Past Haunts Eastern, Central Europe

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Past Haunts Eastern, Central Europe


Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BUCHAREST, Romania - Governments across Eastern and Central Europe suddenly find their dreams of a bright future in NATO and the European Union mired in battles over their nationalist pasts.

Slovakia's populist former prime minister, loathed by the West, makes a strong comeback bid for power.

A Hungarian law offering benefits to ethnic Hungarians beyond the country's borders angers several neighboring governments.

The Czech government's treatment of ethnic German and Hungarian residents in the immediate aftermath of World War II becomes an issue in Prague's bid for EU membership.

Many of the disputes reflect domestic political tensions as a number of countries hold elections.

Hungary, for example, has so far staunchly defended its so-called "status law" as it faces tight parliamentary elections next month in which the small, ultranationalist Hungarian Justice and Life Party could hold the balance of power.

But the disputes have taken on a larger significance, as countries such as Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria angle for invitations to join NATO at a November summit in Prague.

All three, plus Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also negotiating furiously with the European Union in hopes of being asked to join in the next expansion, set for 2004.

Asked during a visit to Bucharest this week about nationalist eruptions in the region, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage seemed to take the trends in stride.

"Nationalism is not unknown in our own country," Mr. Armitage said. "The democratic process is as neat, clean and elegant as the making of sausage.

"The snapshot picture may not be so nice, but over time the direction becomes clearer."

But even Mr. Armitage referred to Vladimir Meciar, the nationalist former prime minister of Slovakia, whose party tops the polls going into September's elections, as allied with the "forces of darkness."

Citing political and economic abuses dating from his terms in the 1990s, U.S. officials have all but declared that they will veto Slovakia's NATO bid if Mr. Meciar returns to power.

That possibility provided one nervous subtext to a conference of the nine formal candidates to join NATO, which wrapped up here yesterday. …

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