FOR SLOVAKIA'S ruling coalition, last year bore the fruits of long foreign policy labours, bringing invitations to join the European Union and the NATO military alliance. Now one last big question remains - do the people really want to join the clubs?
Opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for membership in both bodies, but while EU membership requires a public referendum for approval, NATO membership does not, and Slovakia is within its rights to let parliamentarians decide.
While few credibly argue against membership in the EU, NATO presents a stickier question. Will it make Slovakia stronger? Does Slovakia need to commit itself to defending all other alliance countries? Neither Switzerland nor Austria has signed on. And can Slovakia afford it?
These are important considerations worthy of public debate, particularly given that membership in the alliance would necessarily determine the core of Slovakia's future foreign policy.
When Vladimír Mečiar subverted a referendum on NATO in 1998, it helped galvanise a broad coalition that ousted the three-time PM from power in elections later that year. Now, however, many of the same politicians who derided Mečiar's meddling are denouncing a call by veteran politician and former head of the Christian Democrats (KDH) Ján Čarnogurský, among others, to put the NATO question to the people.
The current KDH leadership has distanced itself from Čarnogurský, saying a referendum is unnecessary. NATO membership, they say, is and has been a stated aim of the ruling coalition since 1998. The voters knew this in September when they sent an ideologically unified centre-right coalition to power, so why complicate things with another ballot?
The question, however, is important, as is the fact that less than 43 per cent of this September's vote went to the current ruling coalition. While that poll clearly showed whom Slovaks wanted as leaders, it did not give such a strong endorsement of foreign policy aims that a major question on Slovakia's military future can be signed off as a fait accompli.
If membership in NATO comes to pass, it will undoubtedly bring Slovakia a number of military benefits - greatly expanded capabilities, improved strategic planning, better training, and access to top-quality military hardware - but they will not come without a price. The implications of membership are simply too great to bypass the forum of public opinion.
When a referendum on this subject was last thwarted, it convinced many in the West that Slovakia was not a democracy. What kind of message will blocking another referendum send?
20. Jan 2003 at 0:00