Central Europe has made a historic return to the West, with NATO leaders at the July 8-9 Madrid Summit inviting Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to join the transatlantic alliance by 2000.
While most countries in the region have striven to prove their commitment to democracy and a free-market economy, one small nation has taken an aberrant path that is leading it steadily away from European integration. Many observers see indications that Slovakia is drifting into Russia's orbit.
Europe's youngest state, Slovakia split off peacefully from Czechoslovakia in 1993. Since independence, the country has experienced an economic boom, with a growth rate of nearly 7 percent last year and the lowest inflation in the region. Despite favorable economic indicators and the proximity to the European Union - Bratislava's western suburbs abut Austria - the current government has earned the reputation of being the least democratic in the former East Bloc.
Although Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, the mastermind of Slovakia's nationhood, has set NATO and European Union (EU) membership as Slovakia's main foreign policy goals, he appears to be doing much to prevent Westward integration.
In May, Mr. Meciar's interior minister removed a question on direct presidential elections from a planned referendum that also asked Slovaks whether they wanted to join NATO. This ended up botching the referendum because the opposition, which wants direct presidential elections, cried foul. More than 90 percent of voters boycotted the ballot.
The failed referendum caused Foreign Minister Pavol Hamzik to resign in protest, yet he was only the latest defector from the prime minister's ranks. When Frantisek Gaulieder quit Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) last November, he was booted from his seat in parliament as well.
"I had completely different expectations and goals," says Mr. Gaulieder, who was one of the founding members of the HZDS but became increasingly critical of Meciar's authoritarian policies. Only a few days after Gaulieder left parliament, a bomb ripped off the front of his house, though no one was injured. "I don't rule out the participation of [Slovak Intelligence Service] agents in the attack," says Gaulieder.
Slovakia's secret police
It is not the first time that the secret police, known as the SIS, has been accused of targeting Meciar's political opponents. Two years ago, the son of President Michal Kovac was kidnapped and taken to Austria in an apparent attempt to make the president - Meciar's chief antagonist and scapegoat - look as if he had criminal connections. In April 1996, a car bomb killed Robert Remias, a police contact to an ex-SIS officer with information indicating that the intelligence service had planned the Kovac kidnapping. Both cases were closed due to "lack of evidence" last fall.
"Everyone knows where they can find the people who ordered this death," says Peter Toth, an investigative journalist who covers the secret police for Sme, a Bratislava-based opposition daily. "But in this political situation, it is impossible to do so in a clear and lawful manner."
The activities of the Special Control Organ, a parliamentary committee assigned with monitoring the SIS, have been frozen. Igor Cibula, the former head of Slovak foreign espionage who left the Meciar camp two years ago, says that since his departure, SIS agents are trained in Moscow and Russian intelligence experts work in Bratislava, the capital: "There is intensive contact on various levels, including the political level."
Good relations with Moscow are no secret, however. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited Bratislava last April, helping finalize an energy deal that guarantees Slovakia's continued dependence on Russian gas for years to come. Currently the country imports 95 percent of its gas from Russia.
While some Slovak commentators see Meciar an "agent of Moscow," the EU's top diplomat in Bratislava, Ambassador Georgios Zavvos, calls for a sober assessment: "I don't think one should overdramatize the conspiracy theory."
Mr. Zavvos points out that all European countries are interested in advantageous economic ties with Russia, and that the bulk of Slovak foreign trade is done with Central and Western European countries. "There is also a tremendous commercial interdependence on the EU," says Zavvos. "I don't see Slovakia as a lost case."
To EU or not to EU?
But while Zavvos - and most Slovak opposition leaders - envision the country's future in the EU, Meciar bristles at recommendations from abroad. When EU Commissioner Hans van den Broek recently said that Slovakia would have to make democratic reforms by November to qualify for EU accession talks, the Slovak premier shot back that nobody could make ultimatums to a sovereign state.
Rebuffed by NATO and the EU, Meciar's gravitation to Russia is understandable. Yet Grigorij Mesezhnikov, a political scientist at Bratislava's Institute for Public Affairs, says that in the wake of NATO enlargement, Russia will not pose a destabilizing threat to the region as much as Slovakia's domestic situation will. Mr. Mesezhnikov can envision the radicalization of the country's substantial Hungarian minority, as it watches Hungary prosper and perceives discrimination at home.
Even the Slovak economic miracle, the country's saving grace on the international stage, appears to be burning out. Slovakia's ailing heavy industry never went through substantial restructuring, and privatization meant divvying up state enterprises among HZDS favorites.
Foreign investment in Slovakia has reached a mere $800 million - a sum totalling only 5 percent of total foreign investments in Hungary.
The political opposition voices the requisite optimism that its newly cobbled Rainbow Coalition of five parties will defeat Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections - and reorient Slovakia to Western Europe. Slovakia's central geographic position, as well as its economic links to its neighbors, ties it inextricably to Central Europe, they say, and a weak and unstable Russia is not a viable long-term partner.
But should Slovakia eventually turn back to the West, it will find itself even farther behind its neighbors than it was at independence four years ago.
WHAT IS SLOVAKIA?
Settled by Slavic tribes 2,500 years ago, Slovakia was dominated by Hungary until it achieved independence in 1918, and then it united with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia. In 1993, it became independent.
18,933 sq.mi., roughly three-quarters the size of West Virginia.
Slovak (official) and Hungarian.
10 percent ethnic Hungarian. Recent laws limit the use of Hungarian in schools and government, a policy that violates the Constitution.
Roman Catholic, 60 percent; Protestant, 8 percent; Orthodox, 4 percent.
* GNP Per Capita
$2,950 (1995), less than Mexico's.
* Chief Exports
Minerals, chemicals, machinery, arms.
One TV for every 1.6 persons; 317 newspapers per 1,000 people. Waiting time to get a phone line: 1.7 years. One mobile phone per 434 persons (1 per 8 in US) and 1 computer for every 28 persons (1 per 3 in US).
Sources: UN, World Bank, World Almanac, Freedom House.