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EDITORIAL

NATO air strikes turn Slovaks into doubting Thomases

NATO's military and political leaders are keeping a brave face, but they have surely been taken aback by the wave of European public opposition to the alliance's air strikes against Yugoslavia and the province of Kosovo. NATO's claims that Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic is practicing genocide against the Albanians of Kosovo may work on domestic audiences, but it has had particularly small impact in central Europe, where cultural sympathy lies with the Serbs and past experience breeds suspicion of military alliances.
Mobs have pelted US embassies with eggs and insults in capitals across the continent, including Prague, where Czechs - NATO members for less than two weeks before air strikes began - have been venting their disappointment with their new alliance brethren.


How Foreign Policy Is Really Made
It's TRUE! Slovakia really IS under the influence of the West! A picture taken by a concealed camera at a cabinet meeting on the day that NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia caught them in the act - US Ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson (left, at rear) and UK Ambassador to Slovakia David Lyscom (right, at rear), giving PM Mikuláš Dzurinda and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan their marching orders. Kukan is dreaming of the accolades he will receive for allowing NATO planes to use Slovak airspace, while Dzurinda is reflecting that something stinks in the state of Slovakia.

NATO's military and political leaders are keeping a brave face, but they have surely been taken aback by the wave of European public opposition to the alliance's air strikes against Yugoslavia and the province of Kosovo. NATO's claims that Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic is practicing genocide against the Albanians of Kosovo may work on domestic audiences, but it has had particularly small impact in central Europe, where cultural sympathy lies with the Serbs and past experience breeds suspicion of military alliances.

Mobs have pelted US embassies with eggs and insults in capitals across the continent, including Prague, where Czechs - NATO members for less than two weeks before air strikes began - have been venting their disappointment with their new alliance brethren.

On March 29, an anti-NATO demonstration in downtown Prague attended by several thousand people left one man dead - ironically, an Albanian shot by another Albanian demonstrator. In a poll conducted on March 25, 48% of Czechs opposed the strikes against 36% in support. Vaclav Klaus, the chairman of parliament and leader of the opposition, pronounced himself "deeply disappointed by the military attack," while Environment Minister Miloš Kuzvart called for an immediate stop to the NATO campaign.

The open opposition of many Czechs to NATO strikes and the reluctance of politicians to support their new allies firmly has frustrated some in the country. The Czech Republic's largest-selling newspaper, Mlada Fronta Dnes, wrote that "barely two weeks after the Czech Republic's entry into NATO, leaders of the government and opposition failed to pass the first test of maturity: reliability as allies, and responsibility. The country should be ashamed of them."

Should it? Should Czechs cast off their cultural affinity for the Serbs, a nation of fellow Slavs, or forget their unease at watching a small nation (Yugoslavia) being pummelled by an alliance of stronger countries? The mere fact of NATO membership cannot erase a decades-old memory of the Warsaw Pact, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and what membership in a military alliance can really mean for a small nation.

Here in Slovakia, opposition to NATO strikes appears more widespread and less vocal than in the Czech Republic. The relative calm has to do with the fact that Slovakia is not a NATO member, and thus has not been asked to help drop bombs on Yugoslavia. The relative unity of opposition, on the other hand, probably comes from the deep vulnerability that Slovaks still feel as a tiny newborn country in a sea of stronger neighbours and alliances.

No polls have yet been conducted to guage the opinion of Slovak citizens, but the reactions of one class of Bratislava university students may be as revealing of the public's mood as any. Of 14 students of a post-graduate international relations course, only one was strongly in favour of the bombing with most expressing varying degrees of uncertainty. Doubts formed around three main points - that NATO had no legal right to bomb Yugoslavia, that bombing would achieve little and destroy a great deal, and that the West was taking a far too simplistic view of a complicated ethnic struggle.

"This is a very risky attack for Slovak-NATO relations," one student said. "If NATO acts to harshly or is seen to fail in Yugoslavia, Slovaks will turn against the alliance. It's kind of a test case."

A test case it is indeed, one that highlights the inability of the earnest West, for whom moral questions are as simple as bread and butter, to understand the East, where history and national grudges colour every issue.

It's not that Slovaks are ill-informed about the Yugoslav crisis - the media regularly lead their stories on Kosovo with descriptions of atrocities visited on Albanians by their Serb countrymen. But Slovaks are not as fond of meddling in other people's problems as Americans are, even when these problems are almost unbearable to witness. As an old people living in a young state, Slovaks are moved by one thing above all; the right of even small countries to run their own affairs as they see fit.

With the Yugoslav campaign to be waged, NATO is probably indifferent to how Slovaks perceive the alliance's behaviour. But when the dust settles, and especially if Yugoslavia receives a proper thrashing, NATO may find very few Slovaks queuing up for membership in the next wave of admissions.

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