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Slovakia: Political Turmoil Churns Again As Defense Minister Targeted For Sacking

Not even a visit by the pope can put a stop to the Slovak ruling coalition's seemingly never-ending run of quarrels. On the day the head of the Catholic Church arrived in Bratislava, the Slovak political scene was plunged into turmoil again with the announcement by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda that he will sack his defense minister. The announcement comes as the country prepares to join NATO.

Bratislava, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Slovakia's coalition government is no stranger to squabbles.

Earlier this summer, Christians and liberals from different governing parties quarreled over whether to restrict or liberalize abortion rules. This week, the country's economy minister resigned after openly criticizing his party boss -- who will now replace him.

But the latest row is the most mysterious -- and potentially the most damaging to Slovakia's image abroad.

It centers on Jan Mojzis, the head of the National Security Office (NBU). The security watchdog screens security service members and ensures no one with shady pasts or the whiff of corruption is granted access to sensitive information.

Slovakia's prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, wants to fire Mojzis due to what he calls a "lack of trust." But Dzurinda's proposal to sack Mojzis failed in a cabinet vote this week.

Some ministers said Dzurinda hadn't given a good enough reason for the sacking. Worse for Dzurinda, his defense minister and party colleague Ivan Simko abstained from the vote.

"Firing the head of the NBU without a reason that the public can understand would be damaging to Slovakia," Simko said. "At the moment, when Slovakia is aiming to join NATO, our future partners consider extremely important the security of secret documents, and that's where the NBU has an important job. That's why to cast doubt on [this office] and to carry out a change like this without there being any clearly articulated specific reason -- I think that just won't be good for our future relations with our alliance partners."

Unfortunately for Simko, the move has all but certainly cost him his job. Dzurinda is expected to hand President Rudolf Schuster his proposal to sack the defense minister on 16 September.

That move has prompted some harsh criticism. The daily "Sme" said Dzurinda showed "that he really does not care about Slovakia's reputation abroad." Another daily compared him to a dictator. There were even comparisons to Dzurinda's autocratic predecessor, Vladimir Meciar.

It's also confused many, especially after Mojzis got a clear signal of approval from NATO allies when the British and American ambassadors paid him a visit this week.

Asked about potential repercussions, Dzurinda said he hopes he'll be able to soothe any worries.

"[I'll] be answering the questions. But I'm going to be active in this direction myself in the coming days so that we understand each other, so there are no [misunderstandings]."

It appears the row won't cause permanent damage to Slovakia's NATO membership accession next year. But analysts say it doesn't help -- especially as the country is still shaking off the reputation of corruption gained under Meciar's rule.

(RFE/RL's Slovak Service contributed to this report.)