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EDITORIAL

NATO membership: The song remains the same

The dust is settling from the fall of the World Trade Centre towers, and while the emerging picture brings no relief to the thousands of families grieving for the dead who lie entombed in the rubble, it has given hope to developing countries applying for membership in the Nato alliance.
Judging from the cautious predictions of western diplomats and foreign policy analysts, Slovakia may now benefit from a new fillip of enthusiasm for international partnerships such as Nato that buttress security and spread the values of western civilisation. Slovak cabinet members have in turn lined up to pledge their government's readiness to meet alliance demands, in the hope that next year's November Nato expansion summit in Prague may yield an invitation that Slovakia join.

The dust is settling from the fall of the World Trade Centre towers, and while the emerging picture brings no relief to the thousands of families grieving for the dead who lie entombed in the rubble, it has given hope to developing countries applying for membership in the Nato alliance.

Judging from the cautious predictions of western diplomats and foreign policy analysts, Slovakia may now benefit from a new fillip of enthusiasm for international partnerships such as Nato that buttress security and spread the values of western civilisation. Slovak cabinet members have in turn lined up to pledge their government's readiness to meet alliance demands, in the hope that next year's November Nato expansion summit in Prague may yield an invitation that Slovakia join.

If there's a hitch, however, it is that the current administration, on the strength of opinion polls this year, does not look like being invited by its own electorate to take another term in government following 2002 elections. Instead, the HZDS opposition party tops the polls by a wide margin - the same party which was responsible for Slovakia's being left out of an earlier 1999 Nato expansion round. With western diplomats promising that the criteria for Nato eligibility will not be lowered in the wake of the terrorist attacks, it would seem we're back where we started - is the HZDS sincere about its proclaimed support for Nato integration, and is anyone in Nato member capitals ready to listen?

On the latter score, the answer may be yes. Nato memberships are political and subjective decisions, rather than a matter of handing out invitations to any country which wins enough points on a military or economic eligibility scorecard. If the HZDS through some miracle of sophistry manages to improve its international image, that, combined with a new appetite for global unity, may at least give Nato decision makers pause for thought. After all, if the United States ends up cooperating with Russia and Iran against Osama bin Laden's gang, Slovakia under Mečiar may not be seen as such a strange bedfellow for Washington.

But it's the sincerity element which destroys this scenario. HZDS representatives can sign all the condolence books they want, lay the biggest bouquets in front of the US embassy in Bratislava, but they can't erase the doubt sown by their seven years in government until they produce a convincing display of mea maxime culpa for the acts of apparent state terrorism that occurred under their 1994 to 1998 rule.

The gravity of the 'sincerity problem' doesn't seem to have registered with the party elite, far less with its lower cadres. Júlia Ondrejčeková-Sellers, who headed the HZDS' June to August mission to the US congress this summer to drum up support for the party's Nato orientation, used to write from Washington for the failed HZDS daily paper Slovenská Republika, and regarding the 1999 Kosovo crisis opined: "Clinton's doctrine allows members of the alliance to attack a sovereign state under the cloak of [preventing a] humanitarian catastrophe. It has created an excuse not only for Nato as an attacking bloc, but also for multi-million dollar orders for the American military industry."

Appointing Ms Ondrejčeková-Sellers to be the party's point-woman on Nato shows a disturbing (or reassuring?) ignorance of PR basics within the HZDS. Far from releasing such tub-bashers in congress, the HZDS needs to distance itself from acts of sabotage committed under its reign. First among these is the 1995 kidnapping of former President Michal Kováč's son to Austria.

The Mečiar government not only obstructed investigation of this case by firing two investigators until a third actually shelved the file 'for lack of evidence', but Mečiar himself as acting president in 1998 issued an amnesty to all involved in the crime. Before the Constitutional Court in January 2000 scrapped a new investigation, a 5,000 page case file was assembled in which Jaroslav Svěchota, a section chief with the Slovak secret service, admitted having organised the Kováč escapade on orders from his boss, service head Ivan Lexa. He also named Mečiar as "the spiritual father" of the kidnapping idea.

Then there's the May 1997 Nato membership referendum, which Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči scuppered by issuing illegally altered ballots. Or the HZDS's protests against the 1999 Nato action in Kosovo. Or any number of other acts which supported the theory that the HZDS was trying to keep Slovakia within the Russian sphere of influence by making the country too unstable for western tastes.

Slovakia, if it can elect a non-HZDS government in 2002, stands a better chance than ever of being invited to join Nato. But given that the song of the country's most popular party remains drearily the same in tone if not in verse, Bratislava may miss the most promising train to Brussels it is likely to be offered in the next few years.

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