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WHILE other European countries may soon share a common constitution with Slovakia, few can match the country's rich constitutional history. A mere glimpse at the many fundamental laws that have governed the country throughout its recent history reveals just why Slovaks may be reluctant to take the most recent constitutional text too seriously.

World War I gave Slovakia the chance to build a common state with the Czechs on the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An interim constitution of the Czechoslovak Republic was approved in November 1918 by the National Committee, which headed the Czech resistance movement from July 1918.

That document was comprised of just 21 clauses, which outlined the structure of Czechoslovakia's top bodies. An extended, non-elected, National Committee transformed into the 256-member National Assembly, which had all legislative powers including the power to elect the president and the government.

The temporary document was replaced by a 134-paragraph regular constitution, approved in February 1920. Under that document, legislative powers in Czechoslovakia were granted to a two-chamber National Assembly.

The 300 members of the lower house were to be elected for a six-year term by all citizens over 21 years of age. The 150 senators held their offices for as long as eight years. A joint session of the two chambers elected the country's president, who appointed the prime minister and other members of the government.

The cabinet was responsible to the National Assembly, which had the right to hold a vote of confidence in the executive body.

In 1938 Slovakia declared autonomy and changed into a one-party territory dominated by the People's Party, which received 97 percent of the votes in elections for the Slovak Assembly in December of that year.

In March 1939 the assembly declared independence, following pressure from Nazi Germany. A new constitution, inspired by that of Mussolini's Italy, was passed in July 1939.

Formally, Slovakia was declared a republic. Lawmaking was entrusted to a single-chamber parliament comprised of 80 representatives who were elected for a period of five year through a general election.

All power was in fact in the hands of the People's Party, however, whose leading role in society was explicitly included in the constitution. Elections never took place and the parliament was made up of MPs elected in the 1938 elections, who, in 1943, prolonged their own terms in office.

A reunited Czechoslovakia received a new constitution. "We, the people of Czechoslovakia, declare our firm determination to build a liberated state as a people's democracy, which will ensure our peaceful way towards socialism," read the opening line of that document.

It is needless to stress that the "people's democracy" was neither the people's, nor democratic.

In this constitution, Slovaks were guaranteed their own regional legislative and executive bodies that were to exist alongside the republic's parliament and cabinet. The Czechs did not have their own separate system of state institutions.

The single-chamber National Assembly elected the republic's president and decided the composition of the government.

The communist constitution dictated that the state controlled all economic activity; especially production, trade, and transport through a joint economic plan in order to ensure a gradual growth of living standards.

In 1960 the communist Party decided it was time for a new fundamental law, which was approved that July.

The authors of that document found it appropriate to celebrate all that had been achieved over the previous decade of communist nation-building.

"We, the working people of Czechoslovakia, ceremonially declare: The social order, for which entire generations of our workers and other labourers have fought and which they have had before their eyes as an example since the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, has, under the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, become a reality here."

The legislators made it clear: "Socialism has prevailed in our motherland."

The Czechoslovak Republic formally transformed into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic - a socialist state "built on the firm union of workers, farmers, and the intelligentsia, and led by the working class".

The Communist Party officially became the 'leading force' of the country.

As regards the Slovaks, they maintained their own set of national institutions. In 1968, a new constitutional law further strengthened the Slovak position. It stated that the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was a federal state of two equal nations - the Czechs and the Slovaks.

The document included a precise division of competencies between the federal level and the institutions of the two republics.

That constitution remained intact until Slovakia's independence, albeit with major changes incorporated after the 1989 velvet revolution that ended the oppressive communist rule.

The first version of today's constitution was approved on September 1, 1992 by the Slovak National Assembly, three months before Slovakia gained full independence from the Czech Republic.

The document has since undergone six rounds of revisions. Some of the most important changes included the decision made after the September 1998 general elections to introduce direct presidential elections.

Given the drastic pace of Slovakia's transformation and of integration processes, that number cannot at all be final.

It is clear that whatever EU representatives agree on, and whatever EU member states happen to approve, it will be just another document in a very long line of laws which have strived to define the nature of Slovak society.

Perhaps it will manage to outperform its predecessors. If not, it will unlikely be a blow to Slovakia.

By Lukáš Fila

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