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EDITORIAL

NATO membership: A test of national maturity

NATO officials must wonder what's up in Slovakia - public opposition to membership in the military alliance has increased over the last year to almost 50%, while the opposition HZDS party, the main reason that NATO dropped Slovakia from the first round of expansion in 1998, is now publicly declaring how important NATO membership is to the country's future.
Brussels should not read too much into the HZDS's sudden apparent change of heart - the ideologically amorphous 'movement' is in the midst of a turbulent transformation into a 'people's party' that will be acceptable on the international stage, and is bent on making the right noises in the hope that western diplomats will somehow forget its sporadic commitment to democratic principles during the 1990's.

NATO officials must wonder what's up in Slovakia - public opposition to membership in the military alliance has increased over the last year to almost 50%, while the opposition HZDS party, the main reason that NATO dropped Slovakia from the first round of expansion in 1998, is now publicly declaring how important NATO membership is to the country's future.

Brussels should not read too much into the HZDS's sudden apparent change of heart - the ideologically amorphous 'movement' is in the midst of a turbulent transformation into a 'people's party' that will be acceptable on the international stage, and is bent on making the right noises in the hope that western diplomats will somehow forget its sporadic commitment to democratic principles during the 1990's. However warmly HZDS leader Vladimír Mečiar endorses the alliance at the movement's March 18 annual rally, he is unlikely to erase the memory of the 1997 NATO referendum his government thwarted and the HZDS's staunch opposition to NATO overflights through Slovak airspace during the Kosovo crisis in 1999.

But public opinion is another matter altogether, and Brussels should rightly be asking itself if the Slovak electorate is mature enough to take on the responsibilities that NATO membership entails.

To some extent, one can sympathise with the mixed feelings many Slovaks have about NATO. After over three decades as a Warsaw Pact country during the cold war, Slovaks have developed a healthy suspicion of military alliances and a reluctance to be drawn into conflicts involuntarily. And after 16 months under Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, people quite understandably feel that their government is behaving like a giddy college freshman, applying for membership in as many western 'activity clubs' (NATO, EU, OECD) as it can without first thinking whether it can handle all the commitments involved.

And yet, one cannot help but feel that if NATO were cast in a different light - as an opportunity for a young country to define its relationship to the world rather than another de facto colonisation - Slovaks might change their minds about joining the alliance.

Given the importance of how NATO is presented to people, the government's PR campaign to promote the alliance (and trigger a 'paradigm shift' among voters) will be of crucial importance. People should be asked a basic question - if you don't want to join NATO, how do you intend to contribute to regional and global stability? And if the idea of joining a military alliance is repugnant to you, how are you going to define Slovakia's role in the world?

Slovaks themselves often say that as a nation they tend to avoid confrontation, prefering to keep their heads down and wait out storms as they did for a thousand years under the Hungarians, Turks and Czechs. While this trait may have helped keep Slovak culture intact over the centuries, it is now holding the country back in its growth into a mature democratic society. NATO membership is thus something of a test of this maturity, and if people reject it in favour of a fingers-crossed, naive vision of neutrality, they would do well to ask themselves what exactly they intend to do when confronted with aggression and racial strife - at home as well as abroad.

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