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'Europe's Detroit' skids

In the economic downturn, the wheels have come off of Slovakia's auto-dependent economy.

Models present the new Volkswagen Space UP! car during the ceremonial announcement of the New Small Family vehicle production at the Volkswagen plant in Bratislava, June 2, 2009. The production decision will save about 1,500 jobs in Bratislava. (Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — When Slovakia had the fastest growing economy in the European Union, it boasted that it had become Europe’s Detroit. But now it is facing similar problems to its American namesake as the continent’s auto industry plunges, taking the Slovak economy along for the ride.

Slovakia, independent only since 1993 following the breakup of Czechoslovakia, spent much of the 1990s as the continent’s basket case. Under the authoritarian governments of Vladimir Meciar, a former prime minister, Slovakia cuddled up to Moscow while most foreign investors, with the exception of Germany’s Volkswagen, steered clear. Much of its industrial base was dedicated to manufacturing weapons for the defunct Warsaw Pact.

But following the election of a reformist government in 1997, which brought in a 19-percent flat tax and other measures to encourage investment, Slovakia became a darling of foreign investors, especially big car makers. Germany’s Volkswagen was first, opening a plant in 1991 just north of the capital, Bratislava. But after the country’s opening to the world others followed — France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen opened a 700 million euro plant in the city of Trnava in mid-2006 and a few months later Korea’s Kia opened its 1 billion euro factory in the northern city of Zilina.

The big carmakers attracted a dense web of parts suppliers to set up shop in Slovakia.

By 2007 Slovakia was making 570,000 cars a year, which turned it into the highest per capita car producer in Europe, churning out 106 cars for every 1,000 Slovaks. Triumphant government officials proclaimed that the central European country of 5.5 million had become Europe’s Detroit, and the car industry’s biggest problem was finding enough workers to staff its production lines.

As car plants ramped up production — the VW factory alone accounts for about 15 percent of Slovakia’s exports — the country’s economic growth took off. In 2007 gross domestic product growth clocked in at 10.4 percent.

But, just as in Detroit, the wheels came off that economic model in the last three months of 2008, when the economic crisis hit Europe and car buyers in Slovakia’s biggest market, Germany, shut their wallets.

In numbers released on Thursday, Slovakia's economy contracted by an annual 5.3 percent in the second quarter of this year. That sounds awful but is slightly less than in the first three months of the year and may be a sign of the economy beginning to twitch back to life, especially as Germany showed an unexpected return to growth.

Estimates had called for Slovakian production to reach 800,000 cars last year and to top 1 million in 2009. Instead, production last year stayed at 2007 levels, and some analysts expect production to fall by a fifth this year.

“I estimate car producers are running at about 60 percent below capacity,” said Jan Toth, chief economist of UniCredit Bank in Slovakia.