to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)
Slovakia's diminutive prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, is a passionate marathon runner. The marathon over which he has presided during his country's race to EU membership, however, has assuredly left him breathless. And although it will have ended on 1 May, Dzurinda crosses the finish line to anything but an ovation among Slovaks. Some even doubt the Slovak premier will survive for long in his current position.
When Dzurinda first became prime minister in 1998, his country had been excluded from the first wave of postcommunist NATO invitees and the European Union had left it out among "fast-track" candidates for membership in that organization. It was no secret that the perceived culprit for such failures was three-time former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, whose policies had increasingly isolated Slovakia from the West.
Under Dzurinda's leadership, the Slovak government set out to undo that damage. Many at the time questioned the country's ability to overcome the many obstacles created by Meciar's hectic policies of nationalism and cronysim, his harassment of political opponents, and his courting of dubious political figures in Moscow. But by early 2004, Slovakia had been included among the seven new postcommunist states that would join NATO in April, and it could boast success in its bid for EU membership, having met that organization's political and economic criteria for membership.
Such accomplishments appeared to be paying political dividends at home, too. Dzurinda was quite openly backed by EU and NATO officials ahead of the 2002 parliamentary elections, while Meciar was (unsuccessfully) trying to shrug off his image as a leader unacceptable to the West. Slovaks for the first time in the country's brief 10-year history overcame their reluctance to vote in plebiscites with a May 2003 vote on EU membership; an overwhelming majority of 92 percent of the 52 percent of voters who cast ballots in that referendum endorsed Slovakia's accession.
On the face of things, it seemed nothing could stop the hard-running prime minister.
Yet on the eve of EU accession, Slovakia has placed its future partners in an awkward position. This month's presidential election produced an unlikely head of state. Ex-parliamentary speaker Ivan Gasparovic is a former Meciar crony. While he successfully skirted responsibility for the policies and abuses of his erstwhile ally in the eyes of voters in the 17 April presidential runoff, his credibility among EU officials leaves room for doubt. Notably, European Commission President Romano Prodi waited one day to congratulate Gasparovic on his victory. It is Gasparovic who will now preside officially over his country's foreign policy, including aspects linked to Slovakia's EU membership, despite the weak nature of the Slovak presidency.
Looking back at where Slovakia stood in 1998 -- when the entire political spectrum allied to unseat Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia -- by most accounts, this should be a success story. If that is not quite the case, Dzurinda must partly blame himself.
As in many other acceding states, public enthusiasm for EU membership has waned as its perceived costs have become increasingly clear -- particularly among low-income households, the poorly uneducated, and pensioners. Slovakia's future EU partners have also displayed more than generalized fears about the effect of the 10-country enlargement; particular fears have been raised concerning Slovakia. Its Roma population, estimated at some 9 percent of the Slovak population of 5.4 million people, is living in dire poverty; unemployment rates among Roma are the highest in the country, while education levels are the lowest. There have been widespread attempts at emigration by Slovak Roma before; riots and looting erupted earlier this year after the government in Bratislava decided to cut social spending in its reform drive. Populists like the country's most popular politician, Smer (Direction) party leader and Gasparovic supporter Robert Fico -- who has a record of Roma-baiting -- invariably know how to benefit from such situations.
Dzurinda can only hope he gets his second wind. After all, his cabinet has managed to turn Slovakia into an attractive country for foreign investment by introducing a 19-percent flat tax; by 2006, Slovakia is expected to have become the EU's largest car producer in per capita terms. In many other respects, Slovakia is still lagging, even among accession states. According the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Slovakia's per capita GDP is less than $4,000 -- that is to say, lowest among the eight postcommunist countries now joining the EU -- while its jobless rate of over 15 percent is second-highest after Poland. But looking back at where Slovakia stood in 1998 -- when the entire political spectrum allied to unseat Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia -- by most accounts, this should be a success story.
If that is not quite the case, Dzurinda must partly blame himself. His indelicate handling of political allies has isolated him since his second term as prime minister began in 2002; a question mark hangs over the future of his coalition government, which lost its parliamentary majority largely as a result of the prime minister's maladroit performance. The result is that the first criterion that Slovakia managed to meet on its path to EU membership -- political stability -- might become the first one that Slovakia stumbles over after having crossed the finish line.