Slovak statehood loses its promised gloss: Tony Barber reports from Bratislava on the disappointments and problems of the year since the severing of ties with the Czech lands

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THESE are difficult times for Slovakia. Economic slump, political turbulence, ethnic tensions and disputes with neighbouring Hungary have bedevilled Year One of Slovak independence.

Neither the image nor the reality of Slovak statehood seems as bright as most of the 5.3 million citizens had hoped when their leaders severed ties with the Czech lands last January. 'People are tired and want to have results,' acknowledged Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister.

Czechoslovakia's break-up, though peaceful, has caused people endless trouble. One Slovak woman wanted to bring the ashes of her mother, who had died in the Czech Republic, to their final resting- place in Slovakia. But now that Czechs and Slovaks live in separate states, she risked entanglement in various forms of red tape governing the movement of human remains across international borders. She eventually smuggled her mother into Slovakia in a concealed urn.

Other Slovaks - perhaps as many as 300,000 - have opted to stay in the Czech Republic and take Czech citizenship. These include many talented businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and officials who had worked for federal Czechoslovak institutions in Prague. It has not proved easy for Slovakia, a small republic that has traditionally lagged behind the Czech lands, to compensate for such losses.

Still, the picture is not uniformly bleak. Early in the year, Slovakia seemed to be drifting into international isolation. Western Europe appeared to regard Slovakia as a less suitable candidate for integration than the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary. Slovakia had acquired a reputation as a place where too many former Communists were still in their jobs, where economic reform was making little headway, and where the government had an ambiguous attitude towards ethnic minority rights, freedom of the media and other civil liberties.

The image was not entirely fair. In June Slovakia concluded an association agreement with the European Community, joined the Council of Europe, strengthened co- operation with Nato and signed an accord with the International Monetary Fund. After dabbling with ideas such as finding a 'third way' between capitalism and socialism and acting as a bridge between East and West, Slovak leaders appear to have accepted the need to remodel their country on Western lines.

Still better news is that most analysts expect the Slovak economy to grow next year. The elimination of trade barriers with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should stimulate trade and encourage investment in Slovakia.

But polls suggest that Slovaks are still uncertain about the benefits of independence. In March, only 32 per cent of people questioned in one survey said they welcomed the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Many Slovaks feel betrayed by the promises of politicians that Slovakia would be in better economic shape without the Czech connection.

Since 1989, the Slovak economy has shrunk by at least 30 per cent. One in eight workers is unemployed. With its post-1945 emphasis on armaments and heavy engineering, Slovakia was particularly vulnerable to the upheaval caused by the end of Communism and the Cold War. Soviet markets disappeared, and this year trade with the Czech Republic has fallen, too.

Critics blame much of the shaky start to independence on Mr Meciar, a burly former boxer who graduated in 1965 from the Communist Youth League college in Moscow. His style is often truculent, suggesting he sees enemies on all fronts. He has aroused fears of censorship by demanding that the state should have the power 'to guarantee that the media tell the truth', and he is not popular with Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians and Gypsies.

The Hungarians, perhaps 600,000 strong, complain about the removal of dual-language road signs in southern Slovakia and say Hungarian married women are forced to add the Slovak suffix '-ova' to their names. Relations with Hungary are also dogged by a dispute over a joint hydroelectric dam project on the Danube which Hungary pulled out of unilaterally despite its economic importance to Slovakia.

A parliamentary committee accused Mr Meciar in March 1992 of collaboration with the former Communist security services, but the charge remains unproven. In fact, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1970, apparently for expressing sympathy with the reformist ideals of the Prague Spring.

More important is the question of how wisely he wields his power. A former foreign minister, Milan Knazko, who fell out with Mr Meciar last March, says the Prime Minister has 'authoritarian attitudes'. One Czech, generally sympathetic to Mr Meciar, says he surrounds himself with lackeys and tends not to keep his own government informed of his actions.

Another former Slovak official blames Mr Meciar for not clearing former Communists out of key ministries. 'A reforming central or eastern European state absolutely must clean up three ministries: foreign, defence and interior. This has not happened enough here.'

Mr Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), lost its majority in parliament in March when the smaller Slovak National Party withdrew from an informal coalition and Mr Knazko and seven other deputies left the HZDS. Since then, Mr Meciar has found it impossible to form a new coalition.

The climate of uncertainty has not completely scared off much- needed foreign investment, but it has hardly helped, either. 'The image is important, not the money. There must be confidence in the stability of Slovakia,' said Gunter Klemp, an executive with Volkswagen, one of the biggest Western investors in Slovakia.

The political paralysis means that early elections may be necessary. No party would win an outright majority, but one likely benefactor is the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), the reformed Communists. Poland and Lithuania have already returned former Communists to power. A disenchanted electorate may cause Slovakia to follow suit.