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Bratislava May Get A New Heart...As A Nation Comes Out Of The Cold (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight on Slovakia

Bratislava May Get a New Heart...As a Nation Comes out of the Cold (int'l edition)

The name, at least, is suitably grand. Bratislava's Slovak National Uprising Square has seen its share of action, both before and after the failed 1944 anti-Nazi rebellion that gave the space its name. Through the 20th century, the Y-shaped plaza, a stone's throw from the Danube, Europe's main shipping lane, served as a crossroads of history and commerce. "It's Slovakia's Champs Elysees," remarks Andrej Durkovsky, mayor of Bratislava's Old Town District, which encompasses the square and the neighboring historic, cobblestoned core. "Many emotions, many movements have been played out here."

Trouble is, it doesn't look the part. SNP Square, as it's known, is a drab, windswept spot with mostly unremarkable modern buildings, skirting the far more attractive Baroque Old Town. "There's nothing but two department stores, two churches, and a statue of a soldier," laments Anna Dovicovicova of Bratislava's tourist center. And the armed partisan in bronze, erected in 1974, isn't much of a draw. By midevening, SNP is dead, an unlit ghost town.CAR-FREE. That may soon change. The square's sorry mien has made Durkovsky determined to carry out a renovation scheme that will make SNP fit for heroes--and tourists. He figures it will also help to turn Bratislava, population 450,000, from a backwater into a 21st century European city. For starters, the Old Town district is shelling out $535,000 for geological surveys and a feasibility study for a mammoth subterranean project that will include an 800-space parking garage and 7,600 square meters of shops, coffee houses, and restaurants. Above ground, the boulevard will be repaved and transformed into a car-free zone. In addition, Bratislava will start building an 11-station metro line, including a station at the square, next year, slated for completion in 2006 at a cost of $430 million.

One problem Bratislava faces is who's going to pay for its new heart, since skimpy tax revenues won't come close. The city has set up a company called SNP Invest with rights to develop the real estate but not own it. The idea is to sell the company to a consortium of investors willing to sink in around $50 million. Already, a range of retail developers and car-park operators from France, Germany, and the Benelux countries have approached the local council, which hopes to land its fish by the end of the year. Revenues from shop rents and parking charges are expected to produce profits in nine years.

Of course, not everyone is convinced the renovation is a good idea. Environmental groups, for example, fear that the largest trees will be ripped up and replaced by tiny saplings whose growth will be stunted by the underground structure. They also worry that the car park will suck more traffic into the city. But the mayor is determined to have his way--and four out of five Bratislavans support him, according to surveys conducted by the district. "Tourists have often stopped me in the square and asked, without a trace of irony, where the city center is," Durkovsky says. "I feel ashamed." For too long, he argues, SNP--like Slovakia itself--hasn't gotten the recognition it should. Now it's time to do something about it.

The SNP project symbolizes Slovakia's desire to leave behind its years in the international wilderness under Premier Vladimir Meciar after independence in 1993. The ex-apparatchik and boxer, in power through much of the '90s, perfected a style of rule that featured intimidation of opponents and crony capitalism. In the process, he turned Slovakia into Central Europe's unwanted stepchild. But a shaky multiparty coalition, elected in 1998, has survived partly by trumpeting a pro-Western approach, capturing $1.5 billion in foreign investment last year, setting the nation's fiscal house in order, and putting Slovakia in the running for European Union membership.

"Slovakia is back in the fold, but it has to prove itself by passing more reforms," says Jake Slegers, executive director of Slovakia's American Chamber of Commerce. He cites overhauling the bureaucracy, combating corruption, and streamlining the stodgy banking and corporate sectors. So as Bratislava receives its facelift, Slovaks may feel a good deal of pain before they see the gain.By Mark Andress in Bratislava; Edited by Harry MaurerReturn to top

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