Regional mentor to its neighbours

BRATISLAVA takes on global importance this week. As the summit venue for Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush, it is a symbolic way station between East and West.

BRATISLAVA takes on global importance this week. As the summit venue for Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush, it is a symbolic way station between East and West.

Consequently, analysts are being asked to justify Slovakia's role. Is the Slovak Republic a Central European democracy that American President Bush wanted to single out as an important US ally? Or is the summit location accidental, a convenient point of convergence for previously planned business trips to Europe by both presidents at the same time?

According to Dr Ariel Cohen, research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, both justifications are true.

"I think it is significant that the summit is taking place in Slovakia. It is also a location close to Russia that fits Bush's schedule - kind of like what Slovenia was in the first Bush-Putin summit," he said.

Perhaps more interesting is to task analysts to define Slovakia's importance to regional and global foreign policy. Where does Slovakia fit in on the grand scale of things?

John Kubiniec is regional director for Central and Eastern Europe at Freedom House in Warsaw, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank established in the US with branches worldwide. He says that while Slovakia is not so much a foreign policy player on a global scale, it has become increasingly significant on a regional level.

"Slovaks are great believers and supporters of the transitional democratic experience, not just its politicians but also its business people, civic leaders, NGOs and think tanks - even the media. If you look at Slovakia in that context, it's a very important country," Kubiniec said.

Slovakia, of course, has demonstrated a remarkable turnaround in the last six or seven years in terms of building a democratic society. (See reforms article, page 13) As such, it is a stabilizing presence in a region that is more or less in transition.

According to Kubiniec, Slovakia is an ally of the US and a vigorous proponent of democratic values; at the same time, it retains neutrality that is important to states that have not yet embraced democracy.

What makes Slovakia stand out from its neighbours, according to Freedom House, is the country's interest in staying engaged with the political destiny of the region.

"Slovakia has not so much attempted to insert itself but rather has attempted to play an important role, working towards supporting transitions to democracy in other post-Communist states in a way that very few countries in the region have."

In other words, Slovakia is more willing than its neighbours to export its experience to countries like Ukraine and the Balkans.

What's on the table?

Whether you agree or disagree with the politics of George Bush and Vladimir Putin, there are compelling arguments for cooperation between the US and Europe on one hand and Russia on the other.

A quick glance at the topics on the summit table attests to the magnitude of what's at stake.

Democracy, Chechnya, energy cooperation, non-proliferation, the war on terror, trade and investment, and changes in the Russian political system, including media freedom, are the agenda items that most analysts, including Cohen at The Heritage Foundation, expect Bush to raise with Putin.

Freedom House says Europe and the US need a Russia that supports democratic values; otherwise Russia will continue to encourage autocratic regimes in former Soviet-bloc countries, creating regional political and economic instability.

Two of the worst violators of human rights in Central and Eastern Europe, Belarus and Turkmenistan, are semi-closed societies. Freedom House says they are involved in - and interested in - destabilizing the region.

"If the Europeans, the Americans and the Russians don't see eye-to-eye on these countries, one of us is going to continue to support them. It looks like support will keep these systems alive and open as destabilizing influences," said Kubiniec.

Instability in Central and Eastern Europe is negative for two reasons. First, it threatens global security, as the potential for nuclear proliferation becomes more likely.

Kubiniec continued: "I don't want to overemphasize the war on terror, but Belarus has been exporting arms just as Ukraine and Moldova. These countries are major hubs for arms shipments to Africa and the Middle East. These societies are highly closed; people can't travel, they are slowly slipping into something that harkens back to the Soviet era.

"It is important, I think, for the Russians and Europeans and Americans to all be on the same page. If we're not, then, we could have an issue of greater nuclear proliferation than we already have."

The second consequence of political instability in Central and Eastern Europe affects the economic well-being of democratic, European countries like the Visegrad Four - Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Instability prevents them from building economic ties and expanding business eastward.

The Slovak economy, for example, was once heavily dependent on exports to big markets in the East. The Slovak Republic, like the other V4 counties, has retooled and is managing quite well exporting to the EU, but it is losing out on the large market to the east.

"The more you have [East-West] cooperation, the more you have investing in the former Soviet union, the more you have trading, doing business, Slovaks going into transitional democracies with know-how and setting up companies - things very beneficial," Kubiniec explained.

According to The Heritage Foundation, a positive relationship between Russia, Europe and the US is not a one-sided deal that only benefits the West. Cohen is emphatic that in summit talks, the Bush administration should make it clear to Putin that the Russia Federation would also profit from an ongoing, cooperative relationship between the US and Russia.

"[Cooperation] is not just something the US wants, it's something that benefits Russia. There are many aspects of this relationship, including security and economics and energy cooperation that interest Russia."

Will they do what it takes?

While the meeting between Putin and Bush lends hope to the prospect of East-West cooperation, it is by no means certain. A day after returning from a visit to Moscow, Cohen talked about a "closing in" of the Russian Federation's leadership.

"What I found in Moscow, unfortunately, is disillusionment in the US-Russian relationship. Russia is on the verge of closing in or shutting in and losing interest in working hard on integrating with Europe and the US. That's actually sad news before this important summit," he said.

Kubiniec was even bleaker.

He says the perceived stability of Russia by the country's leadership discourages them from working hard towards strengthening a US-Russian relationship.

"In other words you have oil prices beneficial to Russia and you have considerable popularity of the current leadership after two landslide [presidential and parliamentary] election victories. I think the real question is, How much foresight does the Russian leadership have at this point in the game?"

Given Russia's current stance, Kubiniec believes that Russia will not be able to play a positive role in the region, whether that means building stability in the former Soviet Union, preventing weapons proliferation, combating terrorism or working together with the United Nations to prevent genocide.

"If President Putin and the Russian leadership find the foresight, it's possible, but I don't see that happening," he said.

The onus is not just on Putin, however.

Bruno S Sergi, a political scientist, says that diplomacy will be paramount if any real communication is to happen.

"I truthfully believe the two leaders will have to successfully communicate most of their issues without reprimanding each other," Sergi said.

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