Slovak President Rudolf Schuster returns home tomorrow from a six-week trip to Brazil where he traced the footsteps of his explorer father across the tropical rain forest. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, Schuster is likely to stay in the hot seat upon his return. People are upset that the state partly funded his trip, and he's also under fire for staying away from home while floods hit the country and the government tipped into crisis.
Prague, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When he touches down in the Slovak capital Bratislava tomorrow, President Rudolf Schuster may well wish he was back with the anacondas and black panthers of Brazil's Amazonian rain forests and Pantanal wetlands.
The 67-year-old head of state began his jungle trek in the middle of last month at the end of an official visit to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.
The trip traced the expedition that Schuster's father Alojz made in 1927, when he was part of the first Slovak team to the Pantanal region that borders Bolivia.
Alojz Schuster wrote a book about his travels. Rudolf -- who has already directed television documentaries on various countries, including Brazil -- reportedly plans to do the same.
He'll certainly have plenty of material for an explorer's tale.
During his travels Schuster reportedly stayed with a family of Amazonian Indians on a reservation and dropped in on a tribe his father had visited.
Then there were the unplanned dramas. Schuster was briefly hospitalized in the town of Cuiaba for suspected food poisoning and dehydration after he fainted during a boat trip on the Paraguay River. And earlier this month he had to be rescued from a burning boat on the Rio Negro after the engine caught fire.
Schuster took his wife Irena and his adult children Peter and Ingrid with him on his expedition. Though they're covering the bulk of the cost themselves, the state will have to pay an estimated $19,000 for the three bodyguards who accompanied the family, the daily "Sme" calculated. No official figure has been given yet -- Schuster's advisers says they'll tally the cost after he returns.
Critics also say Schuster's trip was reckless in light of his recent health problems. Last year he underwent two life-saving operations following a ruptured colon.
But the more serious criticism has centered on the president's absence while trouble was brewing at home.
Floods struck eastern Slovakia and the governing coalition of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda came under severe pressure.
In a typical editorial last week, the daily "Novy Cas" said Schuster was not paying enough attention to public affairs and was trying to pass himself off as an object of public interest instead.
The daily "Narodna obroda" said people were indifferent to whether Schuster was able to film five-meter-long anacondas. It said a president who does not enjoy broad authority will find himself impotent in trying to resolve problems such as the government crisis.
Dzurinda leads a coalition of parties who joined forces in 1998 to oust Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, a populist whose administration was often criticized for backsliding on democratic reforms.
With a European Union-friendly government installed, Slovakia was invited to start EU accession negotiations. The country has also been angling for an invitation to join NATO.
But it was never going to be easy to hold together a coalition that spans much of the political spectrum -- from right-of-center Christian Democrats to reformed communists and ethnic Hungarians.
The ethnic-Hungarian party, or SMK, looks certain to decide to leave the government this weekend, following arguments with its coalition partners over regional reform. The SMK says the changes do not go far enough and that they discriminate against ethnic Hungarians by ensuring they are not in the majority in any region.
The SMK's planned departure will leave the government without a majority in parliament and has sent alarm bells ringing in Western governments.
Diplomats have warned the SMK's exit could harm Slovakia's image abroad. And even if the SMK continues to vote with the coalition, this blow to the country's image could hamper Slovakia's efforts to join the EU and NATO.
Robert Kotian is a commentator for the Slovak daily "Sme."
He says the winners in the situation are two left-of-center coalition parties: the reformed communists, or Party of the Democratic Left, and the Party of Civic Understanding, which Schuster founded.
"It will have a negative impact on the government's ability to act because it will strengthen the position of the Party of the Democratic Left and the Party of Civic Understanding. This is a signal for the reforms that the government has wanted to follow -- tax, social, and pension reforms. The positions of the prime minister and [Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ivan] Miklos will be weakened, so it will be harder for them to push through their plans. That's the domestic aspect. The foreign aspect is that it was seen abroad as very positive that the SMK joined the government and their departure cannot be a positive signal. Next year NATO will have its summit in Prague and Slovakia will pay dearly for this. I'm worried that the level of our top politicians will lead to early elections."
The SMK's move also comes two months before regional elections that could be an important test before the country goes to the polls next year to elect a new parliament. December's regional vote is likely to confirm the coalition's decline in popularity -- and the rise in Meciar's fortunes.
Kotian says Meciar's HZDS party is consistently popular, but it is pulling ahead of the coalition parties. The regional election could be a rout for Dzurinda's SDKU, currently trailing behind the HZDS, a new party called Smer, and the SMK.
He says the coalition's current problems can only boost Meciar further.
"On the one hand, many of the allegations regarding Meciar and his colleagues -- which many people expected -- have not been brought to court. Another thing is that the style of government now has erased the differences between Meciar's and Dzurinda's governments. People's high moral and democratic expectations have not been fulfilled and I feel that people have stopped differentiating between Meciar's and Dzurinda's governments. This is really unfortunate."
Whatever the outcome of the government coalition crisis, Schuster is planning at least one more adventure. Next month he intends to climb Slovakia's highest mountain, Gerlach, when nine central European presidents gather for a summit -- if he's fit enough, his advisers say.
(The Slovak Service's Daniel Butora contributed to this report.)