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SENIOR DEFENCE MINISTRY OFFICIAL SAYS HIS COUNTRY IS READY TO BECOME A RELIABLE AND RESPONSIBLE ALLIANCE MEMBER

Elections in the bag, Slovakia braces for Nato entry

FOLLOWING general elections and the majority victory of a pro-Western right-wing coalition, Slovak officials are bullish on the country's Western integration prospects, and say the nation is ready to become a reliable member of Nato at the Alliance's expansion summit in November.
Not counting the new West-friendly government grouping, which is still in cabinet talks, the major change solidifying Slovakia's Nato hopes has been the election failure of authoritarian ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar and his opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party.

FOLLOWING general elections and the majority victory of a pro-Western right-wing coalition, Slovak officials are bullish on the country's Western integration prospects, and say the nation is ready to become a reliable member of Nato at the Alliance's expansion summit in November.

Not counting the new West-friendly government grouping, which is still in cabinet talks, the major change solidifying Slovakia's Nato hopes has been the election failure of authoritarian ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar and his opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party.

Both Nato and the European Union had said before the September 20-21 elections that were Mečiar and his HZDS to return to power, Slovakia could be dropped from new member lists despite the country's progress towards the Western bodies under the 1998-2002 cabinet of current Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

However, after winning the ballot but recording its worst-ever election support of 19.5 per cent, the HZDS has again been sidelined by four centre-right parties with solid democratic credentials among Western diplomats.

Officials likely to serve under the next administration say they believe Slovakia has now fulfilled all the requirements for Nato membership.

"There is no doubt now that Slovakia is ready to become a responsible member of Nato," said Slovak Deputy Defence Minister Rastislav Káčer in a telephone interview with The Slovak Spectator. Káčer is expected to keep his seat under the new government.

While not expressing the same conviction as their Slovak colleagues, Western diplomats have confirmed the Alliance is ready to launch a so-called 'big bang' expansion round of seven countries, including Slovakia, with invitations due to be issued at a November summit in Prague.

"The Prague summit will be an historic moment for the expansion of the Alliance and the consolidation of our allies in central Europe and the Balkans," said US Ambassador to Nato Nicholas Burns, who is due to stop off in Slovakia on October 9 on a tour of all Nato candidate countries.

"I've seen nothing to indicate they [Slovakia] will have any problems," said a Western diplomat.

In what is expected to be the biggest inclusion of new members at a single time in the Alliance's 53-year history, Slovakia is expected to receive an invitation along with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia, boosting Nato membership to 26 from the current 19.

Regional neighbours Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined Nato in 1999 after Slovakia was dropped amid concerns about democracy under Mečiar.

Western diplomats have emphasized, however, that no country's invitation is guaranteed, and that Alliance membership decisions have to be approved by the governments of all 19 member countries, leaving room open for unforeseen developments.

At a recent meeting of Nato member states' defence ministers, Nato head George Robertson said the participants had discussed "what the applicant countries still need to do" to make a successful bid for membership.

Káčer, who participated in the meeting, said that Slovakia must continue its course of army reform started under current Defence Minister Jozef Stank, who has outlined a plan to make the army fully professional by 2005 and cut its staff in half by 2010.

"Slovakia's army reform has been praised highly by our partners, and our job now is to continue the pace of reform," said Káčer.

"The new government must fulfil the commitments related to our Nato membership and must be consistent in its policies. We need to continue to behave as a Nato member even prior to our full membership," he said, referring to Slovak cabinet decisions in 1999 and 2001 to open the country's skies to Nato overflights.

The coming major Nato expansion is seen as closely related to last year's terrorist attacks on the US. Prior to September 11, the US' stance on a rapid expansion was non-committal, but that changed with US President George Bush's statement last year that in the fight against terrorism, "we need as many allies as we can get."

Welcoming the planned expansion, Bush's national security adviser Condoleeza Rice said in a recent interview with the Financial Times that the US thought Nato members should have "specialisations" within the Alliance to enable all members to profit from and contribute to Nato.

"We are well aware that some smaller states do not have the capacity to contribute in all spheres," Rice said.

Káčer agreed with Rice, saying that "the idea of specialisation is a good one, and I even think the only possible one for the future of the Alliance."

He was, however, unable to say what Slovakia's 'beat' might be in the expanded Alliance.

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