Amid furious accusations of a revival of Communist repression, the Slovak parliament yesterday ratified a controversial new law aimed at protecting the state against subversion.
The debate on the so-called Law on the Protection of the Republic provoked uproar on opposition benches, where speakers denounced it as a throwback to the legislation of the Communist era and a further blow to Slovakia's already tarnished international image.
Opposition deputies banged their desks and jeered as news came through that the law had been approved by a margin of 77 to 57. Peter Weiss, leader of the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), said the law would limit freedom of expression, assembly and information and promised to challenge it in the constitutional court.
Other speakers compared some of the law's provisions with a similar "anti- subversion" measure passed in 1948 by the Communist government of the then Czechoslovakia.
Under the law, technically an amendment to the criminal code, Slovak citizens could face two years' imprisonment if found guilty of "disseminating false information abroad damaging to the interests of the republic".
Other clauses point to stiff penalties for organisers of public rallies judged to be aimed at subverting the constitutional system, territorial integrity or defence capability of the country.
The government insists that the law complies with accepted international norms, but critics say the vagueness of its wording leaves it open to a wide variety of interpretation and that, in the wrong hands, it could be used to silence opposition. Western diplomats, some of whom in the past have openly questioned Slovakia's progress towards democracy, have also sought clarification of the new legislation.
The Law on the Protection of the Republic is one of a package of tough new laws believed to be part of a deal agreed between the Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), a junior partner in his ruling coalition.
In return for Mr Meciar's agreement to introduce the new measures, nationalist MPs agreed to support his attempt to win parliamentary backing for a Basic Treaty with Hungary agreed in principle just over a year ago. Last night the treaty, which was approved by the Hungarian parliament last summer, was ratified by Slovak MPs by 119 to 1.
Under the Basic Treaty, Hungary accepts the inviolability of its border with Slovakia in return for guarantees concerning the rights of Slovakia's 600,000 ethnic Hungarian minority.
Both Bratislava and Budapest hope that the agreement shows the two countries have put old animosities aside and will thereby strengthen their bids to join the European Union and Nato.
While welcoming the Basic Treaty, representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia remain extremely mistrustful of the government in Bratislava.
Ethnic Hungarian leaders say that a law passed late last year enshrining Slovak as the only official language clearly goes against the spirit of the treaty. They are also alarmed by the new anti-subversion law, fearing that it will be used against them.