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OFFICIALS FACE THE QUESTION

NATO nukes on Slovak soil?

When it comes to NATO, Slovaks generally think of a vast, militarily-backed security carpet covering most of western Europe and, in the future, the central and eastern parts as well. But as their country considers joining the defense alliance, they may find themselves asking: Do they want NATO nuclear weapons on their own soil? Three of Slovakia's neighbors - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - that have also been invited to NATO's early entry party, have publicly announced that they would accept nuclear weapons being deployed from their country if NATO deemed it necessary.
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When it comes to NATO, Slovaks generally think of a vast, militarily-backed security carpet covering most of western Europe and, in the future, the central and eastern parts as well. But as their country considers joining the defense alliance, they may find themselves asking: Do they want NATO nuclear weapons on their own soil?

Three of Slovakia's neighbors - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - that have also been invited to NATO's early entry party, have publicly announced that they would accept nuclear weapons being deployed from their country if NATO deemed it necessary.

Slovakia is the only country in the first group slated for entry that has yet to say anything publicly on the issue. The government insists that it doesn't have to, pointing to a report on NATO enlargement released in September that says "there is no a priori [precondition] for the stationing of nuclear weapons on the territory of new members."

"There is no reason for any applicant to answer non-existent questions," said Emil Kuchár, political director at the Slovak Foreign Ministry. "We haven't been asked."

NATO analysts in Slovakia agree with the government's strict interpretation of the NATO report. But they say that Slovakia will have to confront the question eventually. "The cornerstone of NATO's security guarantee is the nuclear guarantee," said James Tucker, a second secretary at the British Embassy who serves as NATO's official contact in Slovakia. "They must be at least in principle willing."

Kuchár grudgingly seems to have come around to that conclusion. "If I were to go Washington," he said, hypothetically imagining being posed the question, "I would answer şYes.'" Tucker doubts that time will ever come, envisioning instead that NATO is more likely to ask Slovakia to permit nuclear weapon overflights, and alliance aircraft with nuclear arms to land and refuel on Slovak soil.

A confused populace

The whole issue may only further cloud a populace that is already confused as to what NATO is and increasingly hesitant about joining the alliance. A nationwide poll conducted by the Focus agency in October shows that a shade more than one-fifth (20.9 percent) of Slovaks would answer "I don't know" if asked in a referendum if they would agree with Slovakia's entry into NATO. Just as alarming, a second fifth (21.3 percent) would refuse to take part in a referendum on the country's joining the alliance.

One reason for the apprehension, analysts said, is that there is no real debate on the pros and cons of membership. "Our citizens do not have a complete picture of what NATO is doing," Kuchár lamented. "We do not have media experts on security. There is a general lack of information."

Francois de Coulon, a NATO research fellow in Slovakia who is trying to drum up greater interest in the alliance among the public, agreed. "People are not concerned about security here," de Coulon said. "It's something that's not interesting to Slovaks."

Further throwing public opinion into doubt are the leaders of two of the three coalition parties, Ján Slota and Ján Ľupták. Both the Slovak National Party's (SNS) Slota and the Slovak Workers Association's (ZRS) Ľupták have gone on record opposing Slovakia's entry into any military alliance and proclaiming that the country should be neutral.

Kuchár dismissed the rhetoric, tabbing Slota and Ľupták as part of "groups of political parties who are not fully informed on all aspects of security policy simply because they don't deal with it."

Informed or not, two Focus polls show that their followers are listening. In only a ten month span between surveys, ZRS voters' answers of 'I don't know' when asked if they trust NATO has doubled from 16 to 31 percent. Meanwhile, Slota's supporters who 'don't know' about trusting NATO have almost tripled, from 12 percent in December 1994 to 34 percent in the October survey.

Russian overtures

The lines may be getting even further blurred by the spate of high profile rendezvous between Mečiar administration officials and Russian leaders. While Kuchár argued that these face-to faces are only to strengthen economic relations, de Coulon said that the public nevertheless gets Russia's political message of being virulently opposed to NATO's expansion. "Russian PR [against NATO] has been quite active and strong," de Coulon said.

However, the government should not be blamed for its desire to cement economic ties with Russia and other eastern markets, Tucker said. "You can't lay it on Mečiar's feet," the British diplomat said. "He's always said he wants to be part of NATO."

But are his faithful listening? Trust in NATO among HZDS supporters has cratered since Focus's first poll in October 1993 when 49 percent of them said they trusted the alliance. Ten months later, that number had dropped to 36 percent and by October, only 33 percent were in the affirmative. The numbers of "I don't knows," meanwhile, have steadily risen from 17 percent to 24 and resting at 30 percent in October.

Gung-ho

Despite the perceived ambiguity, the government's message is that it's definitely NATO-bound. "Our main goal is the security of this country," Kuchár said, "and our best option is NATO." Indeed, the military has responded to NATO's call with an enthusiastic and exemplary effort, especially in the alliance's Partnership for Peace program. Slovakia has dispatched two crews to Bosnia-Herzegovina - a mine-sweeping operation and a bridge-building unit - and both have drawn rave reviews from NATO's brass. And Slovakia "made the offer before NATO could even process the request," Tucker said.

Politics is a different story, however. Though NATO is essentially a military confederation, Tucker said, "the decision will be a political decision [both] whether Slovakia wants membership and whether European politicians think Slovakia should get in politically." Judging from the recent EU and US démarches and a warning from the European Parliament condemning the new state language law (see story, page 2), the signs are not encouraging, de Coulon said. "It's quite clear...that looking at the present situation, they are not really optimistic about Slovakia," he said, adding quickly, "But that can change."

But Tucker said Slovakia is getting pressured because NATO cares. "People tend to forget this is a young country that is still forging its own identity and wasn't allowed a strong national identity before," Tucker said. "There's a lot of pressure on them to be in the first group because NATO and the EU want them there."

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