By Sally Low
and Peter Annear
PRAGUE — A split in the Czechoslovak republic is more likely after an exchange in early May between Vladimir Meciar, leader of the popular Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), and Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel.
Meciar told the president that if the HZDS dominates the post-election Slovak government, his party will insist on a Slovak constitution having preeminence over the federal one. The federal government should control only defence, foreign affairs and finance, he said.
If the HZDS is successful in the June 5-6 elections — for federal, Czech and Slovak parliaments — a Slovak constitution, "including provision for a president of the Slovak Republic", will be proclaimed by the end of August, he said earlier in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
In Prague, federal finance minister Vaclav Klaus, leader of the powerful right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) immediately seized on the issue, saying that if the Meciar proposals are agreed to in Slovakia, then his party is prepared to lead the Czech Republic through a "calm and cultured variant of divorce".
Meciar's centre-left HZDS continues to top the polls in Slovakia while the ODS maintains the lead in the Czech Republic. Growing concern in Slovakia about the ill effects of the economic transformation engineered in Prague explains Meciar's decision to dramatically raise the stakes in the debate over federation. Klaus accepted the bid head on. Now each side is blaming the other for the threat of a split.
When they choose their candidate, people will be voting for or against the federation, claims the ODS. Spokesperson Jiri Schneider maintains that, under certain conditions his party would be prepared to split the state.
"Meciar does not speak about a federation these days but something similar to the relationship between the EC states." ODS's bottom line for federation, he says, is that federal institutions have real executive powers, and that the current economic transformation continue throughout the whole of Czechoslovakia.
"No other economic program will be better for the Slovak people in the long term ... The road to Europe for Slovakia is through and with the Czech lands. Their only other alternative is to join the region of instability in the former Soviet Union."
Bohuslav Geci, Meciar's press secretary, maintains that if the federation breaks up, it will be the fault of Klaus and the Prague government. He stresses that the HZDS's claim is not for independence but for sovereignty.
The "Czechoslovakian" nation does not exist — it was an artificial creation in 1918, and the process set in train then is finally about to end, he says. Any relationship with the Czechs must be based on equality and a partnership between two sovereign states.
Opinion polls conducted by the HZDS indicate that for Slovaks the most important issues in the election will be the economy, unemployment and falling living standards. While 10% agree with the current economic reforms, around 80% want minor or major changes. However, 63% do favour a looser federation or confederation, and 21% of Slovaks want independence.
Beyond calling for more government intervention, the HZDS has not used the election campaign to clarify its economic proposals.
The economic reform has hit Slovakia far harder than the Czech Republic. A similar economic program in the former Yugoslavia was one of the causes of the re-emergence of nationalism there, claims Eduard Mikelka, director of the Institute of Economics at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
The harsh effects in Slovakia have not been due to any conscious victimisation, says Jozef Prokes, president of the pro-independence Slovak National Party (SNS). It's simply a matter of reforms oriented to suit the economic structure of the larger Czech Republic, and not the heavy industry of smaller Slovakia.
For this reason, one should ask not if Slovakia can survive as an independent state but if it can survive in a common state with the Czechs. "And the answer is no", claims Prokes. With 8% support, the rightist SNS is the third most popular party in the Slovak republic after the HZDS (27%) and the Party of the Democratic Left (16%), which emerged out of the old Communist Party.
Prokes says that Slovakia would seek to build up its tourist industry, encourage foreign investment and exploit its geographic position between western Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Both the HZDS and the SNS strongly deny that they would in turn discriminate against national minorities in Slovakia. Both maintain that the Hungarian minority, with its own schools where Slovak is taught as a foreign language, is one of the best treated national minorities in the world. Prokes is quick to point out that, while Slovaks are often accused of anti-Semitism and racism against Roms, racist groups are much more active in the Czech Republic than in Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Vaclav Havel appears to sense that he will have to rely on the support of the Czech right if he is to be re-elected president by the new parliament. His support among Slovak nationalists is low. The day before the official opening of the election campaign, he made a nationally broadcast speech in which he praised the fast economic reforms engineered by Klaus.