Not in the picture. Slovakia, once considered a front-runner for NATO and EU membership, was noticeably missing from ceremonies celebrating NATO expansion into Central Europe, which included Presidents Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Bill Clinton of the United States, and Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, and Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn.
Slovak President Michal Kováč rushed to stick his foot in the door before it fully closed. Blaming the three-party ruling coalition for the failure, Kováč, a political foe of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, urged both NATO and the EU not to turn their backs on his country and saying membership of both remains Slovakia's aim.
"I hope that the member countries of the EU and NATO will not turn their backs on Slovakia and that they will even more intensively support the democratic forces in Slovakia which wish for Slovakia's integration," Kováč said in an interview at the Central and Eastern European Economic Summit in Salzburg, Austria.
At its Madrid summit, NATO invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join. Slovakia, once frequently mentioned as the first-wave's fourth candidate, was left out.
But the worst blow was still to come. While the Alliance's official declaration left the door open to all European countries who fulfill membership requirements, it made special reference to Romania and Slovenia, but not Slovakia, as potential candidates.
"We recognize with great interest and take account of the positive developments towards democracy and the rule of law in a number of southeastern European countries, especially Romania and Slovenia," the declaration read.
Just as the NATO declaration didn't mention Slovakia, the official government statement published in the pro-government daily Slovenská Republika made no mention of Slovakia's exclusion. But it reiterated the government line expressing its willingness to continue cooperation with the alliance.
"Slovakia will continue its intensive cooperation both with current NATO members but also with those central and eastern European countries invited at the Madrid summit to start talks on entry to the alliance," the statement said.
Coalition leaders lamented their country's exclusion, suggesting that the decision of the 16-member alliance was unfair. The daily Sme quoted Mečiar as saying the decision to invite Poland, Hungary, and former federation partner, the Czech Republic, was not objective.
"It must be said that many states applied different measures in assessing eligibility for membership - one for themselves, another for our neighbors, and another for us," Mečiar was quoted as saying.
But opposition parties' reaction to the apparent snub placed the blame squarely on Mečiar's government. Opposition leader Jozef Moravčík, a former foreign minister and prime minister, said, "It is the shocking reputation of the Mečiar government which is totally unacceptable for western countries," Moravčík said.
Slovakia has repeatedly come under fire from the United States, NATO allies, and the EU for alleged foot-dragging on democratic reforms and creating a transparent economy. Mečiar has patently rejected such warnings, even though they intensified after a botched late May referendum on NATO membership and direct presidential elections.
The last, somewhat ominous EU warning came one day after NATO flashed the green light to the three candidates. Reacting to Madrid summit's decision, the EU promptly indicated that it does not intend to become a dumpster for NATO losers, unwittingly reacting to Mečiar's words from week before at a roundtable with the domestic opposition, "We've screwed our chance for NATO, let's not screw our chance for the EU now."
"Entry in the Union should not be seen as a consolation prize for those countries not included in NATO expansion," said Nikolaus van der Pas, the European Commission (EC) spokesman. "We've always said that enlargement of the Union is parallel in some ways to what NATO does, but that there is no direct link," he added.
Acting accordingly, the EC agreed in principle on the next day to recommend the EU to open membership talks with six states, excluding Slovakia one more time.
According to information leaked from EC sources which the official EU sources declined to confirm, the EC would on July 15 officially recommend to open accession negotiations with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus.
"The decision is for five plus one," a senior Commission official said in Brussels, referring to a jargon used to mean five front-running Eastern European candidates and Cyprus. This information was confirmed by another Commission official.
However, this Commission's decision was still expected to be finalized in Strasbourg on July 15, and according to some member states' reactions, it may have been far from definitive.
"We are not pleased with the announcement that the Commission recommends six states and it doesn't conform with the Austrian position," said Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima, expressing surprise at the Commission's stance. "This hasn't just surprised Austria but other European states as well" he added.
Whatever the decision is in Strasbourg, the EC said it will try to reassure the dejected candidates they are not being left out in the cold. Slovakia, well in need of a thick fur coat, can look forward to a cozy waiting room conceived by the Commission where it can prepare for the economic and political demands of membership.
"It will keep the applications warm," one EU official said on Friday. "It's a kind of hot waiting room rather than a refrigerator." Under the plan, the source added, each reject's application will remain on the table and will be reviewed every year. They will each receive a timetable for meeting the criteria for joining.
17. Jul 1997 at 0:00 | Nigel Stephenson