DURING the communist era, this city was a backwater provincial center. But more than two years after the peaceful partition of Czechoslovakia making Slovakia an independent nation, Bratislava is getting a facelift and is looking more like a Central European capital.
While the outskirts remain a grim jumble of massive communist-style apartment blocks, Old Town facades now have a new coat of paint. The renovation indicates that a market is taking shape here, following four years of starts and stops. Despite the slight improvement, however, the mood is uncertain.
''There is no way to predict what will happen. Meciar is a populist and can do anything,'' says a local businessman. He was referring to Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia's pugnacious, three-time premier. Mr. Meciar has suffered his fair share of defeats, but has clawed back to power each time, most recently in Slovakia's parliamentary elections last autumn.
Now, with Meciar back in charge, Slovakia finds itself at a critical junction with possible regional repercussions. Economic indicators show that Slovakia is on the upswing. If it continues, Slovakia's recovery could help make it and its Visegrad Group neighbors -- Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- more attractive to the West for NATO and European Union membership. The inclusion of the Visegrad states in NATO and the EU is seen as critical to cementing the region's market transition, Central European diplomats say.
The concern about Meciar is that he has a history of hesitation over economic reform, and a penchant for stirring nationalist passions, in particular creating conflict with Hungary over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in southern Slovakia.
If Meciar reverts to his previous governing style, it could damage the prospects for the entire region's quick inclusion in NATO and the EU.
The West, one Central European diplomat says, has tended to view the Visegrad nations as a group and not as individual countries. Thus, if one nation seems politically or economically unstable, it could prompt NATO and the EU to defer expansion plans for all four.
''Resolution of potential sources of misunderstanding and tension in Central Europe are of greatest importance ... for the prospects of European integration,'' President Clinton said in a letter to Meciar, Reuters reported March 13.
In the months since Meciar regained power, he has refrained from making major moves to reverse economic reform. Although he ordered a major adjustment in the country's privatization program, the ethnic situation has remained generally calm. Meciar plans a visit to Hungary soon to discuss a bilateral treaty covering ethnic minorities. But like many Bratislava residents, Slovakia's neighbors aren't yet totally convinced he has changed.
''So far he has behaved himself,'' the Central European diplomat said. But, ''he still must be watched.''
In February, Meciar provided reasons for a little concern to residents and neighboring governments. First, he banned several political satire programs on Slovak state-run television. Government opponents say the move is an attempt to quash dissent.
Also a Slovak-Russian cooperation pact has rankled Hungary and the Czech Republic. Both counties say a pact provision permitting visa-free travel could facilitate the expansion of Russian mafia activity regionwide.
Slovak officials reject the assertion, saying that increased cooperation with Russia is essential to Slovakia's overall recovery.
Christoph Bertram, a German visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that if Slovak reform efforts stall, or make a U-turn, it would not have a great impact on Polish, Czech, and Hungarian aspirations to become NATO and EU members.
In spite of recent progress on the economic front, he added, Slovakia is increasingly identified with the less-developed Central European nations in transition, particularly Bulgaria and Romania. ''Slovakia used to be in the first division, now it's being pushed into the second league,'' Mr. Bertram says.