Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (second from left, rear) smiles in the sunshine in expectation of Slovakia's inclusion on NATO's short list for membership. US President Bill Clinton praised Slovakia's willingness to allow NATO troops to pass through its borders.
The seven countries - Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Slovakia - were listed with equal weight as potential members in the text of the final communiqué at the summit. But according to Peter Burian, Slovak Ambassador to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Slovakia is currently considered one of the two top candidates.
"After Slovenia, Slovakia has been assessed as the second best politically and economically prepared candidate," Burian told The Slovak Spectator on April 28 after returning to Brussels from Washington.
"Concerning the military preparedness, we [Slovakia] are even better than Slovenia," he said.
The move into NATO's high esteem comes just two years after Slovakia was dropped from a list of top candidates for membership at the 1997 NATO summit in Madrid. Slovakia was cited at that time for allowing the "back-sliding" of democratic principles under the government of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.
Though Burian said membership in the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization is at least three years away for Slovakia, the Dzurinda delegation said they felt they had succeeded in convincing the alliance that democratic reforms have taken place since the country's national 1998 elections.
Slovakia earned NATO praise by allowing war planes to fly over its land.
For Slovakia, the summit came as another opportunity for the new government to show its support of the 50-year-old alliance. In multiple moves in the past six months, Dzurinda has focused on sending other positive messages to the alliance.
Over considerable domestic opposition, Dzurinda granted NATO unlimited use of Slovak air space March 25 and later approved full access to Slovak railways for NATO in support of the continuing strikes on Yugoslavia. US and French forces also use Slovak military facilities for training.
According to Burian, the alliance has specifically appreciated Slovakia's intention to send an engineering unit to Albania to join the so-called Allied Harbour mission in the city of Dures.
US President Bill Clinton cited these moves in a positive light in a speech shortly before the summit.
"By continuing your remarkable cooperation with the Alliance and completing military reforms, you'll put Slovakia firmly on the path to NATO membership at the time of further enlargement," Clinton said as he receiving credentials of Martin Bútora, Slovakia's new Ambassador to Washington on April 19.
In an interview for the CNN television station, Dzurinda said that his strategy to speed the entrance of Slovakia into NATO was to act as though his country were already a member.
"Slovakia is yet not a NATO member de iure [by law], but I feel it's a NATO member de facto [in fact]," he said.
The Prime Minister later stressed that the inclusion of Slovakia on the list of candidates was "actually the first concrete result of our offensive foreign policy and a consequence of the democratic changes Slovakia has gone through."
Slovak Defence Minister Pavol Kanis agreed, saying that "not many people realised that [in the final communiqué of] the Madrid summit in 1997, Slovakia got into a situation when it was not mentioned at all."
Over the past six months, Kanis said, "the [Dzurinda] cabinet has made a great change and Slovakia is back on the [entry] track."
Slovakia's next opportunity to actually enter the alliance will come at the NATO summit in 2002, which will be called specifically to focus on the subject of enlargement, the text of the final communiqué from the Washington summit indicated. Both Clinton and NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that Slovakia has chances to be invited to membership negotiations on the next summit of the Alliance.
Burian said he felt Slovakia's chances at the 2002 summit were very strong. He added that the upcoming visit to Slovakia of Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State on May 10-11 should also be seen as a positive sign
With its timing right before the presidential elections here, Albright's visit is likely to be a source of considerable domestic contention. But Burian said the visit it will be significant in helping the Slovak people realize that the United States and other NATO countries strongly support Slovakia's entry chances into the alliance.
"It's not accidental that the visit will take place just a few weeks after the summit," he said, adding that such a visit would be a strong signal from the western countries to continue the integration process.
Dzurinda was accompanied at the Washington summit by Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan and chief of the Slovak Army's General Staff Milan Cerovský.
During the summit, the delegation participated at the summit plenary sessions and met the alliances' top officials. Dzurinda was also invited to a special dinner at the White House hosted by US President Bill Clinton.
The Slovak delegation represented one of 44 countries which participated at the summit, which was intended in part as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of NATO's founding.