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1998 In Review: Meciar Departs, Lukashenka Remains Firmly In Office

Prague, 16 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Slovakia's Vladimir Meciar and Belarus' Alyaksandr Lukashenka have for years been the subject of more international criticism than any other leaders from Central and Eastern Europe outside the former Yugoslavia.

This year, one of them lost power. In September, Prime Minister Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and two other allied groups -- one far right and one far left -- lost nationwide parliamentary elections.

The end of Meciar's leadership came after years of criticism from both his internal opposition and from Western governments and organizations, which accused him of adopting authoritarian methods. Both the European Union and NATO had dropped Slovakia from the list of leading candidates for membership.

The new government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda promptly announced its intention to follow policies rooted in a respect for human and civil rights. It has also declared its intention to bring Slovakia back to the front ranks of states seeking EU and NATO membership.

Dzurinda in an address parliament this month, just before taking power, stated his views clearly: "If you want to achieve the proper effect, then we have to adopt also some unpopular measures. It is the price we have to pay for your rule, dear opposition colleagues. (This task) is neither pleasant nor joyful for the present government."

Meciar, since leading Slovakia's split with the Czech Republic in January 1993, had been accused of limiting freedoms of expression, assembly and information during his two terms as head of government. More than two years ago, Slovakia's parliament, which was then dominated by a Meciar-led coalition of populist and nationalist parties, adopted an anti-subversion law.

Slovakia's Catholic Church issued a statement at the time in which it said that some articles of the law "could be compared with (the communist-era law) of 1948 under which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were persecuted or even tortured to death." Meciar's critics at home likened him to Lukashenka, president of Belarus.

This year, those making the comparison could note that both men continued to openly profess disdain for political opponents. Western institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the EU, accused both of making efforts to muzzle the media and suppress independent public organizations. Both men in return were critical of the West.

Strains between Minsk and the West reached a new high in June when Lukashenka's government locked out, ostensibly for the purpose of repairing sewage pipes, scores of ambassadors from their residences in a suburb of the capital. The U.S. State Department said the move violated international agreements.

While Meciar and Lukashenka have both received regular criticism from the West, there were significant differences in their motivations and in how they governed.

Meciar has been an ardent Slovak nationalist, proud of his country's recent independence and historical identity.

Lukashenka, though a Belarusian himself, insists on the use of Russian as the principal language of government, business and instruction. Three years ago he won a referendum approving his country's integration with Russia and giving Russian the status of state language. And while Meciar was often criticized both internally and externally for his political methods, Lukashenka's critics say he has gone further. He dissolved one parliament in 1996 and simply set up another filled by supporters. That same year, he also imposed direct control over the judiciary. The judges in all courts are nominated by the president alone. Further, Lukashenka rules largely by decree.

In April 1997, a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe visited Belarus to observe the political conditions there. Its report concluded, quoting, "there is every indication that the authorities (in Belarus) are constructing a system of totalitarian government."

Yet Lukashenka remains popular with many Belarusians, repeatedly winning referendums giving him increased power. Even Belarus' growing economic troubles, which late this year prompted the government to impose food rationing in many parts of the country, do not appear to have greatly undermined his popularity.

In Belarus, effective and openly organized opposition is difficult, if not impossible. Sporadic and largely unauthorized public protests against the government are frequently met with police crackdowns and random arrests. Many opposition leaders have either been jailed or forced to flee the country. In January a law imposed a requirement for prior government permission for any public gathering. This month, Lukashenka has begun a push to ban anyone guilty of an administrative offense -- which includes participation in unauthorized demonstrations -- from running in elections.

In Meciar's Slovakia, opposition parties and dissenting groups operated in the open during 1998, although the government restricted their effective access to state-owned media.

Meciar's opponents from time to time staged protests against the government's policies and methods, sometimes attracting thousands of participants. Public groups such as Catholic clergy and an ecumenical Council of Churches also periodically issued statements expressing concern over specific acts by the government.

Another difference between Meciar and Lukashenka is that the Slovak leader stopped short of interfering in free and fair elections. After losing, he said that he and his allies "must respect the decision of the will of the citizens of Slovakia."

Meciar concluded his public remarks in October, acknowledging defeat, and bid farewell to followers in a song.

"I loved the life and I still love it. I lived in full, I gave you everything. And what am I supposed to do now? Let us sing: Farewell, I'm leaving you, I didn't hurt any of you. Be well."

In contrast, it does not appear that Lukashenka will have to face voters in an election for several more years. Elections were originally planned for next year, but in a referendum in 1996, his mandate was extended into 2001.

The EU, other Western bodies and the OSCE have refused to recognize the referendum results.