SLOVAKIA'S planned membership of NATO has been cast into doubt by new allegations that the country has been selling arms to Iraq, despite an international embargo against such business.
A Quebec-based defence news service, the Middle East Newsline (MENL), reported January 22 that Iraq had completed a deal with Slovakia involving a range of components for land-based military systems. These were said to include spare parts for the T-72 main battle tank and unidentified self-propelled artillery systems.
According to MENL, Western intelligence sources said Iraq had signed agreements with several unidentified Slovak companies that have access to a range of surplus Soviet-origin systems and spare parts from the Slovak military.
"At this point, no deliveries have been made, but the deals have been completed and Iraq wants deliveries to begin over the next few weeks," said an unnamed intelligence source cited by MENL.
Slovakia received an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's Prague summit in November 2002, but it will only become a NATO member if the national parliaments of current members vote in favour of its accession.
"If it is proven that Slovakia is involved in illegal arms exports, it will definitely complicate our NATO entry. [The country] would most likely be suspended, not completely excluded [from integration]," said Ivo Samson, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
Intelligence sources told MENL that the Slovak government is not believed to be sanctioning the military exports, and US diplomats in Slovakia share that opinion.
"The Slovak government has taken strong steps to curb the illegal arms trade. The US government, which is very concerned about illegal arms trading, has worked with the Slovak government to assist in strengthening its export control procedures," a spokesman from the US embassy told The Slovak Spectator.
For their part, government representatives insist that it would be impossible to send arms to Iraq.
"Iraq is an embargoed country. Any company that wants to export weapons or military equipment out of Slovakia needs an export license. The Economy Ministry can only issue licenses for countries that are not subject to international embargoes. Each license specifically includes the final destination and the ministry therefore rules out the possibility of legal arms exports from Slovakia to Iraq," said ministry spokesperson Katarína Ševčíková.
However, analysts note that illegal business could be going on in full sight of the government but without its knowledge.
"The problem is that currently we have no mechanism in Slovakia that would serve as a guarantee [against illegal exports]. The Economy Ministry makes the decision [about who gets licenses], but it is not clear who would be responsible for any problems with illegal exports," Samson said.
Economy Ministry statistics show that there is some official trading between Slovakia and Iraq, and a trade agreement between the two countries was signed in 2000. Total Slovak exports to Iraq from 1994 to 2002 reached Sk73 million (1.8 million euro). The largest items on the list of exported goods, making up roughly 62 per cent of the figure, were de-mining vehicles shipped in 2001, ministry officials said.
According to MENL, the illegal components are not expected to be shipped directly from Slovakia to Iraq. Instead they will follow the same route as other equipment bought by the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the news agency reported. The parts will arrive in Syria, MENL said, from where they will be transported by truck to the Iraqi border. The agency claims the transportation of the weapons is being coordinated by the son of a senior Syrian politician.
The export of arms from Slovakia to Syria is unrestricted. Ministry statistics on exports bound for Syria show that in 2002, Slovak companies exported materials classified under the category "bombs, grenades, torpedoes, guided missiles, and similar military equipment" reaching a total value of Sk1.5 million (37,500 euro), which amounted to only 0.6 per cent of total Slovak exports to Syria.
However, representatives from the Statistics Office cautioned that the exact amount of goods sold is difficult to gauge, as many spare parts for military equipment sometimes show up in the figures of seemingly unrelated categories.
Spokeswoman Ševčíková could not say which firms, or how many, are currently engaged in shipping weapons to Syria.
"This information is confidential and only a limited number of people have access to it. And those who do must preserve this confidentiality," she said.
The MENL report comes only weeks after the British magazine Jane's Intelligence Digest published an article called "NATO's Allies in Slovakia" damning the Slovak secret service (SIS) for using "dirty tricks" and communist intelligence practices. In the article, released December 20, the SIS was also accused of involvement in illegal arms trading.
US embassy representatives refused to speculate on the degree of confidence American decision makers have in Slovakia as an ally.
"You would have to address that question to each of the members of the Senate," the spokesperson said, referring to the upcoming vote on new NATO members due to take place in the US Senate sometime this year.
Nevertheless, the recent developments come as no surprise to experts.
"The attention of Western intelligence services and international media is now turned on Slovakia. It is seen as a country that has not been able to control its arms exports, and this is also true of [current Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda's cabinet," said Samson.
3. Feb 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila