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FOREIGN POLICY SUCCESSES BRING RESPECT TO FORMERLY ISOLATED COUNTRY

Slovakia hailed for joining the West

EVEN its staunchest critics credited the outgoing government of Mikuláš Dzurinda for some of its international achievements. The cabinet was acknowledged as having brought Slovakia back from the near international isolation it suffered under the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government, and won for it a place in two of the most elite international clubs: the EU and NATO.

EVEN its staunchest critics credited the outgoing government of Mikuláš Dzurinda for some of its international achievements. The cabinet was acknowledged as having brought Slovakia back from the near international isolation it suffered under the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government, and won for it a place in two of the most elite international clubs: the EU and NATO.

Entering these unions was a challenging milestone that took many years to accomplish. But now, just a few years later, Slovakia has a reputation as a reliable partner on the global scene, particularly in connection with the US-led war on terror. It was Dzurinda's pro-integration path that allowed his second government, which came out of the September 2002 general elections, to secure official invitations to join the European Union and NATO only months later.

Slovakia had to work overtime throughout 2003 to harmonise its legislation with the EU and approve laws crucial for functioning within the union. Support for EU entry never wavered, but the idea of NATO membership experienced some roller coaster moments, especially in connection with the war on terror and Slovakia's military involvement in it.

Nonetheless, the Dzurinda government, with the exception of the ruling Christian Democratic Movement, stood firm in its support for the US, despite criticism on the domestic political scene. Slovakia did have to overcome one hurdle before joining the union, however. In early 2003, a national referendum was held. The result was never really in doubt, but there was, considering the country's history on referenda, concern about achieving sufficient voter turnout. (Slovak law requires at least a 50-percent turnout for a vote to be valid.)

In the end, the answer to the referendum question "Do you agree that Slovakia should become a member of the European Union?" was a resounding "yes", receiving support from 92.5 percent of voters.

Over the next several months, Slovakia heard from EU bodies that it was among the least-prepared prospective EU members, and that hard work, increased cooperation and the adoption of dozens of EU-compatible measures would be required.

On March 29, 2004, the prime ministers of seven former Soviet satellite states, including Slovakia, were officially welcomed to NATO in what was the alliance's biggest expansion in 55 years.

"They endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence. They earned their freedom through courage and perseverance, and today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance," US President George Bush said at a special ceremony held at the White House.

Slovakia quickly became a strong supporter of the US within NATO, which earned it praise from the superpower's top officials. A reward for Slovakia's loyalty came a year later when it was chosen to host a summit between US President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The February 24-25 event brought unprecedented media attention to Slovakia as thousands of international press and prominent guests poured into it.

The summit helped Slovakia to prove to itself that it could host such a major meeting.

Finally, on May 1, 2004, Slovakia joined the European Union, a step that was widely seen as a major event in the country's modern history.

"On this day we, the citizens of the Slovak Republic, became citizens of the European Union," Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said in a public address. "We have been enriched by a new, European identity."

On June 13 of that year, the country also elected its first 14 members of the European Parliament. This event, however, was marked by a pitifully low turnout of a mere 16.96 percent.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm for voting, Slovaks still belong among the most optimistic members of the EU. This positive attitude was also reflected in the fact that Slovakia was among the few nations that approved the proposed EU Constitution. But President Ivan Gašparovič has not signed it, a sign he's keeping his door open to see what happens with the overall ratification process.

One of the country's most recent accomplishments occurred on October 10, when it was elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The term started in 2006, and the country is serving alongside the Republic of Congo, Ghana, Peru and Qatar.

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