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Slovakia: Cabinet Shuffle Intended To Improve Reputation Abroad

Prague, 28 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar has sacked three senior ministers in a move widely seen as an attempt to shore up the country's image abroad.

Meciar announced the cabinet reshuffle yesterday, saying the heads of three key ministries -- foreign affairs, interior and economy -- would be replaced. All were members of Meciar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and considered his loyal supporters.

Meciar gave few clues about the reasons for the changes. But many observers say they were an attempt by Meciar to find a scapegoat for Slovakia's poor economic performance and negative reputation in the West. Others noted that the three sacked ministers joined the swelling ranks of those who have been "purged" by Meciar in his continuous efforts to consolidate power since his electoral comeback in 1994.

The first to be affected by the reshuffle is Foreign Minister Juraj Schenk, who is being replaced by Pavol Hamzik, a career diplomat since the 1980s and currently Slovak ambassador to Germany. Meciar said Schenk resigned for "health reasons," but did not elaborate.

Schenk has been criticized for allowing Slovakia to drop from the list of leading candidates for membership in NATO and the European Union. Western governments have voiced concern over Slovakia's slow pace of economic and democratic reforms. Hamzik is expected to try to improve Slovakia's relations with the West and in particular with Germany, which has led the chorus of criticism of Meciar's policies.

Meciar said Economics Minister Jan Ducky had resigned and would now become his economic advisor. Ducky's departure coincides with a recent downturn in Slovakia's economy, especially its growing trade deficit. He has been replaced by Karol Cesnek, who has been director of the state electricity company.

Perhaps the most notable change was the decision to replace Interior Minister Milan Hudek with Gustav Krajci, an executive in Meciar's HZDS who has no government experience.

Hudek's resignation had long been demanded by the opposition. His tenure at the Interior Ministry has been controversial due to his role in the investigation into last year's kidnapping of Slovak President Michal Kovac's son. Earlier this year, he came under attack after Slovak media reported on an alleged tape recording in which he and Secret Service chief Ivan Lexa discussed the sacking of an investigator assigned to the case.

Kovac's son was kidnapped last summer by unknown assailants who force-fed him a bottle of whisky and dumped him in neighboring Austria, where he faced extradition to Germany on fraud charges. Opposition politicians have alleged that the secret service was involved in the kidnapping, which they linked to a long-running feud between the prime minister and the president.

Meciar and Kovac agreed to the cabinet changes at a weekend meeting -- their first in more than a year. Kovac has the constitutional right to appoint and dismiss cabinet members.

Meciar insisted further cabinet changes were not being planned. Some analysts say he cannot afford to do so without upsetting his coalition partners, especially the Slovak National Party (SNS). Two ministers mentioned as candidates for future dismissals include Education Minister Eva Slavkovska and Defense Minister Jan Sitek, both from the SNS.

The opposition greeted the cabinet changes with skepticism. Most opposition leaders demanded further dismissals and said at the very least the head of the secret service has to go.

Roman Kovac, deputy chairman of the Democratic Union (DU), welcomed the changes but said they didn't go far enough. He said the reshuffle must result in political changes, otherwise it would amount to mere "cosmetic adjustments."

Miklos Duray, leader of the main Hungarian minority party Egyutteles, had even stronger words. As he put it: "The change won't affect the quality of government. The quality of government does not depend on ministers but on policy, which is in Vladimir Meciar's hands."