These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Back on the Fast Track

 Photo: TASR

After the 1998 election, four parties - led by the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) - formed a government. It was another broad left-right coalition, but this one included the main Hungarian party, ensuring that the minority issue would be less vexing than under Mečiar. And it was determined to improve Slovakia's image in the international community, and return its EU entry application to the fast track.

Mikuláš Dzurinda, an SDK official, became prime minister after the 1998 election, a position he still holds today. One of the coalition's first acts was to amend the constitution so that the president would be elected by the public. Rudolf Schuster, a Košice native who had been a reform-minded but high-ranking Communist, became the first directly elected Slovak president in May 1999. In a run-off, he had defeated Mečiar, the jack-in-the-box of Slovak politics, by 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent.

Today, Mečiar remains a powerful opposition deputy in parliament, and is still one of Slovakia's most popular and formidable politicians.

The new government succeeded dramatically in reviving the nation's EU campaign. In 1999, after the war in Kosovo, the EU decided to speed up the accession process with a policy of "differentiation." Rather then lump states into groups, it opened accession talks with all candidate states and allowed their applications to move forward as quickly as warranted. Freed of the political liabilities imposed by the Mečiar government, Slovakia leapfrogged ahead of its former second-state peers and caught up with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.

With the Hungarian issue now on the back burner, the Roma issue has risen to the fore. Official figures put the number of Roma living in Slovakia at 92,000, but most experts think there are closer to 400,000. Unemployment among the Roma is extremely high, and they tend to live in isolated camps with little access to clean water. Education, too, is a major problem; human-rights workers complain that Roma children are often treated as mentally retarded, simply for not having learned Slovak. Under pressure from the European Union, the government is officially trying to help improve the lot of the Roma and curb widespread racism against them in Slovak society.

In September 2002, Mečiar was again unable to form a government, despite his HZDS party taking the largest share at the popular vote, and a more ideologically unified centre-right coalition was formed under Dzurinda. In foreign policy, the government threw in its lot with the Anglo-American side in the trans-Atlantic split over the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In April, President Schuster signed an accession treaty with the EU, putting Slovakia on track to join the union in 2004, a decision overwhelmingly ratified by the public in a May referendum.

Despite the political chaos unleashed by the Divorce and the misdeeds and missteps of Mečiar and his cronies, Slovakia has established itself as a resilient, market-directed democracy, Henderson argues. "The goal of EU membership is realistic precisely because Slovakia had an underlying stability which allowed it to survive the domestic storms of state-building in the late 1990s," she writes.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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