Meciar Prepares to Visit Skeptical U.S.
'I Don't Eat Children,' Slovak PM Says in Interview
United Press International, May 16, 1993
BRATISLAVA -- Vladimir Meciar, prime minister of 5-month-old Slovakia, hopes during an unofficial U.S. visit this week to place his new country on the political map and to secure investment for a struggling economy.
Meciar, due to arrive Monday, planned during his trip to address the U.S. Congress and meet senior officials of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund officials, a government spokesman said.
The Slovak premier, who founded HZDS, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, before his country's split this year from the former Czechoslovakia, also wants to foster closer links with the U.S. Democratic Party.
"Of all the political parties in the West, Bill Clinton's is closest to us in its program," he told United Press International in a recent interview. For more than two years, the 50-year-old former boxer has dominated Slovak politics, steering his country to a controversial split with the Czech Republic on Jan. 1.
But five months after their peaceful so-called "velvet divorce," the two neighbors are still haggling about the division of former federal property and the type of border that will divide them.
A showdown with his former foreign minister, Milan Knazko, and the subsequent defection of eight HZDS deputies also dented Meciar's stature and left his party without a majority in Parliament.
And worries about the status of the 700,000-member Hungarian minority and the tussle with neighboring Hungary about the Gabcikovo hydroelectric plant on the River Danube have not helped Slovakia's image abroad.
"I'll consider my trip successful if ... people see that I don't eat children and that I can use a knife and fork," the prime minister said, reverting to the direct style that won him a vast following during the 1992 elections and is envied by even his most outspoken critics.
Although Slovakia has joined leading international bodies like the United Nations, the country has yet to secure the approval of international financial institutions like the IMF, whose bill of health is regarded essential by major lenders.
While Slovakia has a trade surplus with the Czech Republic, its budget deficit has shot up to 30 billion Slovak crowns ($470 million) since independence, and unemployment stands at 12 percent.
The IMF wants the budget deficit brought under control and the Slovak crown devalued, a move Meciar and other Slovak politicians have stubbornly resisted because they see it as humiliating.
And while Meciar is confident Slovakia will receive a so-called special transition facility, a new loan being developed by the IMF to suit the needs of post-Communist economies, details have yet to be agreed.
"Discussions are continuing," said an IMF spokesman in Washington.
In tune with other East European countries, Slovakia says additional problems are being caused by the European Community, which is shutting its markets to cheaper Eastern European imports.
"We would like to export to some countries or to have the advantages (they) are granted here, but they are not willing to talk about this," said Alexander Melicher, the head of the Finance Ministry's international department, referring to the the 12-member Western European trade bloc.
Uncertainties about the Slovak crown and the difficult business environment also have kept many foreign investors away.
"The main problem are the restrictions on converting profits into hard currency," said Vivian Ashton, a consultant with Price Waterhouse. "That has created a real hold-up."
And as the euphoria of independence wears off, Meciar is facing mounting political difficulties, with some arguing that HZDS is able to cling to power only because the four main opposition parties have been unable to forge a common front.
His critics say he is an opportunist, and several politicians, including Knazko, have accused him of systematically lying to suit his political purposes.
Although Slovakia's most popular politician over the last two years, the premier has seen his own confidence rating tumble from 82 percent to 27 percent at the end of March, according to polls conducted by the Slovak Statistics Office.
His party, which holds all the positions in government and gave the country its first president, has seen its support dwindle from 37 percent at the June 1992 parliamentary elections to 20 percent in a recent survey.
But few of these setbacks seem to have deterred the thick-set premier.
"Slovakia is like a patient who is about to have his tooth pulled out," he said. "Although it can't be helped he still cries in pain."