After months of silence on the subject, Slovakia has said it will support independent American military action in Iraq, a decision at odds with the policies of many European countries.
The announcement by Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan was described by some analysts as "courageous", as it goes one step further than the official EU line, which is against the US taking military action without UN support.
"Iraq should meet all United Nations (UN) resolutions. We support a resolution that will force Iraq to take action. [However,] if it fails and American military intervention is necessary, Slovakia will act as an ally of the United States," said Kukan in a recent interview for the Domino Fórum weekly.
The comments follow a surprise telephone call from US President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda on October 3, during which Dzurinda stressed that Slovakia "remains America's strong ally".
Because Slovakia is entering the final stages of its accession to the EU, which it is slated to join with nine other countries in 2004, many observers were surprised by Kukan's explicit expression of support for unilateral US action.
"It's a rather courageous position. I appreciate that [Kukan] wanted to articulate a clear position on this issue, but we are in some ways going further than other candidate countries," said Ivo Samson, political analyst at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, who said the move came as great surprise to him.
However, state officials are playing down the significance of the announcement, saying that Kukan's statements are indicative of an evolution, rather than a revolution, in Slovak policy.
"We cannot talk about a shift in our approach. We can rather talk about continuing developments in the Iraqi situation," said Boris Gandel, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry.
Analysts point to the strengthened political support for military action within the US as one of the "continuing developments" that have influenced recent Slovak policy.
"Important things have happened. The [US] Congress voted in favour of a unilateral American attack against Iraq and the president signed [a resolution as a result]. The United States can now attack Iraq at any time. [After an attack] even the EU will have no other choice but to come out on the side of the US. It is hard to imagine that countries such as France or Germany will stand aside," Samson said.
Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the IVO think tank agreed that Slovakia's sudden declaration of support comes from a general feeling that war may be inevitable.
"I see it as an expression of a rational approach. If Iraq fails to comply with the conditions set by the UN, the US will attack whether there is a UN resolution or not," he said.
Despite such speculation in Slovakia, EU representatives have not expressed support for action that is not based on a UN mandate.
"[We do not support] this point of view. Our point of view is that the Iraqi question should be resolved through the United Nations. Only if this doesn't work can we think of something else," said Onno Simons, Counsellor for the EU, Delegation of the European Commission in Slovakia.
Nevertheless, Kukan's unexpected statements have so far drawn no criticism from European officials. Similarly, US officials have not reacted the comments.
Analysts have noted that unlike in many other European countries, in Slovakia the government's attitude towards the prospect of US-led military action in Iraq is not likely to be influenced by domestic politics.
"It is after elections now. This topic cannot win anyone any points. Slovak people don't pay much attention to foreign affairs. They don't see them as important, and even though that might be wrong, it is the prevailing attitude," said political scientist Miroslav Kusý.
Interested or not, Slovaks may feel a positive impact on the economy if the US goes to war with Iraq.
"Pacifists will kill me for saying this, but I must say it would have a positive effect," said Marek Senkovič, an analyst at the Istrobanka bank.
According to Senkovič, increased arms production, bringing more money into all areas of business life, is only one of the possible positive effects.
"We'll see how the conflict develops. In the case of a long-lasting conflict, the US dollar will weaken, and our imports of raw materials from eastern Europe paid for in dollars will therefore be cheaper [in Slovak crowns], which will be good for businesses," said Senkovič.
Slovakia imports oil from Russia, not the Middle East, but prices are expected to go up worldwide if war breaks out. However, Senkovič says there will be little effect from the increased prices.
"These will be compensated by the cheaper dollar," he said.
As for Slovakia's direct trade relations with Iraq, analysts say they will hardly be affected since they are virtually nonexistent right now, despite a history of healthy economic cooperation and the signing of a bilateral trade agreement in November 2000.
Before 1990 Iraq was one of Slovakia's key business partners in the Middle East. Following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait economic relations cooled down.
According to a report on Slovak-Iraqi economic relations compiled by Economy Ministry officials, in the 1970s approximately 1,200 experts from Czechoslovakia worked in Iraq, providing assistance in the energy sector and with infrastructure development.
However, "in the period since Slovakia gained independence there hasn't been any significant activity in mutual relations," reads the report.
Iraqi imports to Slovakia from 1994 to August 2002 reached only Sk670,000 ($16,000). Slovak exports to Iraq are in a better position, equalling Sk73 million ($1.7 million), 75 per cent of which was exported in 2001.
The Economy Ministry believes that future cooperation is possible in almost all areas, once the situation has stabilized.
"We must not forget that Iraq has the second-largest deposits of oil in the world and it will therefore always have money to pay," states the report.
28. Oct 2002 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila