West relaxes as Slovakia elects friendly president

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The Independent Online
THE WEST breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after the Slovakian people elected Rudolf Schuster as their president in preference to Vladimir Meciar, the stridently nationalist former prime minister .

Mr Schuster, the candidate of the country's four-party coalition government, took 47.3 per cent in Saturday's vote, with Mr Meciar taking 37.2 per cent of the vote, the central election commission said. Turn-out was 73.9 per cent.

However Mr Schuster fell short of the 50 per cent of votes required to win the presidency outright, and a winner-takes-all final round will have to be fought out between him and Mr Meciar on 29 May.

The result will please Western capitals, where diplomats had been 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 its neighbours such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, failing to join Nato or be included in the first round of EU accession. Mr Meciar has predictably emerged as a fierce opponent of Nato's air campaign against Yugoslavia and as a supporter of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

His brand of nationalist authoritarianism was repeatedly criticised for its poor human rights records, and alleged links between figures in the secret service and organised crime.

The importance of Slovakia remaining locked in the West's influence is underlined by the Nato operation. Unlike Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic the country remains outside Nato, but its territory will assume vital strategic importance were any land invasion of Serbia to take place, with the country acting as a useful troop and tank transit point from Germany.

Mr Schuster, the popular mayor of the eastern city of Kosice, founded one of the four parties currently in the coalition government. He was a member of the central committee of the Slovak Communist Party before the collapse of communist rule in 1989.

Uniquely for any nation in Europe, Slovakia has been without a head of state for more than a year. It slipped into a constitutional hiatus on 2 March, 1998, when the last president, Michal Kovac, stepped down at the end of his term of office.