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In September elections, Slovakia ousted the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, whose term in office had been marked by dubious human rights practices. The opposition Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), led by Mikulas Dzurinda, promised reforms in areas of electoral process, freedom of the press, and the treatment of national minorities. As of this writing, however, a government had not yet been formed.

While in power in 1998, Vladimir Meciar’s government manipulated the electoral system, attacked the independent media while unfairly using Slovak State Television (STV) to promote its reelection campaign, and despite international condemnation, failed to prevent abuses against the Roma community.

On March 2, the term of Slovak President Michal Kovac ended with no successor in place. The ruling party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), declined to nominate a candidate in any of the nine rounds of voting, making it difficult for anyone to win by the necessary three-fifths margin and passing most presidential powers to the prime minister. Meciar used these new powers to consolidate his political standing in the months before the September national elections when among other things, he canceled a referendum for the direct election of the president that had been scheduled for May. Additionally, on March 3, the government extended blanket immunity to those implicated in the undermining of the 1997 referendum, as well as the August 1995 kidnapping of the son of former President Kovac. Protesting the decision to cancel the May referendum, the SDK collected more than 400,000 signatures petitioning for the referendum to be reinstated. Though under Slovak law the parliament is required to discuss a topic if a petition obtains 100,000 signatures, the ruling coalition refused to raise the issue before the election.

The parliament, while controlled by HZDS, passed a revised election law in April that caused grave concern among opposition parties and international observers. The passage of the law so close to the general election undermined the electoral process by creating specific barriers to opposition parties. The new law required individual parties to garner at least 5 percent of the vote in order to qualify for seats in the parliament and forced the opposition SDK, which is made up of several small parties, hastily to form a single party only a few months before the election. In addition, the law called for participation of partisan government officials in the counting of ballots while not allowing independent domestic election monitors, increasing the likelihood of ballot fraud and manipulation. Though the government welcomed election observers from the OSCE, on August 24 Prime Minister Meciar announced that observers from the U.S., the U.K., Hungary, and the Czech Republic would not be invited because he did not want observers from those “unfriendly countries” to abuse their presence by possibly criticizing the election. The election law also contained provisions that restricted the right of the independent media to cover the national election campaign.

The government took steps to undermine free expression and press independence in 1998, especially during the election campaign. The state-run Slovak National Television (STV) was condemned by rights groups for biased coverage leading up to the September elections. According to MEMO ’98, an independent media monitoring group, STV reportedly devoted 61 percent of its election coverage to the ruling coalition and only 16 percent to the opposition. Meanwhile, ten days before the election, the staff of the independent TV Markiza was dismissed without explanation. The government’s role in the dismissals remained unclear as of this writing.

Radio Twist, an independent broadcaster viewed as sympathetic to the opposition and the only private radio station that broadcasts throughout Slovakia, was switched off briefly on two occasions in late 1997. Radio Twist accused Slovak Telecommunications, a government-run agency, of ordering the interruption of electrical power to Radio Twist’s transmitter for political reasons. In February 1998, Minister of Culture Ivan Hudec openly lobbied the Slovak Council of Radio and Television Broadcasting to deny Radio Twist a lucrative frequency. The Council withstood Hudec’s pressure and granted the frequency nonetheless. In November 1997, the government attempted to increase the value-added tax on most daily newspapers from 6 percent to 27 percent. In protest, many papers printed blank front pages until the proposal was scrapped. Bratislava police closed the investigation into the September 1997 car bombing against Peter Toth, editor of the opposition newspaper SME (We Are), claiming that there were no leads in the case. Toth submitted a complaint against the police decision, pointing to the possible involvement of the Slovak security services.

The government repeatedly failed to protect Roma communities from racially motivated violence or to encourage local police to investigate properly skinhead attacks in 1998. In a case that exemplified the treatment of Roma throughout Slovakia, six skinheads in the town of Presov allegedly brutally beat three Roma children with baseball bats on their way home from school. Police reportedly denied the attacks had occurred despite credible testimony and physical evidence gathered by local monitors.

Two municipalities in the Medzilabordce district, eastern Slovakia, enforced ordinances that forbid Roma to settle in or enter the village center. In Spišská Nová Ves, in central Slovakia, several Roma families residing in the city center received notices from local authorities requiring them to move to the outskirts of the city, partially at their own expense.

Widespread discrimination and violence forced many Roma to seek asylum in western Europe and Canada. For the first time since a large number of Roma sought refuge in the U.K. in 1997, a Slovak Roma family was granted asylum in the U.K. in April on the basis of human rights conditions in Slovakia. In October the U.K. introduced visa restrictions on Slovak citizens after more than 1,600 Slovak Roma applied for asylum there in August and September.





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