Elections in Slovakia Friday and Saturday could be crucial to the country's future. The European Union and NATO have told Slovaks that, if they re-elect former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, they can forget about joining either of the two Western-led groups.
Western diplomats in Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, frankly admit that they have gone beyond normal procedure in warning Slovaks about the danger of putting Mr. Meciar back in power.
The lawyer and former boxer led his country out of its federation with the Czech Republic nine years ago, and proceeded to rule independent Slovakia in an authoritarian way, trampling on human rights and fueling nationalist passions that led to tensions with his country's neighbors.
As a result, Slovakia was not invited to join NATO along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1997, during the alliance's fist eastward expansion. And it was unable to begin negotiations for EU membership, until Mr. Meciar was voted out of power in 1998.
During the past four years, a center-right coalition, led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, has tamed inflation, and produced strong economic growth by introducing painful reforms. But those changes have led to 19 percent unemployment, and have caused bitterness among many Slovaks. And so many voters have again been listening to the populist message of Mr. Meciar and his HZDS party.
This time, though, there are factors working against the former leader, despite polls indicating he may get up to 20 percent of the vote. The European Union has said forthrightly that Slovakia needs leaders who are trusted in Europe. The United States has also weighed in, saying there is no place in NATO for politicians who have a history of being undemocratic. And other Slovak parties have pledged not to join Mr. Meciar in any future coalition.
Grigorij Meseznikov, the president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a research institute in Bratislava, says he is confident Mr. Meciar will not regain power, despite his substantial support.
"I do not exclude that they will have maybe 20 percent in the elections, but the coalition potential of this party is very low." he said. "So, I expect that the situation will be the same as the situation four years ago. Nobody wants to form a government with him. It means that, if he counts on continuing his political career, he will be a deputy in parliament, the leader of the strongest opposition party, but I'm more than sure that Vladimir Meciar will not come back to power."
So, what kind of a coalition might emerge from the elections? Experts like Mr. Meseznikov believe that a new party, led by lawyer Robert Fico, which has been campaigning on a law-and-order platform, may get nearly as many votes as Mr. Meciar's group. The problem is that the center-right parties in the current government are suspicious of Mr. Fico, and have shown no interest in joining any coalition with him.
But EU and NATO officials say that, despite Mr. Fico's populist noises, they believe they can work with him.
One EU diplomat says it is important that the diverse anti-Meciar forces form a workable coalition as quickly as possible, so that Slovakia can prepare for membership in EU and NATO.