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Wednesday, March 11, 1998 Published at 18:30 GMT

World: Analysis

Slovakia - the EU voices concern

The EU has once again raised concern about Slovakia's democratic credentials. A constitutional impasse has left the country without a president, and the EU's UK presidency has issued a stern warning to Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar over his use of presidential powers. Slovakia is not among the nations on a fast-track to joining the EU, and, as the BBC's Ray Furlong reports from the Slovak capital Bratislava, the current crisis does not help the country's EU ambitions:

In front of Bratislava's freshly vacated presidential palace, a crowd of several thousand anti-government demonstrators chant the word "Dictator" at the Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.

Mr Meciar was taking on the powers of the outgoing president, after using his majority in parliament to ensure that no successor could be elected.

The effective merging of the two offices in Mr Meciar's hands caused international concern.

The country's "democracy deficit" is a striking example of what has made Slovakia an outsider among post-communist states seeking European Union membership. Without an elected head of state, Slovakia's isolation runs deeper and deeper.

Jan Figel, a member of Parliament for the Slovak Democratic Coalition - a grouping of opposition parties - says Slovakia hasn't met the political criteria for joining European Union. There have been serious breaches of the constitution, especially concerning human rights.

1998 will be a decisive year, as parliamentary elections are pending. Jan Figel sees two options: to move towards principles necessary for European union, or to turn to more or less authoritarian policies.

Vladimir Meciar's image as an autocratic ruler has led to criticism from the United States as well as the European Union. But Dusan Slobodnik, a deputy for Mr Meciar's HZDS party, believes Slovakia is being unjustly portrayed. He blames the Slovakian opposition for the negative news from Slovakia.

However, as the state TV reported, Mr Meciar has purged the country's diplomatic service, by dismissing 28 ambassadors. In the slang of Bratislava's youth, they were not HZDS-positive.

At a midnight candlelit vigil held by students in front of the presidential palace, there were widespread fears that Slovakia was heading in the wrong direction.

Most were unwilling to accept isolationism - separated from the European Union - in what they felt would be a return to the pre-revolutionary scenario.

One student envisaged a future in which Slovaks would have to get visas to visit the Czech Republic unless politicians accept that European Union is important.

Slovaks consider themselves culturally and historically a part of the West. And economically, the country has confounded predictions by doing surprisingly well. But, as Vladimir Meciar tightens his grip on power, there are fears that the elections scheduled for September this year will not be free and fair.

The contention is rejected by the government, but the European Union will be keeping a closer eye on developments in Slovakia this year than ever before.

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