The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Hugh Shelton, said on January 11 that Slovakia was on the right track towards NATO membership, but stopped short of actually predicting when the country might expect to join the military alliance.
"When another round for new members coming into NATO will take place is a political decision, and to my knowledge it has not been decided when [it will take place] or who [will be asked to join]," Shelton said during a speech in Bratislava's Forum Hotel.
One of America's most senior military men, Shelton was visiting Slovakia to begin a tour of many European nations. He held meetings with senior Slovak Defence Ministry officials, during which he discussed Slovakia's programme of military reform and its participation in a national Action Plan for Membership.
Shelton was also informed of Slovakia's decision to liquidate its Soviet-made SS-23 missiles before the end of their functional lifespans.
Shelton was fullsome in his praise of Slovakia's preparations for NATO membership, which are being carried out through the Action Plan programme designed by Washington for would-be NATO candidates last year.
"I think that the plan the Slovak government has laid out is a great step in the right direction," he said. "It shows that in fact that Slovakia is starting to put the pieces into place here to make the country a strong candidate for NATO membership. I am convinced by what I have seen here today that you are clearly on the right track for making yourselves a very viable candidate for NATO membership."
Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, said after the speech he was disappointed that Shelton had not been tougher and more specific in his comments.
"I'm not sure if the general statements he gave were sincere," Samson said. "Slovakia has a young political culture with deep traditional roots. These roots are deficient in terms of democratic culture, and these deficits must be removed before NATO or EU integration. Maybe the general should have said something along the lines that we [Slovaks] cannot behave as if nothing has happened."
Samson added that Slovakia's turbulent political history in the 1990's could not just be ignored by NATO. "Twice we have elected authoritarian governments, and even though NATO supports the democratic changes in Slovakia after 1998, one has to wait for at least another one to three elections to know if the will of the population is really unchangeable," he said. "Otherwise, the integration of Slovakia into NATO is a risk."
Asked if he thought the Russian war in Chechnya and a more aggressive Russian foreign policy might speed up the pace of Slovakia's integration into NATO, the General said he saw no relationship between the two.
"Right now, what we have said from an American standpoint is that we would like to see the Chechen conflict come to an end and would certainly like to see it solved through diplomatic means and dialogue between the Chechen leaders and the Russians," Shelton said. "I don't see any implications in terms of Slovakia's NATO bid. Slovakia has a well laid out plan right now. It is one that continues to be refined... and not connected in any way, to my knowledge, to what is going on in Chechnya."
17. Jan 2000 at 0:00 | Keith Miller