- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovak President-elect Ivan Gasparovic says he will slow economic reforms that are required by the European Union in an attempt to ease hardships such as unemployment.

“The government is going ahead with reforms, and they are needed. We need to comply with EU standards,” Mr. Gasparovic said in an interview with The Washington Times. “But sometimes there is too big an impact on the people.”

The solution, he said, is to slow the pace of reforms mandated by the European Union to reduce the amount of unemployment that accompanies them.

Mr. Gasparovic will have to juggle conflicting interests after he takes office today. That seems to suit the man, considered a populist, just fine.

Michal Vasecka, an analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs here, said the reforms have been difficult because they didn’t start until successive pro-Western governments under Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda came to power in 1997.

As a result, Mr. Dzurinda has been forced to accelerate political and economic reforms.

Last year, the government introduced a flat tax at 19 percent.

It spurred foreign investment and has been a boon for the wealthy, as well as a benefit for the poor who are exempt from the tax. But the bottom dropped out for those who were just above the poverty line.

“Absolute poverty has jumped from 11 to 20 percent,” Mr. Vasecka said. “The lower middle class has fallen into poverty. Slovakia is doing fantastic reforms, but Slovakia is tired. We are paying the price because we were not doing reforms in the 1990s.”

Slovakia and nine other nations joined the European Union on May 1, enlarging the political and economic bloc to 25 countries.

The slow start on reforms forced Slovaks to watch from the sidelines as their Central European neighbors Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO during the first round of enlargement in 1999. Slovakia joined NATO last year.

Slovakia was heading toward international isolation in the 1990s under the stewardship of autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.

Washington and Brussels criticized him repeatedly for trampling the rule of law and disregarding minority rights.

Through it all, Mr. Gasparovic was Mr. Meciar’s right-hand man, both in his Movement for Democratic Slovakia Party (HZDS) and as speaker of the parliament, a position he held until 1998.

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