Schuster leads in Slovak poll

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THE WEST was cautiously relieved yesterday after the Slovakian people showed early support for Rudolf Schuster as their next president, in preference to Vladimir Meciar, the nationalist former prime minister.

Mr Schuster, the candidate of the country's four-party coalition government, took 47.3 per cent of a vote on Saturday, short of the 50 per cent required to win the presidency outright, with Mr Meciar taking 37.2 per cent, according to the central election commission. Turn-out was 73.9 per cent.

A winner-takes-all final round will be fought between Mr Schuster and Mr Meciar on 29 May. But Western capitals will be pleased that Mr Schuster seems favourite to win this deciding round: diplomats are nervous that a victory by Mr Meciar would drag back this central European nation into the orbit of states such as Russia and Ukraine.

Under Mr Meciar's rule as prime minister, Slovakia languished far behind some of its former Eastern bloc neighbours, failing to join Nato or be included in the first round of EU accession. And Mr Meciar has emerged as a fierce opponent of Nato's air campaign against Yugoslavia and as a supporter of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

His nationalist authoritarianism has frequently been criticised for its human rights record and for the alleged links between its secret service and organised crime.

Despite being outside Nato - unlike Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic - Slovakia could be a useful transit point for troops and tanks from Germany in any invasion of Serbia.