ordinary people,'' says political scientist Gabor Toka at Budapest's Central European University. ``This is something the opposition has entirely failed to do.''

At foreign press conferences, the broad-shouldered Meciar sits down self-consciously, not sure what to do with his enormous hands while he intimidates reporters with a direct blue-eyed stare.

``He has an extremely dangerous, almost hypnotic ability,'' says a former Meciar staffer. ``You'll be listening to him saying things you completely disagree with, and find yourself nodding `yes.' ''

Under his second term in government that ended last March, the economy sagged, foreign relations cooled, the press was harassed, and foreign investment ground to a virtual halt. But once his government collapsed, voters sent his coalition back to power at their first opportunity, in the October 1994 elections.

This month, the prime minister appears to be targeting his political opponents, particularly President Michal Kovac, who hastened the end of Meciar's second government by denouncing him as undemocratic. The budget and staff of the president's office were slashed in half in the government's new provisional budget.

But observers are most concerned about how Meciar's past and present administrations have handled the country's privatization program. The country has attracted less than $460 million in foreign investment - on a per capita basis that is less than one-fifth that of the Czech Republic.

``The level of investment is terribly low,'' says Oliver Brunovsky, deputy editor of the economic weekly Trend. ``But Meciar has done everything possible to delay the privatization of large enterprises.''

``All the major state management positions are filled by the same people as under communism,'' says Mr. Miklos, who served as privatization minister from 1991 to 1992. ``These people ... want to become the owners of their firms. And they're succeeding.''

In the last six months Miklos was in office, nearly 700 projects were approved, including over 400 purchased by ordinary citizens with government-issued privatization coupons, a method used successfully in the Czech Republic and mimicked elsewhere.

But Meciar has managed to privatize fewer than 150 companies, including 27 sold in one night last February as his government tottered near collapse.

Many of those 27 privatizations made in haste were controversial. Skloobal Nemsova, a successful bottlemaker for which Meciar served for 19 years as company lawyer, was sold overnight to its managers for $3.7 million. Trend magazine reported that the company had total assets worth $23 million. A competing consortium was never consulted.

``It's just one of many corrupt deals that have happened,'' says Mr. Brunovsky, Trend's deputy editor. ``There's no way to prove that Mr. Meciar personally influenced the sales, but the statistics suggest nothing else.''

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