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HIGH-PROFILE CIVIC INITIATIVE LAUNCHED TO PUSH FOR VOTE ON NATO MEMBERSHIP, ORGANISE PETITION

Support grows for NATO referendum

NOW that an invitation to join NATO is in Slovakia's hands, an increasing number of public figures are calling for a referendum on Slovakia's entry into the organisation.
These efforts escalated on January 7 when the citizens' group the Civic Initiative for a Referendum on Slovakia's Entry into NATO was officially launched with the support of several well-known personalities.
According to the constitution, the government is not obliged to put NATO membership to a public vote. However, the president must call a referendum on any topic if 350,000 people or more sign a petition requesting it.

NOW that an invitation to join NATO is in Slovakia's hands, an increasing number of public figures are calling for a referendum on Slovakia's entry into the organisation.

These efforts escalated on January 7 when the citizens' group the Civic Initiative for a Referendum on Slovakia's Entry into NATO was officially launched with the support of several well-known personalities.

According to the constitution, the government is not obliged to put NATO membership to a public vote. However, the president must call a referendum on any topic if 350,000 people or more sign a petition requesting it.

The new civic initiative is now in the process of collecting those signatures.

"We are not against Slovakia's NATO entry. We just think the citizens should have an opportunity to speak out about this key issue, which will for many years influence the position of Slovakia [in the world] and the direction the country takes," said Eduard Chmelár, coordinator of the initiative.

Internationally isolated by the authoritarian rule of former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia did not become a NATO member in 1999 along with the neighbouring Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. After intensive diplomatic efforts, the country was finally offered membership at a NATO summit in Prague, held in November 2002.

An opinion poll carried out at that time by Slovak Radio showed that 47.2 per cent of citizens supported NATO entry, while 39.1 per cent opposed it. A different survey performed by the Polis Slovakia agency at around the same time found that 60 per cent were in favour and 25 per cent were against.

Top officials say a referendum is not needed, arguing that voters clearly expressed their wish to enter the alliance in last September's parliamentary elections, when they voted for pro-NATO parties.

"As far as NATO is concerned, we have a parliamentary democracy and there is no higher force that should speak on our behalf than democratically elected members of parliament, who will decide," said President Rudolf Schuster in December 2002, when opponents to NATO began mobilising to collect signatures.

Analysts say that the gung-ho rhetoric of pro-NATO representatives may reflect a fear of the results of a referendum.

"They feel uncertain, and their uncertainty is grounded. This initiative makes the entire process [of NATO integration] dependent on the voters' decision, and the behaviour of voters can be unpredictable," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank.

Many observers predict that it will not be difficult to collect the necessary 350,000 signatures, given the number of NATO opponents in the country.

Among the personalities supporting the NATO referendum initiative is Ján Čarnogurský, a member of the ruling coalition's Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Čarnogurský founded the KDH in 1990 and served as its leader for 10 years.

Čarnogurský admits he is not only in favour of a referendum, but might vote against NATO membership if a ballot was held.

"[I would] probably vote against Slovakia's membership of NATO. I say 'probably' because there would be an intensive debate before [the referendum] and perhaps the arguments in favour of membership would convince me. But at this point my conviction is such that I would vote against," said Čarnogurský in a recent interview with the daily SME.

Despite Čarnogurský's status as a respected veteran politician, experts are not convinced that his involvement in the campaign will have much influence over the attitudes of ordinary voters.

"His will not have a relevant impact. The KDH clearly distanced itself from his actions," said Mesežnikov.

KDH chairman Pavol Hrušovský has stated on a number of occasions that the KDH opposes any referendum on NATO entry.

On the other hand, the initiative was welcomed by the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS), which has been calling for a referendum for a number of months.

"The KSS was and remains against Slovakia's entry into NATO. It is a relic of the cold war. We see no point of [entering NATO] and we consider NATO to be an aggressive pact," said KSS chairman Jozef Ševc in reaction to Slovakia's invitation to join NATO in November.

Responding to the announcement of the new civic initiative, KSS secretary general Ladislav Jača stated that it was fully in compliance with the long-term efforts of the KSS, which is the only parliamentary party to demand a referendum on NATO entry in its political manifesto.

The move was also praised by various non-parliamentary parties, such as the nationalistic Slovak National Party (SNS), which opposes NATO membership, and the environmental Green Party, which is in favour but thinks that citizens rather than politicians should decide.

The call for a referendum comes at a time of increasing tensions in Iraq. Defence Minister Ivan Šimko admitted at a press conference on January 7 that Slovakia is currently considering all options, including involvement in a US-led military conflict.

"Should Iraq fail to meet the resolution of the UN Security Council, Slovakia is prepared to defend the position of democratic states led by the US," Šimko said.

Developments in the Gulf may have an impact on the way Slovaks view not only the US, but the alliance as well.

"The effect [on people's attitudes towards NATO] will depend on the success of any military campaign. If the objectives of the US administration are met promptly and with few casualties, it should not have a significant impact on support for entry. Conversely, people may be hesitant to come out and vote for NATO if military action escalates," said Mesežnikov.

So far, all referenda in Slovakia's history have been declared void due to low voter turnout. At least 50 per cent of voters have to participate in order for the results to count. There have been no recent surveys assessing the readiness of people to take part in such a referendum.

The constitution does not specify any particular course of action when a referendum is declared invalid. Parliament is therefore free to decide on the issue at hand as if there had never been a referendum. In this case, that would lead to NATO entry being approved.

Analysts suggest that knowledge of these consequences may lead politicians to ask even those voters determined to support NATO not to take part in a referendum, hoping that low turnout will invalidate the ballot.

"Perhaps parties will ask voters not to participate in a referendum. The attitudes of political parties are always important in deciding voter behaviour. We will have to wait and see what the parties say," said Mesežnikov.

But any politician planning such a move might change his mind if a referendum on NATO were attached to this summer's vote on EU entry, which unlike with entry into NATO is a requirement for accession. Many observers have said that combining the two referenda would save money.

With the aim of motivating at least 50 per cent of the electorate to participate in the EU referendum, the government has already announced plans to launch a large-scale campaign.

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