A bizarre incident last week, involving the apparent leak of a secret diplomatic message, has raised questions as to whether Slovakia can expect to receive a firm offer of membership from the NATO military alliance before the results of national elections in September 2002 are known.
The privately-owned TV Markíza station claimed on June 21 to have obtained the contents of a coded diplomatic cable sent by the Polish Foreign Ministry to its Slovak counterpart. The station claimed the cable described the hostility of US President George W. Bush's advisory team to the potential return to power of former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar after next year's fall elections.
In ruling Slovakia out of the organisation's expansion round in 1997, NATO had cited Mečiar's authoritarian behaviour as one of the grounds for its decision. But under the Mikuláš Dzurinda government, which took power in 1998, Slovakia's NATO chances have improved, and the country is now expected to receive an entry invitation at a November 2002 NATO summit in Prague.
Markíza did not give further details about the secret message, but Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, commenting on the cable, called its contents "important".
"These chances [for Slovakia to enter NATO] are realistic as long as the next government formed in Slovakia is democratic," Kukan said, "and that it doesn't contain those personalities who were a part of the previous [1994 to 1998] administration, principally Vladimír Mečiar, because that would endanger our invitation."
Kukan's words immediately provoked a storm. The Polish Embassy in Bratislava denied Poland had ever sent coded messages to the Slovak Foreign Ministry, leading to speculation that the cable had been sent by Slovak foreign service personnel in Warsaw
The HZDS party, of which Mečiar is chairman, demanded an explanation. HZDS member of parliament Vojtech Tkáč said: "It's questionable whether such a secret message exists at all, and if it does, who committed the crime involved in releasing secret documents from the Foreign Ministry?"
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, in Bratislava June 22, firmly denied that the results of any country's elections affected its chances of NATO membership.
"Governments are always changing, the important thing is their foreign policy orientation," said Shea. "The alliance's main interest is that stable parliamentary consensus is found in Slovakia on questions such as foreign policy, and that such issues not become games of political football."
For many, the case of the secret cable highlighted the difficult position NATO is in on the issue of Mečiar.
The tightrope act NATO must play - not to appear to be interfering in domestic Slovak politics, but on the other hand wanting to send a clear signal on the consequences of Mečiar's possible return to power - was visibly uncomfortable for NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson in an interview with the Slovak weekly paper Domino fórum published May 23.
At one point, Robertson declared "the results of your elections will have absolutely no impact on NATO expansion," but when asked seconds later if that meant Slovakia could become a NATO member with Mečiar in the government, Robertson accused his interviewers of "putting words in my mouth".
For František Šebej, chairman of a parliamentary working group for speeding NATO integration, the reluctance of top NATO brass to be definite on the issue of Mečiar was natural, given their positions. It was also irrelevant, Šebej added, as it would be the leaders of NATO member countries, rather than the organisation's officials, who would decide which new countries were accepted in the next expansion round.
Šebej said that official discussions on Slovakia's NATO chances abroad, in which he had taken part, had been dominated by the feeling that Slovakia's chances would be harmed if Mečiar returned to power.
"Mečiar hasn't changed his opinion of NATO," said Šebej. "The HZDS has had NATO integration on its political platform since the beginning, but never acted in accordance with this declared goal. The situation remains the same today."
- with press reports
3. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson