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Slovaks sigh as NATO expands

Despite encouragement from his neighbours and western leaders that it would soon be his country's turn, Slovak Defence Minister Pavol Kanis watched the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary join NATO on March 12 with bittersweet feelings.
"We are a little sad," he said after meeting the Czech Parliamentary Delegation for Security and Defence, "to see where Slovakia could have been had we just pursued a policy of common sense and decency."
Kanis' regrets seemed fitting on a day when NATO officials reiterated that Slovakia, though on the right path, was "not ready" for membership. In speeches delivered at the enlargement ceremony in Independence, Missouri, NATO leaders added that they planned to lend a firm hand to Slovakia in the coming years to help it along the NATO road. But they offered no guarantee of when the next round of NATO enlargement would be.


The final step. Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman (centre), Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (right) and Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek participate in an official ceremony in Brussels on March 16 to welcome the three new NATO members.
photo: TASR

Despite encouragement from his neighbours and western leaders that it would soon be his country's turn, Slovak Defence Minister Pavol Kanis watched the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary join NATO on March 12 with bittersweet feelings.

"We are a little sad," he said after meeting the Czech Parliamentary Delegation for Security and Defence, "to see where Slovakia could have been had we just pursued a policy of common sense and decency."

Kanis' regrets seemed fitting on a day when NATO officials reiterated that Slovakia, though on the right path, was "not ready" for membership. In speeches delivered at the enlargement ceremony in Independence, Missouri, NATO leaders added that they planned to lend a firm hand to Slovakia in the coming years to help it along the NATO road. But they offered no guarantee of when the next round of NATO enlargement would be.

"There is an open door, and we [the U.S.] are dedicated to it. I consider it a sad event that Slovakia was not ready," US State Secretary Madeleine Albright said in a March 12 interview for Hungarian public television station MTV.

For their part, Slovak officials said that they would concentrate on modernising the nation's army, and added they were hoping that Slovakia would be invited to join NATO by the year 2001.

What needs to be done

Slovakia was demoted from the vanguard of alliance enlargement at the July 1997 NATO summit in Madrid. NATO reports from the summit ascribed the move to Slovakia's failure to apply democratic principles under the reign of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

In recent months, however, NATO officials have acknowledged that positive political changes have been made since Mečiar's defeat in national elections last September, and have hailed the new Slovak coalition government as NATO-friendly.

The political transformation in Slovakia, while not winning the nation a berth in NATO this time around, has still borne fruit. Under a new action plan designed for countries which missed the first wave of enlargement, NATO has offered Slovakia guidance on modernising and westernising its army, said Peter Burian, head of the Slovak mission to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The minimum requirement for NATO entry, Burian said, will be compatibility between Slovak and western fighting forces in the use of communication and identification systems, methods of training and maintenance of troops and equipment.

In addition, mirroring the trend in western armies, the Slovak Army's personnel structure will also have to be reorganised. "The amount of non-commissioned officers will have to be increased to lower the proportion of commissioned officers in the army," Burian reported.

The importance of those changes is not news to the Slovak Defence ministry, officials said last week. Held back under the Mečiar cabinet, a major reform of the Slovak army is long overdue and will occur regardless of whether Washington gives a NATO nod to Slovakia in the near future, defence officials said.

At a March 16 press conference, Peter Barták, general director of the Defence Policy and Planning Section at the Defence Ministry, said he supported "major military reform in Slovakia as a chance to gain a smaller, but prepared and effective armed forces."

According to the Defence ministry, the Slovak military currently has 39,143 members.

Planned reform in the Slovak military, Barták said, would include systematic staff cuts and shortening of the military service period for conscripts from the current twelve to six months.

Barták explained that in 1994 the government had approved a plan to modernise the army called the Concept of Slovak Army Reform until 2000, but said that the project had been dropped by the Mečiar cabinet.

"Despite the fact that a major reform of military forces is being done in all [post communist] democratic countries, this reform has not yet even begun in Slovakia," he added.

Signals from Washington

Some Slovak leaders are hoping that the forthcoming April NATO summit in Washington will bring a change in the alliance's stance towards Slovakia, and suggest that an official invitation to accession negotiations could be announced later this year. Perhaps no member of this optimistic group is more sanguine than Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

"We expect that the NATO summit will take a positive stance towards Slovakia's integration efforts and that it will set a concrete timetable for early invitation to become a NATO member," Dzurinda said at a January seminar of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in Bratislava.

But others leaders warn that due to the delay in the Slovak army's modernisation, real encouragement from NATO will be a long time in coming.

"If we want to get into the alliance in 2001, when the next summit should be held, the defence sector has a huge load of work to do," said Kanis, adding he did not expect his nation to meet all necessary criteria for NATO membership any time soon.

In addition, some state officials believe that Slovakia's path to NATO is still obstructed by the country's close relations with Russia, ties which were inherited from the Mečiar era.

Jozef Pivarči, state secretary at the Defence Ministry, said that "Slovakia's dependence on the import of supplies from Russia has complicated our situation as a NATO applicant."

No money

With a mountain of major reforms to be undertaken, Defence Ministry officials have said that the nation's falling defence budget is jeopardising their reform plans. In the 1998 state budget, the Slovak Army alone was given 14 billion Slovak crowns, while in 1999, the entire Defence Ministry will receive only 13.8 billion crowns, a significant decrease when inflation is taken into account.

According to Burian, however, the money issue was not crucial to Slovakia's NATO membership goals.

"The only chance for us is to carry out the reforms within the current budget for the defence sector," said Burian. He explained that the Defence Ministry would do well to begin by slashing its staff and increasing the effectiveness of the armed forces.

Burian said he felt the necessary reforms could be accomplished within two years, and that by 2001 NATO could be ready to expand after digesting this year's acquisition of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

"We would like to have something more concrete in our hands, but what exactly the Slovak Army will have to do to become compatible with NATO's armed forces and eligible for membership won't be outlined by NATO until accession negotiations start," he said.

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