Date: Mon, 26 Apr 1999 22:32:12 -0500 (CDT)
From: Sid Shniad <firstname.lastname@example.org> (by way of meisenscher <email@example.com>)
Subject: Kosovo Crisis Divides Slovakia on Eve of Presidential Elections
The Slovak government's cooperation with NATO during its campaign against Yugoslavia is polarizing the Slovak population in advance of the country's May 15 presidential elections. While NATO may affect the outcome of Slovak elections, the outcome of Slovak elections could equally impact NATO. Should former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar—a populist and nationalist—be elected Slovak President, it could seriously threaten Slovakia's relationship with NATO and therefore limit NATO's current and future strategic viability.
On April 21, the Slovak government granted NATO permission to transport military equipment over Slovak territory for operations in Yugoslavia. Slovak assistance is crucial to support any substantial operations from NATO member Hungary. Hungary is the only NATO front-line state in the Kosovo crisis, yet it is totally isolated by land from other NATO members. The Slovak government's cooperation with NATO is, however, increasing polarization of its population, already divided over NATO's air strikes in Kosovo and the future Slovakia's membership in the alliance.
A majority of Slovaks sympathize with the Yugoslav people. This is natural given their sympathy toward and concern over a Slovak minority living in Yugoslav region of Vojvodina. According to recent polls, 62.5 percent of the Slovak population approves neither of NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia nor of the decision to open Slovak airspace to NATO. Moreover, 50 percent of the population opposes plans for Slovakia to join NATO. In general, the Kosovo issue has sharply divided the Slovak population between supporters and opponents of Mikulas Dzurinda's pro- Western government in the run up to the May 15 presidential elections.
Prior to granting NATO a general permission to use Slovak territory for transportation of military equipment, the Slovak government had opened, on March 24, the country's airspace to NATO combat aircraft. The government coalition has been strongly criticized for this decision by opposition parties, mainly by Jan Slota's Slovak National Party (SNS) and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Following the decision to permit NATO to fly through Slovakia's airspace, the opposition in parliament attempted to pass a no- confidence vote against Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Kukan. The ruling coalition in parliament was able defeated the measure.
Divided over the Kosovo issue, Slovakia is now entering presidential campaign period. Slovakia has been without a president since the expiration of Michal Kovac's term in office in early 1997, due deep political divisions which manifested themselves in several unsuccessful attempts by parliament to elect the president. For the first time, a direct presidential election will be held in Slovakia on May 15. There are ten registered presidential candidates, with five of them having a real chance to be elected. The April 13 poll conducted by “Ustav pre vyskum verejnej mienky” showed strong support for ruling coalition's candidate Rudolf Schuster (32.4%). Three non- partisan candidates—Magda Vasaryova (19.1%), former president Michal Kovac (8.3%), and Juraj Svec (5.7%)—agreed on April 20 that two of them would give up their candidacy ahead of the election to prevent former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar (4.9%) from being elected a president. Note that at the time when the poll was conducted, Meciar had not as yet announced his candidacy.
Well known for his ability to mobilize the population in his favor during periods of political controversies, Meciar has a potential to become one of the two candidates that will compete for the presidential post in the run off, second election scheduled for May 22. Moreover, it is likely that the leader of the nationalists, Jan Slota (5.3%), will give up his candidacy ahead of the election in favor of Meciar's candidacy. In the first round, Meciar will, therefore, compete against one strong non-partisan candidate and the former communist, now reformist candidate, mayor of the city of Kosice, Rudolf Schuster. The likelihood of populist and nationalist Meciar being elected Slovak President and re-entering Slovak political arena cannot be excluded.
Vladimir Meciar's 1994-1998 government did not live up to Western principles of democracy, resulting in the country being sidetracked from joining the European Union and NATO. Although Meciar's HZDS always officially proclaimed its pro-Western orientation, its political behavior pulled the country in the opposite direction. Most recently, HZDS openly criticized Slovak government's decision to open its airspace to NATO. If elected president in May, Meciar would undoubtedly alter Slovakia's policy of supporting NATO in the Yugoslav crisis, likely denying NATO use of Slovak airspace and railways. In the short term, this would limit NATO's ground options against Yugoslavia. In the long term, it could perpetuate a geographic weakness in the alliance, with Slovakia as a potentially hostile salient between Poland and the geographically isolated Hungary. NATO should not take Bratislava's current gesture for granted, as without some reciprocal good will gesture it could be Slovakia's last friendly overture to the organization.