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Slovakia: Employers Side With Government In Actors' Dispute

By Ivan Stulajter

Bratislava, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Actors and artists in Slovakia, on strike to protest what they see as state interference in culture, have come under fire from the country's Association of Employers Unions.

Employers' representatives met recently with the Speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, who is a member of the ruling HZDS party of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. They asked Gasparovic to get Parliament to approve "effective measures to prevent disruption, the inflicting of irritation and the breaking of the laws" and thus to "assure peaceful and prosperous development" in Slovakia.

The aim of this strong statement, which appeared in the Slovak media, was to support the government against the artists and actors, who have been striking for weeks to protest attempts by Culture Minister Ivan Hudec to win unlimited control over theatres and other cultural institutions.

The dispute has already led to violence: on March 10 Slovak police attacked protesting actors and opposition parliamentary deputies who were staging a sit-in demonstration in the building of the Ministry of Culture. And it has stirred up the universities, some of which -- faculties as well as students -- have thrown their support behind the actors and demanded Hudek's resignation.

The dispute has become in a measure "internationalized," in that more than a thousands Czechs, some of them prominent in the arts, have signed a declaration in support of their Slovak colleagues. And a demonstration to express support was held in Prague yesterday.

The question is why the Employers Unions have made clear just at this point their strong support for the Meciar government's actions. They have not previously issued strident statements, through the many political controversies of the young Slovak state. The government's violation of the constitution did not move them to comment, nor did the decision of an Austrian court that the Slovak secret service (SIS) participated in the kidnapping of President Michal Kovac's son.

They did not even react on issues with important economic implications, such as the European Union's criticism of the Meciar government, with pointed references to the human rights section of the Association agreement between Slovakia and EU. Slovak industry sends over half of its exports to the EU.

So why now? An RFE/RL correspondent says the Slovak businessmen in the Association of Employers Unions have their reasons for supporting Meciar's government. The most pressing is that they want to continue participating in the privatization process.

Many one-time directors of former communist enterprises are today owners of former state companies, and they want to be on-side when the government's latest policy is implemented. Called "revitalization", the government is planning a process under which certain -- selected -- companies will have their old debt burden removed at a stroke.

The government will have the last word on who will and who won't be part of that process. The captains of Slovak industry want above all to stay close to the government at a time like this to be among the chosen. Who says they like to go to the theatre anyway?

The row over cultural freedom comes at a sensitive moment for the government. For the first time since 1993, public opinion polls show the opposition parties, who form a "blue alliance", ahead of the HZDS. An election is due in the autumn of next year.

The opposition has also grasped an important initiative by collecting over half a million signatures supporting a referendum on whether the president should be elected by direct popular vote.

President Kovac has set the date for a referendum on that question, along with a question on Slovak NATO membership, for May 23 and 24. The Meciar government opposes direct election for the head of state, and also the referendum on it.

There's good reason for this, in that Kovac's present term ends in the spring of next year. Under the present system the head of state is chosen by parliamentary vote, with approval of three-fifths of the deputies required. But since there is no political consensus in the legislature, Slovakia would likely be without a president to follow Kovac -- and all the presidential rights would then fall to Meciar's government.

Ivan Stulajter is a Bratislava-based journalist who contributes regularly to the Slovak Service of RFE/RL.