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Slovakia: Rail Strike Presents Challenge To Dzurinda Government

In Slovakia, a nationwide strike by railroad workers has angered government leaders, who say the move is part of a calculated attempt by the opposition to regain power.

Prague, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Slovak government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, in office for barely three months, is facing a major test of its resoluteness to impose wide-ranging cost-cutting measures.

Railway workers have been on strike since Friday (31 January) evening to protest the proposed closure of 25 branch lines, the layoff of 450 railroad workers, and the cancellation of some 200 passenger-train connections.

The strike has forced international freight and passenger trains to be rerouted and, according to Dzurinda, is costing the railways huge sums in lost business and could lead to bankruptcy. "The way I see it, the step that the union bosses have taken on the railroads is very, very risky. It was quietly prepared and carried out 'on the side' without the railroads having had enough time to prepare for such an act," he said.

Dzurinda believes the opposition has a hand in the strike. "It is not a matter of protecting any social interests of the railroad workers but a power grab, a power grab with a clear political background," he said.

The central strikers' committee responded to Dzurinda with an open letter in which they denied the strike is part of a power struggle or is serving the interests of an opposition party.

Nevertheless, the second in command in the Slovak Transportation, Communications and Public Works Ministry, State Secretary Branislav Opaterny, appears convinced that the unions are testing the government's resolve while preparing for a general strike. "We're justified in having the impression that the subjects of this game are no longer branch lines but rather it's a test of whether it would be possible -- whether the trade unions have the strength -- to call a general strike in violation of the Labor Code. I think this is starting to be a battle over the character that this state [Slovakia] will have," Opaterny said.

Populist opposition leader and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar says the strike could shake the government. He told a meeting of his party, HZDS, in Kosice last night that the strike is the result of the government's social policies. Meciar said that despite its $1 billion debt, the railroad's role as an employer and provider of social contributions cannot be ignored.

HZDS deputy spokesman Viliam Veteska said the party supports the unions since many of the strikers are HZDS voters, but opposes the damage being caused by the strike. News reports indicate a rise in vandalism in rail yards.

Meanwhile, a number of key industrial enterprises, including U.S. Steel near Kosice and the Bratislava petrochemical works, are beginning to feel the pinch of not getting supplies required to continue production.

Milos Cikovsky is spokesman of the Railroads Association said: "In strategically important enterprises, the situation is starting to be critical. Nervousness is growing. They're sending us faxes, e-mails, and phoning us for help or else asking for guarantees that we're capable of preparing something."

The various sides appear to be at a standoff in part because the strikers say they are unwilling to compromise. Milan Host, deputy chairman of the central strike committee, says the strikers stand by their demands to keep in operation 25 branch-line routes. "Yes, we're standing by our demands. That's what we're striking for, so we can't back down, for example, by allowing, say, 10 routes to be shut down. That's not negotiable," he said.

However, the director-general of Slovak Railways, Pavlov Kuzma, insists the railways have no choice but to close down unprofitable branch lines. "We cannot undertake transport on these routes because we don't have the financial means to do so. These lines are clearly loss making, and we will not subsidize these routes," Kuzma said.

Meanwhile, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster entered the fray today, saying he is distressed by the growing economic damage resulting from the rail strike, as well as the resulting impact on the public and on Slovakia's prestige abroad. He contacted the various parties involved in the talks, including the strike leaders, and called on them to work harder to bring the strike to an end. He also offered his own participation in searching for a compromise.