Slovak PM Hopes to Turn Page, Urges Closer Ties With Israel

PM Robert Fico says would be happy if Peres or Olmert would visit Slovakia on Holocaust remembrance day.

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico called Thursday for raising the level of diplomatic relations between Israel and Slovakia, saying Slovakia would be very happy if Israel's president or prime minister visited Slovakia on the remembrance day for Holocaust victims marked on September 9.

Slovakia's government has agreed to turn the wartime forced labor camp for Jews in the town of Sered into a museum, Fico, who attended the Israel President's Conference in Jerusalem, said.

He said his government supports the participation of Slovak teachers in courses about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, and a few dozen teachers have already taken part. He believes that anti-Semitic incidents in Slovakia are becoming fewer and does not see anti-Semitism as a serious problem in his country.

Asked about the recent mass held by Slovak bishop Jan Sokol in honor of World War II-era president Jozef Tiso, Fico said he objected to any attempt to clear Tiso from crimes during the war.

Sokol, head of the diocese in the city of Trnava, spoke in praise of Tiso 61 years after he had been executed in Czechoslovakia for war crimes, saying Slovakia had "prospered" under his rule. Tiso, a Catholic priest, headed the Nazi puppet state that deported its thousands of Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

"I've always expressed my opinion that Tiso was responsible for many crimes and I object to any attempt to clear him or the Slovak state and its leaders of their wartime crimes. And I object to any attempt, public or private, to praise the fascist regime and its representatives," Fico said.

He said the Catholic Church should account for the mass held in Tiso's honor. "As for the government, our policy is clear. We denounce any such attempt and whoever crosses the criminal line will be punished," he said.

Next January, Slovakia will become the first East European country to adopt the euro. The country may be a new economic tiger, but Fico has remained level-headed. "The growth rate is relative," he says. "Three percent growth in a developed country like Germany is more significant than 10 percent in a country like Slovakia."

Fico hopes to forge close diplomatic and economic ties between his country and Israel and denounces any attempt to commend the World War II-era fascist regime in Slovakia or its leaders.

Slovakia, he says, is enjoying huge economic momentum. "The secret is numerous foreign investments. Investors are drawn to us by the high productivity and relatively low wages. The government can provide good investment terms but the basis is still hard work and high productivity," he says.

Unlike the governments before him, Fico's team is aware of the relatively low standard of living in Slovakia and is trying to reduce social gaps and raise conditions to that of other parts of Europe.

Economic growth has brought Fico and his party Smer (direction) unparalleled popularity when compared with neighboring countries. Polls say that if elections were held today, Smer could form a government without any coalition partners.

Yet Fico's coalition retains two notorious nationalist partners that cast a shadow over his government and party, leading the Socialist International to suspend Smer's membership.

Still, it is hard to argue with success. Fico and his government are popular enough that the suspension was revoked. The Socialist International even accepted the new, rather draconian press law, which provoked the protest of Slovakia's newspapers. The International said the law "kept within permitted norms."

Fico told President Shimon Peres during the conference that he hoped the "excellent political relations" between Israel and Slovakia would be reflected in economic agreements. He regretted that only a few Israeli investors have "discovered" Slovakia so far despite what he called its excellent investment terms.