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Slovakia country profile

12 March 12 12:52 GMT

The story in chapter one revolved around frosty relations with the European Union and Nato combined with rejection of economic reform.

Chapter two saw a complete change of direction and moves to embrace all three, culminating in EU and Nato membership in 2004.

For the first five years after independence, there was growing international criticism of the lack of respect for minority rights and the democratic process shown by the authoritarian prime minister, Vladimir Meciar.

He led a string of coalition governments, pursuing nationalist and populist policies until October 1998 when an alliance of liberals, centrists, left-wingers and ethnic Hungarians ousted him, forming a new coalition with Mikulas Dzurinda as prime minister.

During Mr Dzurinda's term of office (1998-2006), Slovakia forged ahead with an economic reform programme and saw a boost in foreign investment. His government also tried to improve the lot of minorities.

Slovakia's ethnic Hungarian community constitutes about a tenth of the country's population, and the status of this substantial minority has long been a source of tension between Slovakia and Hungary.

Mr Dzurinda's government oversaw Slovakia's entry into the EU and Nato, but its economic reforms made it unpopular with voters, and in 2006 it was replaced by a centre-left coalition led by Robert Fico.

Mr Fico's government relied on the support of the Slovak National Party, and his premiership was marred by controversy over treatment of the Hungarian minority.

Slovakia also has a significant Romany population which suffers disproportionately high levels of poverty and social deprivation.

The post-war Benes decrees, which called for the expulsion of 3 million ethnic Germans and 600,000 ethnic Hungarians from then-Czechoslovakia and the confiscation of their property, remain a sensitive issue in relations with neighbours.

President: Ivan Gasparovic

Ivan Gasparovic defeated former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the second round of the presidential elections in April 2004 on the eve of EU entry.

During his election campaign he supported EU accession but criticised the minority government's EU-oriented economic reforms.

In April 2009 Mr Gasparovic became the first president of Slovakia to win re-election, when he defeated his centre-right challenger, Iveta Radicova, in the second round of voting by more than ten percentage points. He received more than 55% of the vote.

The president appoints the prime minister. However, parliament exercises legislative power.

Prime minister-elect: Robert Fico

Mr Fico's leftist Smer party won a landslide victory in early general elections in March 2012 - the first time since independence that a party had gained an absolute majority in the Slovak parliament.

The centre-right coalition of Iveta Radicova, which had governed since June 2010, was routed in a poll dominated by a corruption scandal that engulfed its main parties.

Known as a straight-talking populist, Robert Fico was born to a working-class family in the provincial town of Topolcany in 1964 and trained as a lawyer in Communist Czechoslovakia.

He became a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1987, and after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 joined the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) - a successor of the Communist Party of Slovakia.

In 1999 he founded his own party, Direction-Social Democracy (Smer), when it became clear that the SDL was a spent force.

He raised his public profile by sharply criticising the radical economic reform programme implemented by the centre-right governments of Mikulas Dzurinda (1998-2006), which although hailed by investors and international financial institutions was not popular with ordinary Slovaks.

Mr Dzurinda's policies were seen as having stimulated growth - earning Slovakia the nickname of "the central European tiger" - but were associated with high levels of unemployment and were seen as having a disproportionately negative effect on low wage-earners and welfare recipients.

During the 2006 election campaign, Smer strove to project itself as a modern, socialist and pro-European party, but found it hard to maintain this image after it had formed a government in coalition with various ultra-nationalist and populist parties who were also opposed to Mr Dzurinda's policies.

Mr Fico led Slovakia into the eurozone during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2010, but his government's record of deteriorating relations with the country's Hungarian minority also tarnished its reputation in the eyes of the EU.

Smer emerged as the largest grouping in the 2010 general election, but was unable to form a government and was ousted by a centre-right coalition led by Iveta Radicova, Slovakia's first female prime minister.

Ms Radicova's government collapsed in October 2011 in a dispute between the coalition partners over whether Slovakia should support an expanded eurozone bailout fund, and the corruption scandal that broke in December completed public disillusionment with the ruling coalition.

Mr Fico made defending the eurozone and boosting social welfare two of the main planks of his 2012 election campaign. He has promised to introduce higher taxes for the rich, but has also pledged to stick with the previous government's policy of reducing the deficit.

Private network Markiza has the highest share of the TV audience. Public TV has a relatively small audience. Cable and satellite TV are widely watched, as are channels from the neighbouring Czech Republic and Hungary.

All major newspapers are privately-owned; the best-selling daily is the tabloid Novy Cas. Privately-owned Radio Expres and the first channel of public Slovak Radio are prominent players in the radio market. Azet.sk is a leading online portal.

The constitution guarantees a free press. However, the Press Act, which obliges newspapers to publish responses from individuals who say their reputation has been harmed by an article, has introduced "the dangerous concept of an automatic right of response", Reporters Without Borders said in 2010.

By June 2010 there were 4.1 million internet users (Internetworldstats).

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