Thousands cheer Slovak 'freedom'

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The Independent Online
VLADIMIR MECIAR, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, yesterday hailed his country's newly acquired independence, saying it fulfilled a 'thousand-year-long desire for our own state', and an 'escape from assimilation and the loss of national identity'. Addressing the nation hours after a raucous midnight celebration of independence in the new country's capital, Bratislava, Mr Meciar warned that there would be tough times ahead - but predicted that Slovaks would rise to the challenge.

The Prime Minister also pledged that, despite the disintegration of the Czechoslovak state, Bratislava would continue to have close relations with the more prosperous Czech republic to the north-west, particularly in economic co-operation.

'It would be a great mistake to blame or to hold someone responsible (for the split),' Mr Meciar said. 'The federation is already the past. We should learn from the errors made while living together and develop and continue with what was positive.'

In Prague, Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Prime Minister, said that Czechs had not wanted the split, but had effectively been left no choice following the victory of the nationalist Mr Meciar in elections last June. Mr Klaus, too, stressed that both countries would continue to have close ties.

The ambivalent feelings over the break-up of Czechoslovakia, which was formed in 1918, were apparent in both Prague and Bratislava. Czech reluctance to let go of the Slovaks many regarded as errant younger brothers was reflected in the fact that there were no official celebrations marking the division at the stroke of midnight on new year's eve.

In Bratislava, however, despite the strong reservations similarly felt by many Slovaks, fears that the long-awaited proclamation of independence would be a damp squib proved unfounded.

As midnight approached, thousands gathered in the Square of Slovakia's National Uprising to watch the hoisting of the new flag accompanied by fireworks, the singing of Slovak national songs and impromptu waltzing to the 'Blue Danube' by Johann Strauss.

'This is a fantastic moment for us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,' said John Novis, a Slovak living in Australia who had returned to share in the festivities. 'Nobody expects miracles overnight, but things must get better now that we have control over our own lives.'

Marina, a student sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with three friends, declared: 'They (my friends) will probably kill me for saying this but, yes, I am happy that we are finally independent. I am proud to be Slovak.'

Jubilation, coupled with hopeful expectation, was written large on the faces of nearly all those who had braved temperatures dipping to well below freezing point to join in the public celebration. But a somewhat sinister note was struck when ultra-nationalists leapt on to a hastily erected stage brandishing posters of Jozef Tiso, leader of the Nazi puppet state set up in Slovakia during the Second World War.

'There is no justification for drawing parallels between the Slovak state created then and that of today,' assured Mr Meciar at an eve-of-independence press conference. 'At that time, it was enforced upon us. Now it is based on the will of the people.'

Although not even his sternest critics would go so far as to compare Mr Meciar directly with Tiso, his authoritarian style of government since assuming office in June has already given rise to considerable concern.

With an economy which, by his own definition, is in a 'crisis' and an abrupt ending of federal budget subsidies, critics fear that, in order to divert attention from the scale of the problems, Mr Meciar's government will whip up tensions between Slovaks and the country's several ethnic minorities, particularly its 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian community.

In his televised address yesterday, Mr Meciar called upon all 5.3 million citizens to unite in building up the country, promising equal rights for all. At the same time, he said he would seek to smooth relations with Hungary, which he has frequently accused of seeking to revive its border with Slovakia and of interfering in its internal affairs.

(Photograph omitted)