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Europe, US react with concern to failed referenda

The European Commission and Western diplomats expressed concern and disappointment over the outcome of the May 23-24 referenda, but have so far not indicated how they would deal with what they consider a grave, controversial event involving the current ruling coalition.
The Slovak government is accused of printing and distributing illegal ballots in national referenda gauging the public's opinion on the country entering NATO and directly electing the Slovak president. It denies any illegal involvement in the referenda, which drew less than 10 percent of the electorate to the polls.
"All of Slovakia's friends were appalled by the circumstances surrounding the invalidation of last weekend's referendum on NATO membership and direct presidential elections," said Hans Van den Broek, the European Union's (EU) Commissioner for External Relations, during his May 29 visit to Bratislava.


Vladimír Hák

The European Commission and Western diplomats expressed concern and disappointment over the outcome of the May 23-24 referenda, but have so far not indicated how they would deal with what they consider a grave, controversial event involving the current ruling coalition.

The Slovak government is accused of printing and distributing illegal ballots in national referenda gauging the public's opinion on the country entering NATO and directly electing the Slovak president.

It denies any illegal involvement in the referenda, which drew less than 10 percent of the electorate to the polls.

EU: grave concern over rule of law

"All of Slovakia's friends were appalled by the circumstances surrounding the invalidation of last weekend's referendum on NATO membership and direct presidential elections," said Hans Van den Broek, the European Union's (EU) Commissioner for External Relations, during his May 29 visit to Bratislava. "The judgement of the Constitutional Court and the position taken by the Central Referendum Commission were effectively ignored by the authorities."

The referendum committee said that the direct presidential election should have been kept on the ballots after the Constitutional Court ruled that the question could remain on the sheets.

Van de Broek explained the gravity of the situation to Slovak officials, relaying the EC's message in his talks with Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, President Michal Kováč, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Jozef Šesták and parliamentary leaders.

There is "concern that the rule of law and democracy do not yet appear to be sufficiently deeply rooted in Slovakia... Countries that wish to become members of the European Union are expected not just to subscribe to the broad principles of democracy but actually to put them into practice in daily political life," the EC commissioner said.

"This requires an atmosphere of openness to opposing views, the proper functioning of institutions and respect for their individual roles in the constitutional order," Van den Broek continued. "A democracy cannot be considered to be stable if the respective rights and obligations of institutions such as the Presidency, the Constitutional Court or the Central Referendum Commission can be put into question by the government itself." Asked if the government's role in the referendum would result in Slovakia losing its status with the EU, Van den Broek said, "The annulment of Slovakia's association agreement with the European Union is simply not on."

US: rule of law not respected


European Commision Vice-Chairman (left) Hans Van de Broek lectured Slovak officials such as Foreign Ministry State Secretary Jozef Šesták that the government's role in the referenda could cause Slovakia to choke at EU decision time.
Vladimír Hák

The US State Department responded to the referendum's outcome on May 27, calling the government's handling of it "gravely flawed," and "a matter of serious concern to the United States."

"As a result, Slovak voters were unable to express their will on two questions of obvious importance to them," the State Department's acting spokesman, John Dinger, stated. "The government's failure to comply with the decisions of the Referendum Commission... shows a lack of respect for the rule of law by the government of Slovakia. The government's conduct during this referendum [is] a step backward from the democratic record of fair and free elections in Slovakia since 1989."

Asked to elaborate, the US Ambassador to Slovakia, Ralph Johnson said the US stands by its commitment to work for Slovakia's integration into Western institutions.

Concern also lined the faces of deputies in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, who vote which countries will be admitted to the EU. "Europeans are very concerned," said an MEP who is also a member of the EU-Slovak Joint Parliamentary Committee, the panel which handles Slovakia's admission. "This is not playing well in Brussels or in European capitals," said the MEP, who requested anonymity. "It appears to have been handled very badly. People are very nervous about what's happening there. It undermines the belief that there's a mature political system in Slovakia."

Same old song

Like Van den Broek, the MEP didn't see the public vote any differently from the Slovak government not enacting a minority language law or other incidents that have drawn rebukes from the EU.

A prominent West European diplomat in Bratislava echoed that thinking. The controversy over the referendum "has not really changed our thinking on Slovak policy," the diplomat who insisted on having his name withheld, said. "Our biggest worry is that the losers in all of this are the Slovaks themselves. We're going to watch that these types of things do not happen again and watch carefully what the government does in the next few months."

Richard Lewis contributed to this report.

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