Prague, 25 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar claimed recently that, in his words, "talk in Europe about Slovakia's lack of democracy will definitely come to an end" after this week's elections. But there is serious doubt whether Slovakia will be able to overcome its poor image in the long term should Meciar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) retain power.
Such a result could, arguably, result in Slovakia's losing a full decade in its effort to join NATO and the European Union. On the other hand, if the assembled opposition parties manage to pull together an electoral victory, Slovakia will have the chance to restore its credibility rather quickly and realign itself with the West.
So the choice Slovaks make in these elections will basically determine if their country identifies with the West and is prepared to take part in its institutional structures, or if it continues to orient itself toward less developed, slower reforming post-Soviet states to the East.
Slovakia's current dubious image abroad has been shaped principally by the Meciar regime's parochial, immature and often brutal political leadership. This behavior, ranging from petty political subterfuge to outright thuggery, has saddled Slovakia with an unfavorable image that, whatever the elections' outcome, may be hard to shed.
Remarkably, it was not very long ago that Slovakia was considered to belong to the same so-called fast-track group of applicants for Western integration as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But, no longer perceived as a member of the original Visegrad group, Slovakia now runs the risk of slipping still farther.
This time, however, the stakes are much higher. The very possibility that Slovakia will become more closely associated with its Eastern neighbors has significant implications. It could reinforce the belief of the outside world--as well as Slovaks themselves--that Slovakia's place is in the East. That belief would effectively freeze Slovakia's candidacy for admission to the EU and NATO.
While Slovakia's economy has proven resilient, its political development has been inconsistent with Western standards. In fact, as a result of its relative political immaturity, there is a larger question as to whether Slovakia can maintain its economic successes in the long run without the necessary consolidation of democracy and international integration.
It is difficult to gauge precisely the cost of the Slovak leadership's preoccupation with internal rivalries and political intrigue over the past six years. But dawdling during the crucial initial courtship of Western institutions has probably set back Slovakia at least several years and has prevented the country from achieving the necessary degree of political soundness to advance into key Western organizations.
The window for first-round NATO admission is already closed. The EU sent a resolute message to Bratislava last year when Slovakia --whose strong economic performance has been recognized by the EU's Executive Commission -- was pointedly left off the first-round invitation list as a result of its underdeveloped democratic institutions.
One of the most important consequences of NATO and EU expansion is the salutary effect these institutions can have on relations among its member states. Both organizations have been instrumental in forging a peaceful postwar trans-Atlantic order and have contributed greatly to the prosperity enjoyed by its members. By remaining outside their positive influence, Slovakia loses the opportunity to improve its own internal development and establish better working relationships with its neighbors.
The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are not only among the first-round candidates for EU admission but are also the first three to receive invitations to join the NATO alliance. All three nations have broadly demonstrated their commitment to resolving difficult public-policy questions in a manner consistent with Western norms.
The results are already visible: Poland is undertaking a number of important initiatives to improve regional cooperation, including difficult negotiations with Ukraine on border issues and steps toward closer association with Germany. The newly elected Hungarian leadership, while using rather heated rhetoric on minority issues, is not expected to deviate from acceptable political norms. That is in no small measure due to Hungary's having accepted responsibilities in Western institutions.
Slovakia's choice in the elections is of regional concern. The Czechs, for instance, face the prospect of having their Moravian frontier form a portion of the new East-West divide. For Poland and Hungary --not to mention Austria-- an unanchored and unpredictable Slovakia will hinder the effort to build an integrated regional economic and security structure.
Meciar has done a masterful job of dividing the Slovak opposition, but the political stunts and hard-ball tactics he has employed to maintain power have had a corrosive effect on Slovakia's political culture. During the period of HZDS control, infighting and cronyism have been the rule rather than the exception, and there have been few steps taken to direct the young Slovak state toward political normalcy.
On the contrary, the Meciar period has defined itself by its reliance on what it regards as foreign and domestic villains, thus limiting Slovakia's focus on more substantive matters and preventing the country from engaging in vital self-examination. That tactic is an integral part of a larger strategy aimed at blaming domestic deficiencies on foreign interference.
With their votes today and tomorrow, Slovaks will decide for themselves whether Meciar's HZDS is best suited for advancing their country's real interests. They will also determine Slovakia's proper place in Europe.
(The author is manager of programs at the European Journalism Network.)