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EX-DEFENCE MINISTER IVAN ŠIMKO SAYS 2004 DEFENCE BUDGET MUST BE INCREASED TO 2% OF GDP TO MEET NATO COMMITMENTS

Slovakia an inferior NATO member?

UNLESS SLOVAKIA keeps its commitment to spend 2 percent of the state's GDP on the defence sector in 2004, it may become a second rank player in NATO, former Defence Minister Ivan Šimko warned recently.
New Defence Minister Juraj Liška maintained, however, that although the draft 2004 budget foresees 1.81 percent of GDP for his sector, additional money that would raise the sum to the required proportion of GDP would flow to his sector through other budgetary chapters.

UNLESS SLOVAKIA keeps its commitment to spend 2 percent of the state's GDP on the defence sector in 2004, it may become a second rank player in NATO, former Defence Minister Ivan Šimko warned recently.

New Defence Minister Juraj Liška maintained, however, that although the draft 2004 budget foresees 1.81 percent of GDP for his sector, additional money that would raise the sum to the required proportion of GDP would flow to his sector through other budgetary chapters.

Slovakia is scheduled to enter the alliance in spring 2004, and keeping the state's spending on army and defence at 2 percent of GDP is one of the commitments that the seven candidate states must make before becoming fully fledged members of the defence bloc.

Just recently the US ambassador to Slovakia, Ronald Weiser, was reported to have raised the issue of the Defence Ministry's budget at a meeting with Liška.

Although no official confirmation has been released to support Šimko's claims that states who fail to spend the 2 percent of GDP on defence are seen as inferior NATO members, NATO analyst Ivo Samson from the Slovak Foreign Policy Association confirmed that failing to meet the commitment can harm a state's image as a trustworthy NATO member.

"It is not officially known whether members who don't meet the commitment are indeed inferior NATO members, but Šimko's point is at least true to the extent that such members are seen as ones who don't keep their word. That naturally does not contribute to the credibility of any member state," Samson told The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak parliament is expected to deal with the draft 2004 budget at its ongoing session. Finance Ministry spokesman Peter Papanek told The Slovak Spectator that "there is room for discussing the increase of the defence budget".

He stressed, however, that it was the ministry's "strategic priority" to keep the planned deficit for next year at 3.9 percent of GDP.

Papanek added, however, that the draft budget already increases the defence sector's finances.

"In the case of the Defence Ministry, there is an increase by 7.7 percent, which is Sk1.7 billion (€40.5 million)," Papanek said.

It therefore remains unclear whether Liška will lobby for increasing his sector's budget at all.

The official insisted that additional money would be supplied to the sector through other budgetary chapters, such as the economy, agriculture, and foreign ministries, as well as from the ongoing retrieval of foreign debts to Slovakia.

The 2 percent proportion represents Sk25.5 billion (€607 million), but the draft budget allots Sk23.3 billion (€555 million).

Although deputy head of the Slovak Army headquarters (OS SR) Peter Novotňák said that the armed forces may have to "make changes in [army] structures so that we save some money", he stated that the budget would not endanger the ongoing reform of the army.

By 2006, Slovakia wants to have built a completely professional armed forces.

"We are progressing in line with the [reform] plan, and the money earmarked for professionalization of the army covers the needs of the OS SR," Novotňák said at a press conference on October 20.

Šimko said that Slovakia was not the only country out of the seven invited NATO members that has had difficulties with keeping the defence budget requirement.

Some of NATO's 19 current member states have not been meeting the criteria either.

According to statistics available on the NATO website, the estimated proportion of GDP spent in 2002 on defence activities in countries such as Canada, Germany, and Hungary was below 2 percent of GDP. Hungary entered NATO in the previous enlargement round in 1999.

But the estimated average proportion of GDP spent on the member states' individual defence budgets in 2002 was at 2.7 percent.

According to Samson, it is a task for the new defence minister to set priorities for himself and prove that he is able to defend the commitments made by his predecessor, who was seen as a credible partner in NATO.

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