NATO'S PLAYING WITH A WILD DECK OF CARDS

Foreign ministry official says Slovakia's absence from alliance's first wave could destabilize region

As Slovakia vies to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with its threeVisegrád brethren, one of its top foreign ministry officials said on April 13 that regional tensions could rise unless all four joined the alliance at the same time.
NATO is expected to invite some former Soviet-bloc countries to start membership negotiations at its Madrid summit in July, and diplomats say Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are the front-runners.
"We asked NATO whether not inviting these four states at the same time will not be a destabilizing factor in the region," Deputy Foreign Minister Jozef Šesták said on a discussion program broadcast by Slovak Television. "This question has sparked a certain controversy, but our answer is definitely yes, it can bring tension to the region and destabilize it."

As Slovakia vies to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with its threeVisegrád brethren, one of its top foreign ministry officials said on April 13 that regional tensions could rise unless all four joined the alliance at the same time.

NATO is expected to invite some former Soviet-bloc countries to start membership negotiations at its Madrid summit in July, and diplomats say Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are the front-runners.

"We asked NATO whether not inviting these four states at the same time will not be a destabilizing factor in the region," Deputy Foreign Minister Jozef Šesták said on a discussion program broadcast by Slovak Television. "This question has sparked a certain controversy, but our answer is definitely yes, it can bring tension to the region and destabilize it."

Soon after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia was considered to be among the top contenders for early entry to the American-European military alliance.

But its chances appear to be waning after the United States and the European Union repeatedly criticized Bratislava for dragging its feet over democratic reform.

Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's government has rejected the criticism, repeatedly asserting that early membership to Western military and economic structures is its main foreign policy priority. Sestak headed a delegation in a round of talks with NATO over Slovakia's membership aspirations at the beginning of April to make that point again.

Sestak said the three key issues at the NATO talks were whether Slovakia could boost the alliance's defense capability, whether it shared the same values as NATO members and whether it was reforming as quickly as its neighbors. "Our answer to all these questions was yes - we can add to the defense power, we are building a free market and a democratic society, and the pace of the reforms is comparable with our neighbors," Sestak said. Slovakia is scheduled to hold a referendum on NATO membership on May 23 and 24. Opposition leaders have accused the government of designing the referendum to cover up its failure to be included in the alliance's first wave. The government says it will not persuade people to vote either in favor or against membership, but two minor parties in the ruling coalition have openly opposed integration.

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