KUCHMA READY TO TAKE 'TOUGHEST' MEASURES AGAINST CRISIS... Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma told a meeting of regional newspaper editors in Kyiv on 23 September that Ukraine is facing the worst crisis in its seven years of independence, Ukrainian Television reported. Stressing that the government is keeping the current situation under control, Kuchma said he is ready to take "the toughest and most unpopular" measures to fight the crisis. He added that although he intends to seek re-election, he gives priority to maintaining the course of reform over his own election victory. Kuchma argued that the Russian crisis has proven the CIS's inability to react to emergencies. Instead of working out a joint strategy, CIS countries have chosen "to die on their own," Interfax quoted Kuchma as saying. JM

...SAYS RUSSIA TO HELP BUILD NUCLEAR REACTORS. Kuchma also said Russia has promised to help Ukraine fund the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Rivnenska and Khmelnytska power plants to replace the only working reactor at Chornobyl, Reuters reported. "We fully agreed in Moscow [last week] that there will be $180 million in the Russian 1999 budget for this work," he said, referring to his meetings with President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov. Ukraine promised in 1995 that it would close Chornobyl by 2000 with Western assistance. But it has recently grown impatient as the deadline approaches and only a fraction of the required $2 billion has been raised so far. "We will complete the reactors ourselves or together with Russia whether or not the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development assists us," the news agency quoted him as saying. JM

Despite Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's recent claim that "talk in Europe about Slovakia's lack of democracy will definitely come to an end" after the upcoming elections, there is serious doubt whether Slovakia will be able to overcome its poor image in the longer term should Meciar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) retain power. Such a result could arguably result in Slovakia's losing a full decade in its effort to join NATO and the EU. On the other hand, if the assembled opposition parties manage to pull together an electoral victory, Slovakia will have the chance to restore its credibility rather quickly and realign itself with the West.

Thus, in a fundamental way, the choice Slovaks make in these elections will determine if their country identifies with the West and is prepared to take part in its institutional structures or if it continues to orient itself toward less developed, slower reforming post-Soviet states to the East.

Slovakia's dubious image abroad has been shaped principally by the Meciar regime's parochial, immature, and often brutal political leadership. This behavior, ranging from petty political subterfuge to outright thuggery, has saddled Slovakia with an unfavorable image that in any case may be hard to shed.

Remarkably, it was not very long ago that Slovakia was considered to belong to the same "fast track" group of applicants for Western integration as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. No longer perceived as a member of the original "Visegrad" group, Slovakia now runs the risk of slipping still farther. This time, however, the stakes are much higher. The very possibility that Slovakia will become more closely associated with its Eastern neighbors has significant implications: it may reinforce the belief of the outside world--as well as Slovaks themselves--that Slovakia's place is in the East. That belief would effectively freeze Slovakia's candidacy for admission to the EU and NATO.

While Slovakia's economy has proven resilient, its political development has been inconsistent with Western standards. In fact, as a result of its relative political immaturity, there is a larger question as to whether Slovakia can maintain its economic successes in the longer term without the necessary consolidation of democracy and international integration.

It is difficult to gauge precisely the opportunity cost of the Slovak leadership's preoccupation with internal rivalries and political intrigue over the past six years. One may conclude, however, that dawdling during the crucial initial "courtship" of Western institutions has set back Slovakia at least several years and has prevented the country from achieving the necessary degree of political soundness to advance into key Western clubs. The window for first-round NATO admission is already closed. The EU sent a strong message to Bratislava last year when Slovakia--recognized by the European Commission for its strong economic performance-- was pointedly left off the first-round invitation list as a result of its underdeveloped democratic institutions.

One of the most important, broad consequences of NATO and EU expansion is the salutary effect these institutions can have on relations among its member states. These clubs have been instrumental in forging a peaceful post-War transatlantic order and have contributed greatly to the prosperity enjoyed by its members. By remaining outside the positive influence of these institutions, Slovakia loses the opportunity to improve its own internal development and establish better working relationships with its neighbors.

The Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary--which are not only among the first-round candidates for EU admission but are also the first three to receive invitations to join the NATO alliance--have broadly demonstrated their commitment to resolving difficult public-policy questions in a manner consistent with Western norms. One can already see these results. Poland is undertaking a number of important initiatives to improve regional cooperation, including difficult negotiations with Ukraine on border issues and steps toward deeper integration with Germany. The newly elected Hungarian leadership, while using rather heated rhetoric on minority issues, is not expected to deviate from acceptable political norms. That is in no small measure due to Hungary's accepted responsibilities in Western institutions.

Slovakia's choice in the elections is of regional concern. The Czechs, for instance, face the prospect of having their Moravian frontier form a portion of the new East-West divide. For Poland and Hungary--not to mention Austria--an unanchored and unpredictable Slovakia will hinder the effort to build an integrated regional economic and security structure.

Meciar has done a masterful job of dividing the opposition, but the political stunts and hardball tactics he has employed to maintain power have had a corrosive effect on Slovakia's political culture. During the period of HZDS control--where infighting and cronyism have been the rule, rather than the exception--there have been few steps taken to direct the young Slovak state toward political normalcy. On the contrary, the Meciar period has defined itself by its reliance on what it regards as foreign and domestic villains, thus limiting Slovakia's focus on more substantive matters and preventing the country from engaging in vital selfexamination. That tactic is an integral part of a larger strategy aimed at blaming domestic deficiencies on foreign interference.

Slovaks, through their vote in the elections this week, can decide for themselves whether Meciar's HZDS is best suited for advancing Slovakia's real interests and where exactly they believe Slovakia's proper place is in Europe.