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Slovakia: Referendum Begins Tomorrow, But Confusion Persists

Prague, 22 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Slovaks are to vote tomorrow and on Saturday in a referendum on two highly controversial issues: whether Slovakia ought to seek membership in NATO, and should the constitution be amended to enable direct election of the president.

There are three questions on NATO, all of which were formulated by the government:

Do you agree with Slovak membership in NATO?

Do you agree with the stationing of nuclear weapons on Slovak territory?

Do you agree with the establishment of (foreign) military bases on Slovak territory?

The fourth question on whether the electorate "favors the direct election of the president?" was added by President Michal Kovac after more than 500,000 citizens signed a petition calling for the issue to be resolved by referendum. Kovac said he had added the question in order to avoid the expense of holding a separate referendum on the issue of presidential election as suggested by the government

The Slovak government's program issued in early 1995 made membership in NATO and the European Union major foreign policy goals. But repeated violations of human rights and questionable practices by Slovakia's intelligence agency have clouded the prospects for reaching those goals.

The Slovak government's conduct during the last two years has prompted criticism by the United States, the Council of Europe and the European Union, severely endangering Slovakia's prospects for admittance into Euro-Atlantic structures. Indeed, Slovakia has virtually ceased to be considered by political observers as even a potential candidate for early membership in NATO.

Two junior coalition partners, the nationalist Slovak National Party and the leftist Union of Slovak Workers, have recently declared their opposition to NATO membership, advocating instead a Russian-guaranteed neutrality status for Slovakia.

In this situation, the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar moved to hold a referendum on whether Slovakia should seek NATO membership.

Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, has refrained from taking a position on how to vote. It has, unlike the other parliamentary parties, failed to produce any campaign advertising.

All opposition parties advocate a "yes" vote on the first NATO question, but are divided on whether voters should respond "yes" or leave blank the second and third ones. They say these two questions are simply designed to confuse voters.

Referendum advertising spots are broadcast twice daily on Slovak television. Those advocating a "no" vote are relatively few and appear to lack professionalism. For example, a folk dancer says she is against NATO membership and direct election of the president and adds she is sure everyone else in her troupe will also vote "no" on all four questions. Similarly, a middle-aged Romany (Gypsy) man calls for a "no" vote saying he is sure that when other Romanies see him on TV they will all vote "no" too.

The "yes" vote spots tend to show leading politicians, writers and actors explaining why voting "yes" is important and why Slovakia should not let itself fall back into a Russian orbit.

Public interest in the referendum, however, appears to be low with sparse turnout reported at recent rallies organized by the coalition of opposition parties in favor of a "yes" vote.

The constitutional issues is more sensitive. The government and its parliamentary allies have made a series of attempts to remove the question on direct presidential election from ballot. These included boycotting referendum electoral commission sessions, asserting that the commission's decisions are not binding, calling on President Kovac to postpone the ballot and requesting that the country's Constitutional Court in Kosice rule on the constitutionality of the referendum itself. Currently, the constitution provides for parliament to elect the president.

The court has recently ruled that the referendum is constitutional.

The court, one of the few state institutions to have retained its independence, is headed by Slovakia's last Communist Minister of Justice, Milan Cic. He is considered by some analysts a likely presidential candidate, along with Kosice mayor Rudolf Schuster, when Kovac's five-year term expires next year.

Last week Constitutional Court chief justice Cic granted a lengthy interview last Thursday to RFE/RL. He declined to comment on rumors of his presidential candidacy, smiling and saying the "issue is not topical at the moment and we will see what the future will bring.".

Cic says the court rejected the government's argument that the referendum is unconstitutional because, he says, the government is not a subject or participant in the dispute because it has no constitutional or legal duties involving the calling of a referendum.

"The Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic and not the government is responsible for realization of this declared referendum and its security," Cic told RFE-RL, adding that the court did not make any decision of substance but rather rejected a government motion.

He noted a separate sitting of the court simultaneously rejected a motion by President Kovac concerning government decisions affecting the office of the president because it was incorrectly raised by Kovac acting as a private citizen rather than as a constitutional office-holder. He ruled out any suggestion that any of the judges might have given the government advance warning of the court's decision.

But Cic said: "The Prime Minister could have assumed (how it would turn out) but that is another question," making an apparent illusion to the possibility of covert listening devices in the court.

Cic said the Slovak parliament adopts laws with questionable constitutionality.

"Because of a shortage of time," he said, "these new laws often are not all that perfectly prepared within the framework of the legal system and comparable with norms set by the Constitution."

The Slovak Republic is in permanent, dynamic transformation and because of that, various economic, political, cultural and civic problems require new legislation, he said.

The Constitutional court chairman said that unresolved criminal cases which "have been put under a public magnifying glass should be resolved very promptly to the extent that it is at all possible." But in an apparent reference to a case of the recent kidnapping of the president's son, Cic said that some of these criminal cases have an international dimension causing a slowing down of Slovakia's ability to investigate.

Cic concluded that "a state of law must give its citizens legal security including that a citizen can be certain that as long as he does not commit a criminal offense, he cannot be charged or taken into custody; and that if a citizen does break the law, he must bear liability for his criminal offense."

Upping the ante, yesterday the court rejected a call by lawmakers of the ruling coalition to declare the referendum unconstitutional and ruled that changes in the constitution itself can be made by referendum.

But shortly after the ruling Interior Minister Gustav Krajci ordered the distribution of referendum ballots with only three questions concerning NATO and ignoring the fourth on the constitutional change. Krajci said that he understood the court's ruling as meaning that the question on presidential election conflicts with the existing law and the ballots with four questions will not be distributed.

The central referendum commission has demanded that all four questions appear at the ballots. It has also said that it would not certify ballots with only three questions. The ministry has not responded.

Last week, Meciar held a meeting on the referendum with Christian Democratic opposition leader Jan Carnogursky. This was a special occasion because the two had not met face to face for more than two years.

At least two issues were said to have been discussed. One was the issue of direct presidential elections. Meciar reportedly failed to reach agreement with Carnogursky on how to tackle the problem but said that versions of the ballot papers with three and with four questions were both being printed. The second issue was that of joining the European Union. He divulged that German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and EU Commission Leon Brittan had warned on recent visits to Bratislava that unless a series of domestic political problems were not resolved by next month, the EU will not even open talks with Slovakia on accession.

Those problems include the investigation into the case of President Kovac's son Michal junior, who allegedly was kidnapped by the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1995. They also concern the car bombing and death of a former SIS agent Robert Remias who had participated in the kidnapping but subsequently had a change of heart and helped leak details of the operation. There is also the still unexplained ongoing series of car bombings across the country.

Other problems awaiting resolution are publication of the names of owners of recently privatized enterprises, such as the Gbely petroleum works and the Piestany spa complex; the readmittance to parliament of ousted lawmaker Frantisek Gaulieder after he dissented with Meciar; and a series of changes demanded by the opposition but blocked in parliament by the ruling coalition to allow the opposition to participate in key parliamentary committees.

Meciar and Carnogursky agreed that those cases must be resolved as soon as possible, although it seems that the kidnapping and car bombing cases can be solved only following a major shake-up at the top of SIS, which has until now consistently stymied the investigation.

This is part one of a three-part series on Slovakia. See Slovakia: A Status Report.