- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia With the recent election defeat of one-time Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, officials in Slovakia expect nothing less than a formal invitation from NATO when the 19-member alliance meets in November.
Not so fast, NATO officials warn.
While welcoming what appears to be Mr. Meciar's political demise, they remind Slovakia that there is another problem just as serious as the former leader's authoritarianism: widespread corruption, which is hurting the frail democracy.
"We've made it clear that we take the fight against corruption very seriously," one senior NATO official said, referring to the country's bid to join the alliance.
The outgoing government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, who is keeping his post, pledged repeatedly to crack down on corruption and organized crime, but Western officials are not satisfied. The proportions of the problem are so immense, they say, that commitment and good will hardly suffice.
Slovak officials concede there is a problem but insist they are on the right track and seek more time.
"Corruption is everywhere, and many people think we didn't do enough, but it requires a lot of patience, and it will take some time to achieve positive results," said Pavol Hrusovsky, chairman of the Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH), which was assigned the justice minister's post in Mr. Dzurinda's Cabinet.
In a recent report to the European Union, which Slovakia hopes to join by the beginning of 2004, the government said it "recognizes that the level of corruption is still high, in spite of a discernible trend toward its reduction." At the same time, it added, corruption "represents a phenomenon that had been building up for a long time and cannot thus be eliminated in the short run."
The center-right coalition that won the election 10 days ago will have 78 out of 150 seats in the new Parliament. The coalition is led by Mr. Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic-Christian Union (SKDU) and also includes the Hungarian Party, the KDH and a new party called Alliance for a New Citizen (Ano, or "yes" in Slovak), founded by media mogul Pavol Rusko, often compared to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"Slovakia has never had such a politically and ideologically consistent government," Mr. Dzurinda said after the votes were counted. "This is a good guarantee that we will fulfill our integration ambitions and start the necessary reforms."
Mr. Meciar's leftist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) had the best individual showing at the polls, with 19.5 percent, but it was not enough to form a government, and no one wanted to enter into a coalition with the discredited former prime minister.
While corruption is unlikely to prevent Slovakia from obtaining the coveted invitation to Prague, NATO officials say they will seek a clear indication from the new government that actions will replace words.
They also point out that the period after the November meeting will be even more trying, because accession of each invited nation has to be ratified by the legislatures of every alliance member.
Slovakia's unemployment rate of almost 20 percent is another major concern for Western officials.
Many Slovaks see the pressure from the West as the only realistic way to find an enduring solution to the problem of corruption.
"Corruption is difficult to change without external pressure," said Juraj Mesik, a candidate for parliament from the center-right Democratic Party in the central Slovak town of Banska Bystrica. "My hope is that between the invitation in Prague and actual accession, the West will put pressure on the Slovak government."
The Democratic Party decided to withdraw from the balloting five days before the election and urged its supporters to vote for SKDU.
Pressure from the West is no novelty for Slovakia. When earlier this year NATO and EU officials conditioned membership on Mr. Meciar remaining in opposition, some accused the West of interfering in their country's internal affairs.
But those voices faded quickly many Slovaks even began to view the push as having a positive effect.
"Western warning was productive because all political actors realized that Slovakia would be disqualified from membership if Meciar got elected," said Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
Olga Pietruchova, another Democratic Party member and one of Slovakia's most prominent women's rights activists, said some people expressed annoyance at the West's warnings, saying, "We are not stupid; we know how to vote."
Slovak officials, however, say the economic and military reforms they had to introduce as part of the so-called Membership Action Plan have helped the nation.
"Preparation has been a very exciting exercise for us, and an excellent incentive to go forward," said Ivan Korcok, head of the Foreign Ministry's Division of International Organizations and Security Policy.
He said his country decided to prove that it was not a "black hole in the heart of Europe," as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called it in 1997, during Mr. Meciar's last term in office. That year, Slovakia failed to secure an invitation to NATO's Madrid summit, where the alliance opened its doors to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Public support for NATO membership is at 60 percent.
Ivan Baca, regional editor of Narodna Obroda (National Revival) newspaper in Banska Bysrtica, said it was difficult for political parties to attract a good turnout at their meetings on serious policy issues.
Mr. Baca also said the government has yet to explain to the Slovaks the practical consequences of NATO membership and its effect on their lives.
"Twelve years is a long time, and the people are tired," he said. "They need simple slogans and messages, and NATO is a simple message for a better future."

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