WORLD

Wanting out of the slow lane

PETER REHAK August 24 1998
WORLD

Wanting out of the slow lane

PETER REHAK August 24 1998

Wanting out of the slow lane

WORLD

SLOVAKIA

Sipping a Guinness in the Dubliner, Bratislava’s Irish pub, Daniel Borsky is discussing his career plans and the state of his country. The somewhat exotic watering hole in the old part of town has become a favorite meeting place for the young and trendy among Bratislava’s 500,000 residents. With his closely cropped hair and casual clothes, Borsky could pass for a recent Canadian university graduate. Over the din in the packed room, he announces that he is giving up his job as managing editor of the local English-language newspaper, The Slovak Spectator, to work as a freelance translator and writer. Foreign firms doing business in the city pay well for these skills. “You shouldn’t do the same thing for too long,” he says.

Thirty years ago this week, people like Borsky and the crowd in the pub would have been on the street shaking their fists at Soviet tanks that occupied the city, shouting at them to go home. The armored columns had come during the night of Aug. 20 to 21,1968, to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak, who became chief of Czechoslovakia’s Communist party and tried to reform the Soviet brand of Marxism into “socialism with a human face.” Soviet forces stayed for more than 20 years—until the fall of Communism in 1989. Had he been around in ’68, Borsky, who is 27, might well have joined the exodus of bright young people to Western countries—including Canada, which took in some 11,000 well-educated Czechs and Slovaks—in the months following the invasion.

Today, Borsky wouldn’t dream of living anywhere except in his native Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993. He has seen some of the outside world. He spent several months as an intern at the Chicago Tribune, courtesy of an American foundation. Other fellowships took him to Holland and Denmark to study the European Union, which Slovakia aspires to join.

There is only one thing that might get Borsky to leave: the prospect of seemingly unending rule by Slovakia’s autocratic premier, Vladimir Meciar. Many Slovaks think that due to Meciar’s poor international image, their country has failed to attract the kind of foreign investment flowing into the Czech Republic, say, or Hungary, in a highly compet-

itive atmosphere. “There is nothing in Slovakia that a company can’t also find in a neighboring country,” notes a senior Western diplomat. But like other Slovak young people, Borsky is an optimist. A change of leadership, he believes, could come as soon as next month’s parliamentary elections. Then, Meciar’s critics hope, a new coalition may finally bring the five million Slovaks fully into the European capitalist swim that the 10 million Czechs have eagerly plunged into.

A tough former amateur boxer, Meciar led Slovakia out of the federation and has dominated its politics ever since. His support comes

Many believe Meciar is holding the country hack

mainly from the older generation and from predominantly rural central and eastern Slovakia. The 56-year-old son of a village tailor, he is a charismatic figure, masterful at playing to Slovaks’ nationalist sentiments.

Meciar runs the country in a confrontational style with the help of a welloiled political machine—a sort of nastier version of the one that kept Maurice Duplessis in power in Quebec until the late 1950s. But the old Czechoslovakia bore little resemblance to Canada. Czechs and Slovaks carved a country out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire following the First World War, and despite the closely related languages, it was always an uneasy union. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the country soon came apart in what is known as the “velvet divorce.”

The catalyst was a disagreement following the 1992 election on how best to transform the economy from the Communist system. The clear winner in the Czech region was a party led by Vaclav Klaus, an economist and self-proclaimed admirer of Margaret Thatcher who pushed for a quick transformation to a free market. Meciar, a onetime Communist whose party received the most votes in Slovakia, argued for a slower path. Despite opinion polls showing that the majority of Czechs and Slovaks wanted to keep the country together, Meciar and Klaus negotiated a split without a referendum.

As independent Slovakia’s prime minister, Meciar showed himself to be ruthless, ambitious and vengeful. When he was involved in a bitter feud with President Michal Kovac, masked men kidnapped the president’s son outside Bratislava in 1995 and dumped him across the nearby Austrian border. The son, Michal Jr., had been wanted for questioning by fraud investigators in Germany. A witness who implicated the Meciar-controlled Slovak secret police, the SIS, was blown up in his car. Meciar has pardoned all who were involved in the case.

The country has had no president since Kovac’s term ended last March, and Meciar has taken over his largely ceremonial duties. In five tries, the parliament has failed to elect a successor; a candidate needs the support of three-fifths of the 150 deputies. Last year, Meciar’s interior ministry created such confusion around an oppositioninspired referendum on direct election of the president that few voters turned out and the results were declared invalid.

Meciar, who speaks fluent Russian and clearly feels more comfortable in Moscow than in the West, has hardly enhanced foreign confidence in the country. An oft-heard view is that if Alexander Dubcek, the reformer of 1968, were still alive, Slovakia’s image would get a boost much like the Czech Republic, which capitalized on the personality of Vaclav Havel, its now-ailing president and a former dissident playwright. Dubcek died in 1992 as the result of a car accident but continually shows up in polls as the most admired Slovak in recent history.

With only minimal foreign investment, the standard of living is the No. 1 concern for people. There are signs that even Meciar’s supporters feel he is holding the country back. The average monthly wage in 1997 was only $328, compared with $430 in the Czech Republic and $511 in Poland. It rankles many Slovaks that the country was unable to join the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in the first round of post-communist countries to be invited to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Despite opposition accusations that he is a dictator, Meciar allows

a thriving anti-government press and electronic media. Bratislava, where his support is minimal, exudes energy. Much of the baroque architecture in the old city’s centre remains, although the outskirts are marred by panelaky, the ugly and cheaply built Communist-era apartment blocks scattered all over Eastern Europe. Cafés and restaurants abound and are crowded with locals. But while annual growth stands at six per cent, foreign debt is high and the World Bank has called for economic reforms. Unemployment averaged a nagging 13.2 per cent in 1997, against 9.2 per cent for the Czech Republic.

“The biggest sin of this government is that since 1993 it has made no progress in completing the economic transformation,” says Viliam Vaskovic, an economist and opposition MP. “Enterprises can avoid the harsh realities of the open market and still show good results. There are many that lose money and continue to operate.”

People cope by holding more than one job or finding new ways to turn a koruna. “I didn’t know a T-bill from a common stock when I started in this business,” says stockbroker Igor Hornak, a 34-yearold former mathematician. But after learning the trade at the local branch of Barclay’s Bank, he passed the industry’s difficult exam and opened his own firm.

In the elections scheduled for Sept. 25 and 26, polls indicate that a combination of opposition parties may get enough votes to form a government. And, for the first time, an opposition personality has emerged who may be a serious challenger to Meciar. He is Rudolf Schuster, the popular mayor of the country’s No. 2 city, Kosice, and a former Czechoslovakian ambassador to Canada. Only a few months ago, he founded the pro-reform Party for Civic Understanding, which has registered 16 to 18 per cent in recent polls. If those numbers hold—and are combined with the 23 per cent scored by the main opposition coalition, known as the SDK, and the nine per cent for parties representing the Hungarian minority—Meciar could be out.

But he is expected to use every gambit he can to stay in power. A few weeks before the start of the month-long campaign, his government passed a law that prohibits privately owned broadcasters from airing political advertising and from broadcasting anything that might be considered “political propaganda.” That was clearly aimed at the privately owned station TV Markiza, which draws 60 per cent of the national audience and backs Schuster. State-owned television, needless to say, carries Meciar’s speeches gavel-to-gavel. The ruling party has also mounted a Supreme Court challenge to the electoral legitimacy of the opposition coalition. The SDK’s chief, Mikulas Dzurina, has labelled the manoeuvre an attempt to destroy the democratic system in Slovakia, and the leader of the Hungarian parties says the opposition might boycott the election.

One topic that will not figure in the voting is reunification with the Czech Republic. Five years after the split, there are no regrets. ‘We did not seek the breakup—it was the doing of two politicians,” says Andrej Hryc, one of Slovakia’s leading actors and owner of the private radio station Twist. “But now that it has happened, there is no going back. We want to look ahead.” To ambitious young Slovaks like Daniel Borsky, the election will test whether they can look ahead to a place in the European Union—or must face being left behind by their central European neighbors.

PETER REHAK in Bratislava