For 46-year-old Peter Mračný of Sered, NATO membership is the equivalent of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. "I don't think NATO is a good choice for Slovakia," he said. "If we join them, we'll only end up getting reamed by some foreign country all over again."
Unemployed and sitting in a local pub on March 8, he explained his stance. "There's no threat to Slovakia," he said. "Who would invade us? And, besides, if a country did invade, NATO wouldn't help us at all. Our politicians should be finding us jobs rather than talking about NATO."
Mračný isn't the only Slovak with anti-NATO feelings. Despite the Dzurinda government's intensified high-level co-operation with NATO member countries, recent public opinion polls estimate that almost half of the Slovak population does not support NATO membership. To overcome this public opposition, the cabinet on March 1 launched a public awareness campaign aimed at drumming up support for NATO membership, the success of which will be crucial to the country's western ambitions.
The cabinet has allocated 30 million Slovak crowns ($700,000) for the promotional project to be divided between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Education and Culture. The National Centre for Media Communication also plans to conduct a series of discussions and opinion polls.
Defence Minister Pavol Kanis said at a press conference March 1 that his ministry would co-operate with the state-run Slovenská Televízia (STV) in a project that would examine the positive and negative aspects of NATO entry. The publicity push is to be accompanied by a quarterly news release called The Slovak Army Revue (published by the Defence Ministry) providing information for NATO member states on Slovakia's progress, and an Internet site which would answer the questions of Slovak citizens.
But Kanis said the campaign alone would not be enough. Public opinion would only improve, he said, if Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia's charismatic three-time Prime Minister and leader of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, publicly threw his support behind NATO integration. A February poll conducted by the Institute for Public Opinion Research showed that only 17% of HZDS voters currently support NATO entry; the party is currently the most popular in the country, regularly scoring around 30% in voter preference polls.
Kanis' words created a stir of anticipation concerning the HZDS's March 18 annual national caucus in western Slovakia's Trnava. When contacted by The Slovak Spectator on March 8, HZDS spokesman Marián Kardoš said that Mečiar would indeed declare his official position on NATO integration at the rally.
Political analyst Miroslav Kusý said that Kanis' challenge to Mečiar had been a wise political move because it had forced the HZDS leader to choose publicly between NATO support and refusal. While Mečiar has in the past skirted the issue, Kanis had in effect made the HZDS boss announce his decision in front of his supporters at the rally.
"Now Mečiar has to show where he really stands," Kanis said. "While talking to foreigners abroad he is pro-integration, but while addressing his supporters at home he is still the same old Mečiar. Now he has to play this game. But I still wouldn't believe him too much. He had the chance as Prime Minister to promote our integration, and he didn't."
Support for NATO integration in Slovakia has dropped steadily over the past three years. According to the February poll, 49% of respondents were against joining the military alliance, while only 38% were in favour. The results mark an 8% decline in public support since October 1997 when 46% were in favour. Slovak government officials said that the decline had been accelerated by the 1999 Kosovo bombings carried out by NATO.
"The Slovak government's decision to open its air space to NATO planes was quite damaging for NATO's reputation in Slovakia," acknowledged Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan. Kukan explained that the government had been at fault for not explaining to the public why the overflights should be allowed, as well as for giving mixed signals about the unity of cabinet on the matter.
But with the launch of the March 1 public relations campaign, the Foreign Ministry hopes steadily to rebuild support by the time the next NATO summit meeting rolls around in early 2002. "We want to achieve public support by informing people about NATO," said Miroslav Wlachovský, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry and one of the creators of the campaign. "In this way, we hope that the NATO support shown by the politicians of the ruling coalition will trickle down to the voting public."
Although the Foreign Ministry has not declared an official public support target rating, Wlachovský said that popular approval for NATO would be ideally "around 50% to 60%."
Kusý, for his part, said it was difficult to predict if the campaign would ultimately be a success. "It's hard to estimate," he said. "We certainly can't repeat the mistakes made during the Kosovo crisis. The government didn't provide the people with adequate information about particular developments, and it ended up losing support."
But if the government manages to avoid a publicity fiasco like Kosovo, Kusý predicted, the information campaign might be sufficiently effective to ensure that if a public referendum were held on NATO integration, the pro-NATO stance would prevail.