Expansion of EU, NATO May Stumble on Slovakia Nation Is Seen as a Linchpin for Central Europe

Article excerpt

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. …