With European Union integration an important issue in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and the EU's top representative in Bratislava were presenting significantly different spins on Slovakia's current status.
Mečiar asserted that the Cabinet's August 25 report to the European Commission (EC) on its fulfillment of the economic and legislative conditions for EU entry proves that Slovakia is on pace for integration into the European Union. He was in no doubt that his country had gained ground towards Brussels during the past year. "If we look at the level of talks, the range of objections against us is slowly decreasing," he said in his regular interview for Slovak Radio on August 28. "The arguments are losing steam. In what areas can we say Slovakia is behind?"
But Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the acting head of the European Commission Delegation in Slovakia, was able to list three basic areas - all political - in which Slovakia had still to prove itself before integration could take place: the conduct of free and fair presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections, effective representation of opposition deputies on parliamentary committees, and the adoption of comprehensive minority language legislation.
"These short-term priorities of the EC were not fully addressed in the [August 25] report," von Burgsdorff said. Regarding the minority issue, he added, "we have been receiving assurances from the Slovak government that the issue will be dealt with after the election".
The Cabinet report was presented to von Burgsdorff by Milan Klempai, director of the European Integration Department of the Slovak Cabinet Office. Klempai explained that "the report is basically a summary of the Slovak Cabinet's progress towards integration from July 1997 to August 1998," and said that the government had followed guidelines laid down by the Commission's accession group in March.
Some distance remains between the Slovak government's vision of its compliance with EU norms and the Union's interpretation of the facts. von Burgsdorff said that under the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership, candidate countries must have "achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities."
Although declining to comment specifically on the current political situation in Slovakia, he said that "one might wonder whether a country could be considered to have stable institutions when it is not able to elect a president for six months." But Klempai countered with the assurance that "the current absence of a president is due to some insufficiencies in the Slovak Constitution, but [the present situation ] is absolutely in compliance with [the law]."
Nor is there much agreement on the issue of the inclusion of opposition representatives on parliamentary committees, or the securing of effective control over the state privatization agency, the National Property Fund. Klempai said that the government had secured these aims, but von Burgsdorff said again that the Slovak Cabinet had not addressed the issue satisfactorily.
But it was the absence of minorities legislation that caused the greatest disagreement. Slovakia had asked the Council of Europe to set some guidelines for a suitable minority policy, and groups of experts were dispatched twice to Slovakia in 1998 by the Council, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). An official from the Cabinet Office reported that the government was waiting for the experts' final report, which had been promised for sometime after elections.
"It is not true to state that because of some delays on the EC's side, the Slovak government was not able to prepare a draft [minorities law] for Parliament," replied von Burgsdorff. "The Slovak cabinet is very well aware of the concerns we have, and we have had numerous expert consultations on this issue, but the problem is that the present Slovak cabinet with its present majority in Parliament was not able to agree on a common piece of legislation."
With a crucial EU accession summit scheduled for Vienna in December, all eyes are now on the Slovak elections to see if they will produce a government willing to meet the EU's political criteria. Klempai said that it had been agreed with EU Commissioner for External Affairs Hans van den Broek, during his visit to Slovakia in May, that compliance with these criteria would be measured after elections.
"The EU will carefully observe the course of the election, to which it attributes enormous importance," said van den Broek during his May visit. "Slovakia will have enough time for the necessary democratic changes" before the EU summit, stated Klempai.
Having determined to finish its report on Slovakia by mid October at the latest, the EC will have to satisfy itself about elections by relying mostly on the OSCE observers' mission. The EU has three parliamentarians on hand in Slovakia as short-term observers, and one top EC official - most probably the director general - will arrive following the vote to evaluate the very latest developments and include them in the report.
Von Burgsdorff warned that Slovakia would be held to the same tough standards as were other EU associated countries, despite the political uncertainty caused by elections. "We cannot make a so-called double standard in favour of Slovakia," he said.
The Slovak Cabinet's report to the EC also includes a summary of recent Slovak legislation and its compliance with European laws, as well as a digest of the latest statistical data. The sectors that most concern the EU, said von Burgsdorff, are agriculture, regional and social policy, the environment, free flow of citizens and visa policy.