Nato Secretary General George Robertson has saluted Slovak military reforms.
He also called on Slovaks to cast their votes in September 2002 general elections "with eyes wide open", warning that the elections fall just one month before 19 Nato member nations decide the fate of nine countries applying to join.
Speaking at the Government Offices in Bratislava November 5 as part of his whistle-stop tour of would-be Nato states, Robertson said: "Any decision in a democracy is one which is taken by the people. Governments change and we have to accept these decisions.
"In November next year, 19 states will make a final and definite decision, looking at each candidate country for continuity of belief in democratic values in both words and deeds.
"People in Slovakia need to go into the elections with their eyes wide open and need to make a decision with the full knowledge of the fact that their decision will come just a month before those 19 governments make their own decision. Again, they will be looking for continuity of commitment to democracy."
However, Robertson refused to comment directly on the possible return to power of opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party leader Vladimír Mečiar, whose policies as prime minister from 1994 to 1998 led to Slovakia's exclusion from Nato's 1999 enlargement.
"All I can say is that Nato has bound itself to respect democratic values, ethnic tolerance, good relations with neighbours as well as a system of independent judiciary and a free economy. That is why people should vote with eyes open," he said.
"I refuse to interfere in the domestic politics of this or any other country looking to membership of Nato."
The HZDS has made a radical policy u-turn in recent months and has thrown its weight behind Nato membership. Speaking in Nitra on November 5, Mečiar said: "The HZDS is open to cooperation and agreements with all political parties, and is not biased against any party.
"But those who are still unclear about European integration and Slovakia's accession into Nato cannot become our partners. The years 2005 to 2006 will be a significant period of integration."
Robertson also dismissed fears that Russia could unduly influence the decision making process. "No country has a veto on Nato's right to determine its sovereign arrangements. Cooperation with Russia will become better and deeper in the years to come."
Last week, the Russian State Duma Speaker, Gennady Seleznyoc, told the daily paper Pravda that the former superpower no longer objected to Slovakia's Nato bid.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, the Nato chief said the 19 members of the Alliance would be paying "greater attention and care" to applicant countries than in 1999, when the first former communist countries (the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary) joined.
During his one-day visit to Slovakia, Robertson held talks with President Rudolf Schuster, Speaker of Parliament Jozef Migaš, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan and Defence Minister Jozef Stank.
Following the series of meetings, the Secretary General said Slovakia was now "on the right path" with military and democratic reforms. The government has recently approved an ambitious programme for the Slovak army which will see conscription abandoned by 2006 and the outdated force modernised by 2010.
He said: "Slovakia is on the right path with its military reforms and I praise these efforts. But the reforms are ambitious and will require some tough decisions. These decisions will painful but they must be taken.
"The creation of the Czech and Slovak joint battalion as part of the KFOR [UN peacekeeping force] in Kosovo is to be commended as a great advert for Slovakia's interoperability with a neighbour which is already a Nato member."
Robertson also praised Slovakia for its assistance in the fight against terrorism. Some of the applicant countries have better capabilities to deal with chemical and biological threats than some existing NATO members, he said.
Attitudes towards the Alliance hit an all time low during the 1999 Nato campaign in Yugoslavia.
But according to a recent survey by the National Education Centre, 53.3% of Slovaks now support Nato entry.
The Secretary General said he was encouraged by the survey's findings but stressed the attitude of parliamentary members to "democratic practices and reforms" following the September elections would be vital.
12. Nov 2001 at 0:00 | Deirdre Tynan