Despite the fact that a majority of Slovaks want their country to join NATO, and even though the government claims that membership remains one of its primary goals, the country is far from being considered a potential NATO candidate. But while NATO officials reproach the Slovak government for not acting on its words, Slovak opposition parties are trying to educate the people.
The recent visits of NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, and his advisor for Central and Eastern Europe, Christopher Donnelly, sent a clear message to all applicants: The alliance will stay open to everyone who wants to join, but certain rules do apply.
"We are looking for countries in which democratic processes work effectively," said Donnelly at his late-February lecture in Bratislava about the prospects for NATO enlargement. "Whether the applicant country will join depends merely on its capacity to meet all NATO criteria." Those criteria are mainly a reliable political system and an effective market economy, Donnelly continued, adding that "it is less a question of money, though, than a question of the political system."
According to Milan Tokár, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, the government recognizes the strategic need to join the alliance. "Slovakia is aware of the importance of its strategic position in Europe, as well as of its responsibility and obligation to perform as a stabilizing element in the region." But alliance representatives have suggested that actions would better demonstrate this awareness than words alone.
Opposition politicians view it the same way. "In the last three years the government succeeded in having Slovakia excluded from all major integration processes on the continent," said Ján Figeľ, a deputy for the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
Opinion polls conducted by the US Information Agency (USIA) in October 1997 in most Central and Eastern European countries showed clearly that 54 percent of Slovak citizens favor joining NATO. On the other hand, an even greater majority are reluctant to take on some of the potential duties membership requires, such as NATO military exercises on Slovak soil (59 percent) or routine flights of NATO aircraft over Slovakia's territory (66 percent).
Figeľ attributed this paradox to the ignorance of Slovak citizens. "It's due to a significant disinformation campaign in the public media," he said. "Two great examples [of this disinformation] were the government-formulated questions [in last year's marred referendum] that may have been found offensive to the current image of the alliance." The questions dealt with placing nuclear weapons and military bases on the Slovak territory. "No one is forcing us to do this,' Figeľ said. "[The referendum questions] appear to me as an act to intimidate the public by brandishing an 'old-style' weapon, remembered from the cold war."
That was the main reason behind the establishment of the Center of European Politics (CEP), a civic association that Figeľ presides over. "We believe that the government works poorly in terms of spreading general knowledge [about NATO membership], and of preparing state administration [for the task], so we have started to work in these spheres ourselves."