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Slovakia: Observers Ponder Meaning Of Schuster Victory

Prague, 1 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With results from Slovakia's presidential elections showing Kosice Mayor Rudolf Schuster the clear winner over former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, boosters of Western-style democracy are celebrating cautiously.

But Meciar supporters--and Meciar himself--say the results show that he and his HZDS Party remain a force in the country's politics.

Schuster triumphed this weekend with 57 percent of the vote in Saturday's runoff, easily outdistancing Meciar's 43 percent.

But Meciar still won the backing of nearly 1.3 million voters, suggesting considerable support should he once again try a political comeback. And comebacks are something he is experienced in.

Meciar was a communist youth leader in the 1960s, but thrown out for democratic leanings in 1970. In 1990, he was elected the first post-communist era Slovak prime minister, but a year later was ousted in a party split. Meciar founded the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) in 1991 and in 1992 again became Slovak premier and led the negotiations that split Slovakia and the Czech Republic into separate nations. He was ousted again in 1994 after Slovak President Michal Kovac denounced him. But he regained the post later that same year after leading his HZDS to a win in nationwide parliamentary elections.

After a group of opposition parties won general elections last September, Meciar went into seclusion and, subsequently, announced his retirement from politics. But in April, he entered the presidential race.

Jozef Migas, speaker of Slovakia's parliament, was among the leaders who sounded celebratory after the vote count was announced on Sunday:

"This year should be a turning point for Slovakia. We want to join the first group of countries trying to achieve membership in the EU, and I think next year we should also enter the OECD. And I believe that Rudolf Schuster will be a positive personality to contribute to this."

But from Bratislava, the Czech news agency, CTK, quotes analyst Vladimir Krivy as saying that any idea that Meciar now is out of Slovak politics is an illusion. Krivy said that a comparison of last fall's general election results to the weekend's tally showed that Meciar actually gained strength.

Meciar, himself, has said little in public since the election except to thank his supporters. HZDS Deputy Chairman Sergej Kozlik said that Meciar's party regards the result as a good one, and one that may improve communication between the opposition and the government.

In their own public pronouncements, the victor, Schuster, a former communist, and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, both seemed conciliatory.

Dzurinda said: "Let me use this moment to say something also to the voters of Mr. Meciar. It is not bad news for them that Mr. Schuster won the election; it is also good news for them. Nobody will be angry with anybody for how he or she voted. I believe that Sunday's election will lead to better relation between us--between the coalition and opposition."

At his first meeting with reporters after his victory was assured, Schuster said that he planned as president to represent not only the alliance of parties that backed him, but also the opposition. He said he will seek to meet with opposition leaders, including Meciar.

Although he favors Slovak participation in Western institutions, Schuster said he opposed NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and hopes to work for a peaceful end to the Kosovo crisis.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus told a Slovak newspaper before the elections that he preferred a candidate with party backing to what he called "an isolated independent," a statement widely understood as an endorsement of Meciar. After the election, Klaus backed away, saying any comment would be a mistake.

Czech President Vaclav Havel's office said Havel regards Schuster's victory as confirmation of democratic development in Slovakia since the general elections last fall. Both Schuster and Havel said, in separate statements, that the two presidents hope to meet soon to seek bilateral cooperation.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said NATO welcomed the filling of Slovakia's vacant presidential chair and hoped for an early visit to NATO headquarters by the new Slovak leader.