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EDITORIAL

House of cards: Nato entry demands stronger democracy

FORMER Slovak Defence Minister Pavol Kanis has restarted work on his massive Bratislava villa, the Plus 7 Dní weekly reports, paying "cash down" for new windows, a paint job and other finishing touches expected to make the mansion habitable by spring 2003.
As one of five ministers fired for corruption in the previous Dzurinda cabinet, Kanis was booted from his post in early 2001 after claiming he was financing the Sk15 million ($350,000) project from gambling winnings (his net wage as an MP had been about Sk600,000 a year, meaning the villa would have taken him about 25 years to afford even if he never spent a halier on anything else).
The fact that Kanis has been able to quietly continue construction is an embarrassment for Slovakia, which this week received an invitation to join Nato. It is also a sobering thought for current Nato members, who have urged prospective entrants to fix their wagons before hitching them to the Alliance train.

FORMER Slovak Defence Minister Pavol Kanis has restarted work on his massive Bratislava villa, the Plus 7 Dní weekly reports, paying "cash down" for new windows, a paint job and other finishing touches expected to make the mansion habitable by spring 2003.

As one of five ministers fired for corruption in the previous Dzurinda cabinet, Kanis was booted from his post in early 2001 after claiming he was financing the Sk15 million ($350,000) project from gambling winnings (his net wage as an MP had been about Sk600,000 a year, meaning the villa would have taken him about 25 years to afford even if he never spent a halier on anything else).

The fact that Kanis has been able to quietly continue construction is an embarrassment for Slovakia, which this week received an invitation to join Nato. It is also a sobering thought for current Nato members, who have urged prospective entrants to fix their wagons before hitching them to the Alliance train.

This may seem a rather harsh judgement, given that Nato membership is in so many ways a symbol of Slovakia's massive international rehabilitation. It was only five years ago, after all, that the Slovak government under Vladimír Mečiar sabotaged a referendum on Nato membership, and only three years ago that Slovakia was dumped from a Nato expansion round that included its regional neighbours.

But there comes a point in every country's history when its leaders stop winning praise merely for not acting like tyrants. The 1998-2002 Mikuláš Dzurinda administration restored the rule of law in Slovakia, stopped the secret service from being used to harass 'internal enemies', brought some transparency to sales of state property, as well as some responsibility to economic planning.

In November 2002, however, there are much greater expectations of the government. Above all, the new Dzurinda cabinet is expected to shift from passive to active behaviour, to truly fight corruption rather than just avoid sanctioning its grossest forms, and to weed out the bad apples rather than just move them from the political front lines to strategy backrooms.

Celeste Wallander, head of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Reuters recently that "some Nato hopefuls don't fully share the values of current Nato members... [including] expectations of clean government." The US embassy in Bratislava has reiterated a concern that corruption in Slovakia reaches "the highest levels". The Pravda daily recently ran a story linking the son of a top state representative to a Slovak group selling weapons, including plutonium, to unspecified Arab buyers.

The signs are everywhere that while Slovakia has made enormous progress to reach the Nato doorstep, entering the Alliance house will require redoubled efforts to fight corruption, the danger being that even one major international scandal would be enough to keep the country out in the cold.

It's not that the West really cares how much bribe money is changing hands in Slovakia. The issue is that if corruption has truly reached "the highest levels" in this country, those same levels cannot now be trusted not to sell Nato secrets for gain. Not to mention the problem of trusting former top communists and StB secret agents, who have never been swept out of Slovak public life in the way that they were in the Czech Republic, for instance. Also consider the potential embarrassment of discovering that citizens of a new Nato member had helped arm terrorists, but being unable to discipline the country in question.

Many of these concerns are attached to other Nato applicants as well, and even to the three countries who joined in the 1999 expansion round. As a result, the new Alliance is expected to have two tiers of members - the original 16, and then the 10 newcomers who have yet to prove that democracy and deeper moral values have taken firm root among their populations. And even that scenario depends on the parliaments of all current Nato members approving all seven new membership bids by 2004, thereby officially confirming the offers made on November 21, 2002.

The challenge facing Slovakia, or more properly its government, is to start taking the West's concerns seriously: to start putting corrupt politicians and high-profile criminals in jail and to meet concerns about trustworthiness head on. If they fail to slay the worm of suspicion, this country and its fellow invitees may remain second-class Nato members, invited to the party but then given the cold shoulder.

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