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U.S. steps up rhetoric on Slovak democracy ments show worry over democracy

The U.S. government's reception of Slovak Foreign Minister Pavol Hamžík in Washington this month mixed diplomatic greetings with an obviously-timed, subtle but substantial shift in rhetoric. While previously the U.S. has pointed out the thin return on Slovakia's repeatedly avowed democratic commitment, this time the US's opinion is that that commitment has weakened. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told a press conference on October 2 that the U.S is still seeking "key indicators" that Slovakia is serious about "strengthening democracy." While applauding what he called Slovakia's "substantial progress" in the last three years "toward entering Western political, security, and economic structures," Burns said "in the last several months" the U.S. had grown "concerned about indications that the Slovak government's commitment to democracy is weakening."


World stage. Foreign Minister Pavol Hamžík, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on October 3.
AP Photo/Marty Ledehandler

The U.S. government's reception of Slovak Foreign Minister Pavol Hamžík in Washington this month mixed diplomatic greetings with an obviously-timed, subtle but substantial shift in rhetoric. While previously the U.S. has pointed out the thin return on Slovakia's repeatedly avowed democratic commitment, this time the US's opinion is that that commitment has weakened.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told a press conference on October 2 that the U.S is still seeking "key indicators" that Slovakia is serious about "strengthening democracy." While applauding what he called Slovakia's "substantial progress" in the last three years "toward entering Western political, security, and economic structures," Burns said "in the last several months" the U.S. had grown "concerned about indications that the Slovak government's commitment to democracy is weakening."

Apparently timed to coincide for maximum press coverage with Hamžík's first visit to the U.S. as foreign minister, Burns's remarks were not mentioned in the comparatively glowing account Hamžík gave of his stay in Washington to the Slovak news agency TASR.

"They do not expect from us any revolutionary changes or being in sackcloth and ashes," Hamžík said from his meetings with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs John Kornblum. "They expect identification of problems, efforts to resolve them and cultivated political dialogue in the interest of further democratization of society."

But Burns said the U.S. is still seeking evidence that "openness to the expression of opposing views, the promotion of opportunities for citizens and local governments to practice self-government, freedom of the press, and respect for academic freedom" are being pursued in Slovakia, adding that First Lady Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary Madeleine Albright had made U.S. concern about such issues "known directly" to the Slovak government during their visit here in August.

Slovakia was not among the four countries included in the NATO Enlargement Act passed by the House of Representatives, one of two houses in Congress, in late September. A House staffer on the International Relations Committee who requested anonymity told The Slovak Spectator that Slovakia had been "a good prospect at first" to get congressional bipartisan support to be in the first tier of an expanded NATO alliance, but that due to increasing "concern, shared by the Executive branch, that what is taking place in Slovakia is the consolidation of power by the ruling political party," Slovakia was scratched off the list. Adding to that embarrassment, Slovenia was added as the fourth country to the Act along with the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

Why off the list

While emphasizing that no single development eliminated Slovakia from the bill, the source suggested that the kidnap last year of President Michal Kovac's son had been viewed with concern on Capitol Hill, among other developments. "Slovakia, because of these trends, seemed to lose much of the favorable light in which it had been previously viewed," said the House source.

One trend that the source may have alluded to is the government's perceived abject refusal to enact a minority language law after Parliament passed a language law making Slovak the country's official tongue. "It is our expectation that a democratic country can have a minority language law that is not divisive," said Erika Schlager of the Helsinki Commission's Council of International Law, which monitors human rights in compliance with the Helsinki accords. "We feel that Slovakia has established itself as an independent state, and having done so, it should be able to address these minority issues in a way that builds consensus among Slovaks."

No misunderstanding

According to the House committee source, draft-legislation for the bill was developed "at a time when there was very clear communication" between the U.S. and Slovakia regarding "our standards and expectations." Those expectations, the source stressed, did not indicate "any inherent ill-will towards Slovakia. The U.S. isn't picking on one country or another. We're just trying not to turn a blind eye."

The death in a bizarre auto explosion this spring of Robert Remias, a confidant of Oskar Fegyveres (the self-proclaimed Slovak Intelligence Service agent who said he was involved in the alleged Kovac, Jr. kidnap), "came at exactly the time that Congress was considering Slovakia's entry in NATO," Schlager said. "This raised serious concern about the control of security forces in Slovakia." Noting this development, the bill's retention of Slovakia may have "opened up a debate in the Congress" that could have endangered the bill's passage, the committee staffer added.

"We have watched the situation in Slovakia for a long time," said Schlager. "There is a lot going on there that gives me optimism. There is a real development of a civil society in Slovakia."

"Having said that," Schlager continued," on the government's side of the ledger, development has been more uneven. While it has been encouraging to watch the active roles of the President and Constitutional Court in reviewing legislation, we are very disturbed by certain countervailing developments."

Asked if there's a communications gap between the American and Slovak leadership, Catherine Sevcenko, of the State Department's European Bureau, said "We have made our concerns known directly to the government of Slovakia, and they have assured us that they are committed to strengthening their commitment to democracy."

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