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EDITORIAL

Spare a kind word, Congress

Over the past four years, the U.S. often criticized Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's government for what State Department officials termed a "democracy deficit." In 1999, seemingly, that deficit will be shored up by the new government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, for which the U.S. has already stated a preference. Dzurinda and his colleagues may have good reason, then, to be disappointed that the holy grail of NATO and EU membership seems to be receding before their outstretched hands.
The U.S. and its allies have long used NATO membership as a carrot to encourage Slovakia to reform. At its Madrid summit in May 1997, NATO decided to exclude Slovakia from the first group of former eastern bloc states to join the alliance, but U.S. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns told the Mečiar government that this decision might be reversed if the Slovak government took "concrete steps to pass a minority language law, and give opposition members greater representation in intelligence, media, and privatization committees."

Over the past four years, the U.S. often criticized Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's government for what State Department officials termed a "democracy deficit." In 1999, seemingly, that deficit will be shored up by the new government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, for which the U.S. has already stated a preference. Dzurinda and his colleagues may have good reason, then, to be disappointed that the holy grail of NATO and EU membership seems to be receding before their outstretched hands.

The U.S. and its allies have long used NATO membership as a carrot to encourage Slovakia to reform. At its Madrid summit in May 1997, NATO decided to exclude Slovakia from the first group of former eastern bloc states to join the alliance, but U.S. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns told the Mečiar government that this decision might be reversed if the Slovak government took "concrete steps to pass a minority language law, and give opposition members greater representation in intelligence, media, and privatization committees."

These faults have now been repaired by the Dzurinda government, which since October has given the opposition proportional representation on all parliamentary committees, passed a bill allowing direct presidential elections and prepared the groundwork for a minority language law to be submitted to parliament sometime this year.

But in the words of some Washington insiders, "the train has already left the station." Firm decisions on NATO expansion have been made, and Slovakia will not be included in the first wave of applicants; no second wave has yet appeared on the horizon. A similar disappointment may be in store from the EU. Slovak diplomatic sources say the EU now seems so absorbed with the introduction of the single currency that it has forgotten about Slovakia. "They don't even know if the EU works," said one Foreign Ministry official. "The problem isn't with us, it's with them."

Foreign policy disappointments with the EU and NATO could be very dangerous for the Dzurinda government. With the economic austerity package to take full effect in January, the cabinet's honeymoon with voters will come to an abrupt end. If the government is unable to point to any significant triumphs in the nation's integration efforts, it will become vulnerable to claims by the former governing HZDS movement and the Slovak National Party that Slovaks had it good before their government started bowing to western and Hungarian demands.

And if those swing voters who swayed in favour of the new governing parties last September suddenly find themselves out of work or struggling to pay rent, they will begin to sneer that "Dzurinda can't even achieve his foreign policy objectives." With the goals of NATO and EU accession a long way from reality, the Prime Minister will have no answer.

American officials have said that the US government has strong motives to see that the Dzurinda government succeeds. Three weeks after election day, US Ambassador Ralph Johnson said "September's elections have turned a new page for Slovakia. I am convinced that we can look forward to a far more open and democratic political life."

While NATO and the EU continue to hem and haw about integration deadlines, the Slovak government desperately needs public and unambiguous statements of western support for the democratic progress it has made. This week's unprecedented visit to Bratislava by a dozen members of Congress provides an excellent forum for such a statement.

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