- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

PRAGUE Slovakia's hopes for NATO membership may rest with the outcome of weekend elections in which the United States, NATO and the European Union have tried to steer voters away from a nationalist candidate whose governing record they consider anti-democratic.

Officials insist they are not telling voters how to vote, but merely making it clear that a government that includes former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, and his ironically named Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), would not be invited to join the West's two most prominent clubs.

"It's only fair that the NATO alliance explain to the people of Slovakia what the alliance's criteria are for joining," said a Western diplomat in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

Toward that end, Washington and Brussels have been doing what they can to help with the get-out-the-vote effort. The country's future hinges on voter turnout, according to Gregory Meseznikov, a political analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs in Bratislava.

"Turnout will be crucial," he said. "If the turnout is higher than 75 percent, then there will likely be a government that is pro-integration" with NATO.

Four years ago, 84 percent of eligible voters flooded the polls, ousting Mr. Meciar's regressive regime and installing a pro-Western coalition led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda. But Mr. Meseznikov said the latest polls suggest the turnout will be between 70 percent and 75 percent.

Mr. Dzurinda's government has positioned the country to be invited to join NATO when the alliance leaders meet in Prague in November.

The summit is widely expected to extend invitations to at least six countries Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Slovakia may join the group, depending on the election results.

Despite the efforts of Mr. Dzurinda's government over the past four years, unemployment remains stubbornly high at about 20 percent. And a failure to crack down on corruption has further alienated voters.

This has opened the door to a clutch of new parties such as Robert Fico's Smer Party, which is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Meciar's HZDS. The last polls taken before a two-week, pre-election moratorium showed each party with about 20 percent of the vote.

Mr. Fico, a parliamentarian who broke away to form his own party, is as enigmatic as his party name, which simply means "direction."

Some fear that he is as anti-West as Mr. Meciar, but U.S. and European officials have withheld comment, saying he has no governing record to judge.

The country has no choice but to join NATO and the European Union, says Mr. Fico. But he has upset some people with proposals such as withdrawing all welfare benefits to any Gypsies who seek asylum in the West.

From the outgoing coalition, three center-right parties Mr. Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, the Christian Democratic Movement and the ethnic Hungarian Party are each at about 10 percent.

Another eccentric character, and political newcomer, is Pavol Rusko. He is sometimes referred to as the Silvio Berlusconi of Slovakia because he owns a controlling stake in the country's leading television station.

He has been accused of using the station to unfairly promote his candidacy. His Ano (Yes) Party tallied 8 percent in the last poll.

Beyond that, a clutch of parties are vying to cross the critical 5 percent threshold needed to get into parliament but a high voter turnout could prevent several parties from reaching that mark.

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