SECRET service boss Vladimír Mitro says arms are traded illegally in Slovakia, but won't say how many.
While the country's secret service (SIS) on May 29 reported that Slovakia had become a conduit for exports of Russian arms to combat zones, Amnesty International accused the Slovak government of ignoring EU guidelines on arms exports to sensitive areas. The Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank added that official data on arms export licenses and trade were cloaked in needless secrecy.
While Slovakia has amended several laws since last September's terrorist attacks to clamp down on suspected illegal arms exports, the recent charges were being taken very seriously by Brussels, said a senior EU diplomat in Bratislava.
"If Slovakia is to be an EU member by 2004, we would of course expect them to adhere to EU rules. It would be better if they started now to adhere to the spirit of the body they are going to join," said Onno Simons, counsellor at the European Commission delegation in Bratislava.
Slovakia has already reached a preliminary deal with the EU in the area of common foreign and security policy, one of 29 the union requires candidate countries to negotiate on. However, the deal could in theory be re-examined if Slovakia's arms exports are seriously out of line with EU rules, resulting in a possible delay to EU entry.
According to the SIS annual report for 2001, which was presented to parliament on May 29, Slovakia remains a transport corridor for weapons smuggling due to legal loopholes.
SIS Director Vladimír Mitro told MPs that Russian and Ukrainian Mafia are using their links to the Slovak underworld to smuggle small arms such as machine guns and rifles to countries embroiled in military conflict. The full text of the report is confidential.
Asked if Slovak firms were involved in clandestine illegal arms trading, Mitro replied" "unfortunately"
Arms control experts have long called for Slovakia to plug a loophole that allows firms to import and then export military material without obtaining a license as long as the goods are not on Slovak soil for longer than seven days. A bill to amend the legislative gap is now in parliament.
Officially approved arms exports were blasted by Amnesty International (AI) Slovensko, which on May 28 said that although Slovakia respected United Nations embargoes on arms exports to some countries, it still shipped weapons to countries that, AI representative Vladimír Lefík said, "cannot be considered the best trading partners."
Slovakia exported arms to Angola and Zimbabwe in 2001, countries whose troops were actively fighting in the Congo conflict, and where AI said human rights abuses had occurred. AI was also critical of Slovak arms exports to Belarus, which re-exports military equipment to countries such as Liberia, Iraq and Iran.
Lefík explained that Slovak arms dealers, and the Economy Ministry license commission that approved their weapons shipments, continued to ignore the guidelines of a 1998 EU arms trade code by exporting arms to countries in civil war such as Angola. Lefík said that although the EU code was not legally binding, EU member countries respected it.
Peter Kormúth, of the Foreign Ministry section which examines arms export license applications, said he could not speak for license commission members who had approved exports to countries AI designated as 'undesirable'.
"Apparently, the people who decided on these exports at the time did not think they harmed the foreign policy interests of Slovakia," he said.
The Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), which on May 29 presented its independent study of the Slovak arms trade, added to the criticism with claims that the public, as well as international arms trade watchdogs, were unjustly being kept in the dark by Slovak officials.
The report noted that while all European countries except Austria, Greece and Luxembourg produced official arms trade reports, Slovakia issued only curt annual statements by the Economy Ministry listing the overall value of the trade, the number of firms and countries involved, and employment in the sector.
The problem, SFPA analyst Matúš Korba said, was the 2001 Law on the Protection of Secret Matters, which makes "data on the import and export of military equipment" secret.
Juraj Puchý from the National Security Office (NBÚ) said an amendment to the law was now in parliament to reduce the number of classified topics and documents, and that passage was expected soon. After that, he said, it would be up to the Economy Ministry to decide whether or not to release the information.
"A decision on declassifying material can only be made by those who classified it in the first place," he said. "Maybe they have their own reasons for keeping it classified, I don't want to comment. But it's up to them."
Economy Ministry spokesman Peter Chalmovský said it was "premature" for the ministry to decide whether to release more complex data before the amendment took effect.
However, some Slovak officials and arms industry figures have resisted the recent criticism, saying that the country could not afford to forego lucrative arms contracts if deals were in accordance with the law.
1ubomír Gažák, head of the industry lobby group Arms Industry Association, said "we can't afford to be holier than the Pope," and added that the 205 Slovak main battle tanks exported to Angola from 1999 to 2000 may have helped end the civil war there.
"If you look at it from the other side, that our systems helped to bring this civil war to an end, you have to see it positively," he said.
10. Jun 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson