Slovakia finds the going tough on its own: The Slovak Prime Minister is trying hard to persuade his people that independence is a good thing, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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WESTERN politicians are sometimes criticised for concealing the true condition of their countries behind a froth of propaganda. It would be hard to level the same accusation at Slovakia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar. After several thousand trade unionists staged anti-government protests last month, he commented gloomily: 'Slovakia is like a train with 5.3 million passengers going down a hill with no brakes.'

Mr Meciar appears in no doubt that Slovakia did the right thing on 1 January by agreeing with the Czech Republic to split Czechoslovakia into two countries. Addressing parliament in Bratislava, he went so far as to suggest that, without its own state, the Slovak nation might suffer the fate of the Sorbs, a Slavic minority in Germany that has all but vanished: 'We waited 1,000 years for this opportunity, 1,000 years of oppression and discord. I want to tell all those who wish to take revenge on the government for 1 January, 1993, all adventurers who do not understand the way history works, that should we lose this state, then the waves of European development will swallow us, just as they swallowed the Lusatian Sorbs.'

Still, independence is proving a torrid experience for Mr Meciar, his ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, and Slovaks generally. The economy is in crisis: unemployment is 12 per cent and rising; more than half of Slovakia's major companies are near bankruptcy; the state deficit is increasing, while foreign currency reserves are low; and trade with its most important partner, the Czech Republic, has plummeted since January.

In a recent survey, issued by the Slovak Statistics Office, 51 per cent said Czechoslovakia's break-up was bad for Slovakia; only 32 per cent thought it was positive. Support for Mr Meciar's party and the Slovak National Party, the two main advocates of an independent Slovakia, is falling. Their combined support was 45 per cent in opinion polls soon after last June's elections, when it became clear that the Czechs and Slovaks were to divorce. It is now 35 per cent.

Then in March Milan Knazko, then foreign minister, and seven other deputies left Mr Meciar's party. The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia now has only 74 of parliament's 150 seats and, say some of its own members, faces growing internal divisions. Mr Meciar's personal popularity rating slipped from 34 per cent in January to 22 per cent in late March.

Many Slovak politicians are tempted to blame Czech leaders. They say the Czechs forced through the divorce too quickly and accuse them of applying economic pressure on Slovakia, not least by refusing to let Slovaks take up shares they bought in Czech companies last year. Since the Czechs have kept for themselves the old Czechoslovak flag and big company names such as CSA, the Czechoslovak airline, and Cedok, the travel agency, the Slovaks say that they deserve financial compensation.

A leader of Slovakia's opposition Social Democratic Party, Jaroslav Volf, summed up a common attitude towards the Czechs. In the negotiations over how to share out Czechoslovak property, he said, the Czechs had shown 'their familiar craftiness, as well as arrogance and meanness'.

But Slovakia's troubles cannot all be blamed on the Czechs, or on the challenge of modernising an economy heavily dependent on arms manufacturing and inefficient heavy industries. Polls suggest that Mr Meciar is finding it increasingly hard to persuade Slovaks of the merits of independence. Yet the door has slammed on a united Czechoslovak state. Slovakia is a confused and nervous country.