Slovakia's prime minister, Mikuláš Dzurinda, has the look of a depressed puppy-dog about him. His spaniel eyes, little moustache, and rapidly-greying mop of hair belie his prowess as a marathon runner. The year 2000 has given Dzurinda more than enough reason to look harassed.
Elected in 1998 at the head of a coalition spanning the spectrum from ex-Communists to conservative Christian Democrats, Dzurinda has been forced to perform a near-impossible balancing act. The coalition came into being to rid Slovakia of the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar. With Vlado and his partners sidelined, the Dzurinda coalition fell to squabbling among themselves, over control of state-owned industries, over the distribution of cabinet seats, over measures to protect ethnic minoritites. You name it, the Slovak government will row over it.
Looking for support
Dzurinda's problems would be considerably eased if he had the secure backing of a sizeable political bloc within Parliament. Instead, he became premier through his position as leader of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), a coalition within a coalition. Five small centre-right parties came together to form the SDK before the 1998 election. Banding together allowed them to beat the five per cent bar to representation in Parliament. But the SDK was never a party as such, and the "platform groups" of the founding parties soon began to assert their independence.
The year began with hope that the SDK had sunk their differences. In December 1999, the five member parties signed a deal giving each of them equal representation. Commentators were divided on the significance of the agreement. The anwer came on January 17, when Dzurinda made an announcement that put a bomb under the SDK. He was forming a new party, the Slovak Democratic and Chrisitian Union (SDKÚ), which would unite the centre-right in one party, and assure his political future.
The new party was not designed to replace the SDK immediately. It would not be registered until just before the 2002 elections. The declaration had the backing of ten senior members of the SDK, including Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner, Culture Minister Milan Knažko and Health Minister Tibor Šagát. These men were all important figures within their own parties, but the parties themselves quickly declared themselves opposed to the SDKÚ. The leaderships had no intention of dissolving their parties in order to follow Dzurinda's banner. The strange semi-existence of the SDKÚ was to cast a shadow over the Slovak political scene for the remainder of the year.
It has been a difficult year for the first directly-elected Slovak President, Rudolf Schuster. His meeting with the opposition HZDS early in the year to discuss the possibility of a referendum on early elections left Government supporters confused and angry. Schuster was elected President as the candidate of the Party Of Civic Understanding (SOP), which is a member of the Government coalition.
He has a long history of political involvement, dating back to the Communist era when he was mayor of Košice and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In April, Schuster met with members of the present-day Communist Party of Slovakia who presented him with a bottle of Stalin's Tears vodka. He denied having discussed the possibility of a Presidential amnesty for his erstwhile Communist Party comrade, Vasil Bilak, who is charged with treason in connection with the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The real tears, however, were yet to come.
An unhealthy state
In mid-June, Slovakia sweltered in a heatwave, with daytime temperatures of 36 celsius. The country's agriculture was hit by a severe drought, with newspaper estimates that the harvest would be down by 30 to 40 per cent. Schuster was reported to be among those hit by heat exhaustion. The 66-year-old head of state was sent to hospital with a high fever. He also announced that he would not be seeking re-election.
On 19 June, the President had an operation to remove a 25 centimetre section of his colon. His press office had evidently been less than straight with their story and the rumour mill began working overtime. The office issued a statement denying that Schuster was suffering from cancer. He later underwent a second emergency operation to treat a massive infection in the abdomen. When Schuster should have been celebrating his first year in office, he spent the week being shuttled between hospitals in Bratislava before being airlifted to Innsbruck in Austria for specialist treatment.
More trouble was to follow. The Slovak constitution lays down the procedure for the transfer of power following the death or resignation of a President. There is no set formula for dealing with a President in a coma. On 3 July, Premier Mikuláš Dzurinda and the Parliamentary Chairman, Jozef Migaš, drew up an agreement on the transfer of powers. Dzurinda became acting President, while Migaš took on the powers of approval of legislation. On his eventual return to health Schuster expressed anger at the apparent ease with which he was stripped of his powers as he slept.
The whole episode raised larger issues about the condition of the Slovak health service and the value placed on human life by the Slovak state. A report on Schuster's medical treatment in Slovakia came to the conclusion that it was not as good as it could have been. The report highlighted poor documentation, the lack of a report on the surgery carried out on 19 June and incomplete use of diagnostic methods. The health minister, Tibor Šagát, resigned. If this kind of shambles could bring the President close to death, what hope was there for the average Slovak citizen, who could not afford the luxury of being rescued by a private Austrian clinic?
Differing fates for minorities
Slovakia's drive for membership of the EU and NATO has seen increased emphasis on the need for protection of the country's minorities. The inclusion of the Party of the Hungarian Coaliton (SMK) in the Dzurinda government has seen a defusing of some of the tensions which existed between Slovaks and Hungarians during the previous Mečiar administration.
There have been problems, mainly concerning the drawing up of new boundaries for regional government, the redistribution of land held by the state and the drafting of a revised preamble to the constitution. However, the Hungarian question has been brought within the frame of day-to-day politics and the anti-Hungarian shouting matches of the 1994 to 1998 period have receded. The SMK's Béla Bugár has emerged as one of the most eloquent leaders of the coalition.
There has been no such advance for Slovakia's other sizeable minority, the Roma. In January, it was reported that Roma were continuing to leave the country to seek asylum in Western Europe, and the Finnish government was considering introducing a visa requirement for Slovak citizens. The recurring pattern of groups of Roma arriving in a Western country to claim asylum, followed by the imposition of visa restrictions has happened in half a dozen countries. The Western response has been less than helpful.
In May, the Belgian authorities offered free air tickets back to Slovakia for asylum seekers. The Slovak response has been to blame the Roma, viewing them as economic migrants rather than political refugees. In mid-January the independent MP Róbert Fico proposed stopping the social benefits of cititzens "who travel for speculative reasons to a foreign country with the aim of demanding political asylum." Five months later he suggested that benefits should be cut for all Roma families with more than three children. Fico is one of the most popular politicians in Slovakia.
In April, Amnesty International accused the Slovak police of mounting punitive raids with dogs on Roma settlements. The human rights organisation claimed that the police physically abuse Roma citizens, limit their movement and enter their homes without permission. The EU's Regular Report on Slovakia, issued in November singled out the treatment of Roma as an area in which the Government could try harder.
Mečiar fights back
Slovakia hit the world's headlines just once in 2000. Newspapers around the globe carried photographs of the former Premier, Vladimír Mečiar, being marched out of his his villa in Trenčianske Teplice by armed police in black combat gear and ski masks on April 20. The leader of the country's most popular party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), had been holed up in the "Villa Elektra" refusing to co-operate with an investigation into the abduction of the son of former President Michal Kováč in 1995. He was hauled off to Bratislava, fined SKK 10,000 (USD 204) for refusing to answer questions on the Kováč Jr case, and charged with corruption relating to illegal payments allegedly made to cabinet colleagues during two terms of office in the 1990s.
The episode may have been a public relations disaster for the country, but it did little to damage Mečiar's support among the poor and elderly of rural Slovakia. In the ensuing months, Mečiar joined forces with his erstwhile government colleagues in the Slovak National Party (SNS) in a nationwide drive to collect the signatures required to trigger a referendum calling for early elections. Only 20 per cent of eligible voters took part in the resulting referendum on November 11.
Such an abject failure would have seen the leader of just about any other party either fall on his sword or face a swift leadership challenge. In Mečiar's case, his love-hate relationship with the Slovak public, high media profile and position as "father of the nation" make it hard to see an alternative leader emerging from the ranks of the HZDS.
An uncertain future
It was a tough year for the workers. The unemployment rate in Slovakia is among the worst in Europe and has hovered around the 20 per cent mark for most of the year. One of the high-profile casualties was the SLK shipyard in Komárno, which has been unable to make deliveries to its foreign customers due to the continued blockage of the Danube in Serbia.
Big foreign companies began to show an interest in former state-owned industries. Deutsche Telecom bought Slovak Telecom, and with it the country's main telephone network. The massive steelworks in Košice, VSŽ, was sold to US Steel. Slovakia finally became a member of the OECD, despite a last-minute panic. A personal letter from Premier Dzurinda to Bill Clinton seems to have overcome US objections.
Accession talks with the EU were begun on March 28, with an initial eight
Dissension among the Government ranks was put on hold during the run-up to the November referendum. However, the ink was barely dry on the ballot papers before the SDKÚ held its founding congress, and Dzurinda was elected as the party's first leader. The next day nine MPs from the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) announced that they were quitting the SDK to form an independent grouping within Parliament. They were followed this week by six MPs from the Democratic Party (DS).
As the DS leader Ján Langoš put it: "the responsibility for the demise of the SDK will lie with the last party to switch off the light." Both the KDH and the DS say they remain loyal to the Government. There seems little chance of it collapsing before the 2002 election date. What remains in doubt is whether Dzurinda can keep his job as Premier.
Robin Sheeran, 11 December 2000
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