Slovakia steps up arms production

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The Independent Online
LESS THAN one week after gaining independence, Slovakia has announced plans to increase its production and export of arms in a bid to boost its flagging economy.

A foreign ministry official said yesterday new laws were being prepared which would lift restrictions imposed on the weapons industry by the federal government of former Czechoslovakia.

Officials were also quick to deny that Slovak arms would be available to all bidders - especially countries from regions of tension or areas under embargo by the United Nations, such as former Yugoslavia. 'Slovakia will follow UN recommendations on the export of arms and is ready to consult pluralistic democracies such as France and the United States on this very sensitive question,' said Roman Buzak, the foreign ministry spokesman.

The statements followed a similar pledge to boost arms production by Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia's Prime Minister, on Tuesday.

In a speech at Trencin, the Slovak army headquarters, Mr Meciar said drastic cutbacks in arms production since Czechoslovakia's 'velvet revolution' in 1989 had had a disastrous impact on Slovakia's economy, while contributing nothing to the cause of world peace. 'Where Slovakia got out of the world's (arms) markets, others stepped in,' he said. 'It did not help the cause of peace, it just meant that one competitor dropped out.'

Until 1989, Czechoslovakia was the second largest producer of conventional weapons in the Warsaw Pact behind the Soviet Union. In addition to its Warsaw Pact allies, it also sold weapons to a range of Third World countries enjoying Soviet support - most infamously selling Semtex, an industrial explosive frequently used by terrorist groups, to Libya.

Under President Vaclav Havel, radical plans were initiated aimed at cutting weapons production by up to 40 per cent a year and converting arms factories, which at one time employed 80,000 people, to other uses. Between 1989 and 1991, arms exports from Czechoslovakia slumped from 29 billion crowns ( pounds 654m) to just 4bn crowns.

With almost 80 per cent of arms production concentrated in Slovakia, the howls of protest from Bratislava were immediate. Claiming that the arms cutback was one of the main reasons for Slovakia's 12 per cent unemployment rate - three times higher than that in the Czech republic - Mr Meciar used the issue in the run-up to last June's elections in which his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia scored a resounding victory.

Despite assurances that no weapons will be sold to regions of tension or countries on UN blacklists, many Western observers fear that, in practice, Mr Meciar's government may not have too many scruples about whom it does business with. 'Given that the quality of Slovak arms is lower than others on the market, the concern is that it will end up primarily selling to countries unable to buy their weapons elsewhere,' said one.