Slovak PM Mikuláš Dzurinda addresses the 140 delegates at a May 10-12 Bratislava conference on NATO and EU entry.
The Slovak government-backed "Europe's New Democracies: Leadership and Responsibility" conference was attended by political leaders of the 'Vilnius Nine' group of applicants for admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) - Romania, Macedonia, Albania, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria. Croat Prime Minister Ivica Račan was also in attendance. These countries had met one year ago in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and had committed to supporting each other's European Union and NATO entry efforts.
The aim of the recent Bratislava conference was to reaffirm this joint commitment and deliver a message to NATO leaders that invitations to enter the alliance are expected to be issued at the alliance's Prague summit next fall.
However, despite the show of unity at the conference, many foreign policy experts now believe that Slovenia and Slovakia - the two nations NATO has said would be the easiest to absorb - may, if invited to join, be forced to abandon their regional colleagues and go it alone into the defence group.
"There may be an idea or design to take a large number of these states," said Pavol Lukáč, research fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association and a conference participant, "but by including Slovenia and Slovakia, NATO could leave a door open for later admission of the others and give a sign of its continuity in admission, showing there is hope for other states in the future."
When asked directly if either country would be prepared to abandon individual entry chances to support regional neighbours, both Dzurinda and his Slovene counterpart parried the question, insisting that they were united in a common integration aim.
"It would be best if all countries were invited together. There is a firm resolve as a group to achieve things at the highest level," Dzurinda said.
The Russian factor
The very disparity of the nine 'Vilnius' NATO applicants makes any mass invitation unlikely, say foreign policy experts.
Croatia has only been repairing relations with the West since the death of autocratic president Frano Tudjman 18 months ago; Macedonia is in the throes of secession from Yugoslavia; and the Kosovo situation has stifled Albania's fledgling western ambitions.
Slovakia and Slovenia, meanwhile, are considered prime candidates for membership not only because they are the best prepared technically and politically, but also because they border other NATO states, lessening any potential problems in expanding the alliance eastwards.
"There are no political problems in either of these countries [Slovakia and Slovenia] that would prevent them entering," said Lukáč. "They are small countries, there's no geographical problems, and they would be easy to integrate."
The Baltic states, meanwhile, are believed to be a diplomatic dilemma for NATO policymakers, since their very proximity to Russia, which is still wary of NATO, could be both a potential asset and a political and security risk for the organisation.
Lack of presence
The conference gave none of the 10 nations any clearer idea as to when their present efforts, joint or individual, may be rewarded with entry.
NATO's sole representative at the conference, Klaus-Peter Klaiber, gave a speech May 11 lacking any indication of the organisation's plans for aspiring members, including Slovakia.
Speaking to The Slovak Spectator later that day, Klaiber even suggested that Slovakia's technical fulfilment of conditions for entry, acknowledged by NATO as advanced, may not be enough to guarantee an invitation at the fall 2002 Prague summit.
"There are no guarantees that Slovakia will be asked to join [in 2002]," he said. "It comes down to the question: What will countries like Slovakia give NATO? What will they contribute to the security of the continent? These questions must be answered [before they can join]."
The virtual absence of representatives from NATO and alliance member governments at the conference did little to reinforce the applicant countries' integration hopes.
"Marc Grossman [the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] was there at the start, but only for a very short time, and there was a lack of a western European voice at the conference," said the SFPA's Lukáč. "Why? People are beginning to say that western states aren't interested in this process. We need that voice."
Justification for entry
Despite the lack of key personalities at the conference, there was a degree of optimism among NATO hopefuls. Both Dzurinda and Slovene prime minister Janez Drnovšek were upbeat about their membership chances and keen to stress that they had done enough to earn entry.
"There are no reasons why there should not be enlargement [in Prague in 2002]," said Drnovšek. "If there is not, NATO will be viewed as a closed and exclusive organisation with little idea of what its purpose is."
The view was supported by Friss Arne Petersen, Permanent Secretary to the Danish Foreign Ministry. "By the time we get to Prague in 2002, some of these countries will be more prepared for entry than the three invited at the Madrid summit in 1997 [the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary]," he said.
"There are some very strong candidates for membership, and from what we believe, invitations will be made in Prague. But some countries, like Croatia, Macedonia and Albania, will find it hard to get in," added Bruce Jackson, head of the US Committee on NATO non-governmental organisation.
However, NATO has made it clear that criteria for admission in 1997 were different, and that the acceptance of new members was then politically motivated, based largely on a need to show central and eastern Europe that after the fall of Communism the western alliance had not forgotten the region.
"The decision was largely one of politics in 1997," said Klaiber.
Politics key in run-up to Prague
While the conference also lacked government representatives of the newest NATO members - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - Czech President Václav Havel did attend.
Addressing the 140 delegates, he praised the efforts of the aspiring NATO states, but warned Slovakia that there must be no return to the anti-NATO policies of the past which had prevented the country from joining the alliance with its former federal companion in 1999.
At the 1997 summit in the Spanish capital, leaders of the alliance expressed their concern at the autocratic leadership of then-Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, warning Slovakia that membership was some way off unless a more western-oriented foreign policy was adopted.
Dzurinda's administration, since taking power in October 1998, has worked hard to repair relations with EU member states, has revived the Visegrad Four [a political grouping with the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians] and has adopted a vigorously pro-western foreign policy.
It has also scored major foreign policy successes in joining the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last summer and opening EU entry negotiations in 2000.
In January this year, the government appointed Jozef Stank, a diplomat and former ambassador to Prague in its first year as a NATO member, as Defence Minister. Stank immediately removed army generals from top-ranking posts at the ministry - a move welcomed by Brussels.
"Stank's appointment was massively important for Slovakia. It showed the Defence Ministry wasn't just going to be filled with army commanders," said the US Committee on NATO's Jackson. "Everyone has been incredibly impressed with the efforts Slovakia has over the last two and a half years. It's been truly remarkable."
Regardless of the praise, the Slovak government is aware that the Prague summit will come after national elections in September next year, and that the results may determine the fate of Slovakia's NATO efforts.
Mečiar's opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party still tops regular voter polls, followed by the non-parliamentary Smer party led by independent member of parliament Robert Fico. While NATO has made clear it has doubts about the HZDS's foreign orientation despite the party's declaration that NATO membership is a national priority, the Smer leader has repeated his commitment to Slovakia's integration into western structures.
However, some political analysts fear that the 2002 election may result in Mečiar once again holding power - something many believe would be unacceptable for NATO.
"Any form of government coalition involving Mečiar would invite the possibility of someone in NATO then saying 'Slovakia isn't ready for entry'," said Jacques Rupnik, director of the Centre for International Studies in France.
"The main word [on entry] will be had by the Slovak people in the [2002 parliamentary] election," repeated Alexander Vershbow, American Ambassador to NATO.
21. May 2001 at 0:00 | Ed Holt