Prague sees nationalist threat to economic reform

August 7, 1991

Peter Annear

The national question in Czechoslovakia has taken some peculiar twists, among them the sacking earlier this year of the popular premier of the Slovak republic, Vladimir Meciar. PETER ANNEAR concludes a series of reports from Prague and Bratislava.

Meciar held out against the privatisation plans of the Prague reform extremists. He was a thorn in Prague's side.

The economic and national questions began to overlap, forming a complex and difficult whole. "Firstly, in Slovakia as in other eastern European and Baltic republics after the removal of totalitarianism, the national movement has been activated in a natural way that is aimed at completing national development from the point of view of the legislature and the state", says Slovak MP Ivan Laluha, a member of the now-dissolved Obroda group and an expert on Slovak political history.

"This national development process has been accompanied by a process of privatisation of the economy. Each nation and ethnic group has its specific characteristics. While a general concept of economic reform was created in Prague, its application in the concrete situation of Slovakia (in the opinion of the majority of Slovak economists and politicians) requires a consideration of specific Slovak characteristics, and that means eventually getting back to economic and political details.

"As a result of these simultaneous processes — the general profile of economic reform, and a specific national movement — the Slovak national organisations, both governmental and political, want to acquire greater authority in the practical realisation of the economic reform in Slovakia. This is where the distrust of central political bodies or circles in Prague towards the movement in Slovakia begins."

The alternative economic reform program now supported by Meciar's For Democratic Slovakia (ZDS) was already formulated by economics minister Filkus in the Meciar government prior to its demise, though never approved by parliament. In fact, the proposals were a matter of dispute in the Public Against Violence (VPN — the Slovak sister of Civic Forum), according to Laluha.

Nor did the government approve a draft economic reform elaborated by deputy prime minister Kucerak, who is known in Slovakia as monetarist federal finance minister Vaclav Klaus's right-hand man. Kucerak took over the VPN leadership after the ZDS split.

"The main axis of the Filkus proposal is that the economic

transformation of Slovakia requires specific measures and a degree of intervention by the government, nothing more. It is a response to the completely adverse structure of Slovak industry, which includes a high share of weapons-producing industry, a one-third higher rate of unemployment than in Bohemia, a lower rate of participation of foreign capital, and the absence of an enterprise tradition", said Laluha.

"The consequence is a reinvigoration of politics in Slovakia which must be controlled somehow. It was said that Meciar wanted to renew a national type of socialism and even institutional state direction. Meciar said he wanted a greater role for the state, preservation of some of the old structures, wider collaboration with eastern countries and more space for socialism.

"The feeling of social insecurity is widespread among Slovaks, who actually do rely more than Czechs on the state. That is a negative fact but it is a reality. It is the sort of paternalism that is characteristic of less advanced societies. So we are admitting that our problems are based on a lower level of social development."

Like Laluha, Party of the Democratic Left chairperson Peter Weiss thought that while other questions invaded the debate — like the nature and the new structure of the state, and what judgment to make of popular consciousness and demands — the main question in dispute was the approach to the economic reform.

"Prague makes propaganda that Slovaks want nothing but to get out of the federation, and Havel tries to enforce a referendum that implies there is a problem exclusively in Slovakia, that the good Czechs want federation but the bad Slovaks don't. Consequently, the 10% or so of Slovaks who would vote for independence are painted as representing all Slovaks, and this is not so.

"Slovak nationalism always had two brothers: first, Czech chauvinism and arrogance, and the neglect of Slovak interests; and second, Hungarian nationalism." Seemingly, defence of the rights of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia is part of the solution the Slovak opposition is looking for.

According to a May opinion poll by the Slovak Statistical Office, 55% of the republic's population want to live in a federation of two sovereign, equal republics.

Issue