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Slovakia Moves Further To Restrict Democracy

Prague, March 27 (RFE/RL) - Speaking three days ago at a political conference in the town of Zwolen, Slovakia's Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar appealed to the West to be tolerant of his government's policies and the behavior of his allies in the political establishment.

"The European Union countries," he said, "should not see only moves against democracy in our search for the new (system of government) and in the mistakes that we make."

Yesterday, Slovakia's parliament, which is dominated by the Meciar-led coalition of populist and nationalist groups, adopted an anti-subversion law, effectively limiting freedoms of expression, assembly and information.

Meciar's political opponents have denounced the law as a throwback to regulations used during the Stalinist era of communist rule, and a major blow to Slovakia's international image. They also said that it could provide ground for arbitrary moves by the government to silence the opposition.

Under the new law, Slovak citizens face up to two years in prison if found guilty of "disseminating false information" about the state. They also risk stiff punishment - six months to five years and/or fines - for organizing public rallies with the intention of "subverting the constitutional system, territorial integrity of defense capability of the state."

The law was sponsored by the radically nationalist Slovak National Party, a junior member of the ruling coalition. It passed with 77 votes in favor, 57 against and six abstentions.

Immediately after the vote, groups of young people staged a protest in front of the parliament building.

The country's Catholic Church yesterday issued a statement in which it said that some articles in the new law "could be compared with (the Stalinist law) of 1948 under which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were persecuted and even tortured to death."

Some western observers have suggested that the law contained language "typical of dictatorship."

All critics have agreed that the passage of the law is likely to compromise Slovakia's image abroad and make it more difficult for it to join the European Union and other western institutions.

Last year, representatives of the union as well as NATO, including U. S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, publicly expressed concern that Slovakia had not strengthened its democracy enough for eligibility for membership.

Meciar's defenders hinted yesterday that the passage of the anti-subversion law might have been a trade-off for the nationalist party's support for the ratification of a friendship treaty with Hungary.

That treaty provides for Hungary's acceptance of the inviolability of Slovakia's borders. In return, Slovakia pledged to provide basic guarantees of ethnic minority rights for Hungarians residing in Slovakia. The treaty was regarded as a prerequisite for the two countries' success in their effort to join the European Union.

The treaty was signed by the Slovak and Hungarian governments last year. It has already been ratified by Hungary, but the Slovak approval was held up in the parliament by the nationalist groups.

Yesterday, this approval was given with 119 votes in favor, one against, and 19 abstentions. But the nationalist groups succeeded in adopting resolutions restricting the scope of the treaty's provisions in Slovakia that ruled out granting any collective rights - including the right to autonomy - for ethnic groups.

Whether this step will bring Slovakia any closer to the long sought-after membership in the western institutions remains uncertain. The increasingly restrictive character of the country's political system, again demonstrated by the passage of the anti-subversion law, clearly complicates the situation.

Meciar might have, perhaps involuntarily, recognized that when he said at the Zwolen conference three days ago that "we ourselves, from ignorance, stupidity and often out of spite are sending out many negative signals, which are assessed differently in western European countries that have other standards."