BRATISLAVA is – for just a couple of days – one of the most important and best-protected cities in the world. As NATO defence ministers gather in the Slovak capital for one of their regular informal meetings, security has been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels.
The meeting, hosted by Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Baska and chaired by the new secretary general of the alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, takes place on October 22 and 23 in Bratislava’s Incheba exhibition centre. According to the Slovak Defence Ministry, Slovakia is hosting around 800 delegates, of whom more than 45 are VIPs, including Rasmussen himself as well as defence ministers from NATO members and from other invited countries. Hundreds of media representatives from all over the world are expected to come to Bratislava to cover the event.
“In the 16-year-long history of independent Slovakia this event is a premiere,” Baska told a press conference on October 15. “Every member country organises the event once in 14 years, since there are 28 countries in NATO and the informal meetings take place twice a year. Bratislava will thus for two days become the capital of NATO.”
“For Slovakia it’s an opportunity for the visitors to get to know the country better,” Rastislav Kacer, the president of the non-governmental Slovak Atlantic Commission (SAC), told The Slovak Spectator. “It matters if the impression you have of someone is mediated by the way they behave at a roundtable [meeting] in Brussels. It’s completely different when people come here and see what Slovakia is, what its internal dynamics are and how it has developed.”
However, it is not just Slovakia that is hoping to make an impressive entry. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new secretary general of NATO, who took office in August 2009, will give one of his first key speeches in Bratislava. He will speak to the audience at the New Challenges, Better Capabilities conference which has been organised as an accompanying event alongside the NATO meeting by the SAC.
“I’m very happy that [Rasmussen] has chosen our conference, I’m very proud about it, as well as about the fact that he will [make his speech] on non-governmental ground,” Kacer said. “It’s good news for the conference and it’s good news for Slovakia.”
According to Kacer, there is a certain symbolism in the fact that the former Danish prime minister chose Slovakia for his speech.
“Rasmussen is an example of the fact that a small country like Denmark, which is geographically smaller and demographically identical to Slovakia, can play a much more important role than its geography and demographics might predestine it to,” he said. “On the condition that it makes it clear where it belongs, what it wants and what its politics are, and that it has a prime minister such as Rasmussen, a man with dynamism, assertiveness and vision.”
Vision for the future
Rasmussen is expected to focus on presenting the vision of the alliance for the forthcoming period to the international security and foreign policy community, and journalists.
One of the most important topics of the accompanying conference as well as the meeting itself is the new strategic concept of NATO, which the alliance wants to approve next year.
“One of the main priorities Rasmussen has established is that the new strategic concept should be prepared with absolute public transparency and with maximum possible integration of a wide community of people,” Kacer explained to The Slovak Spectator. “So not only experts at secret meetings, but also civil society, NGOs, the wider expert community which deals with questions of security, and people who provide solutions in the areas of cyber-security, transit systems, energy transmission and so on.”
Responding to this priority, the SAC took the opportunity provided by the fact that all the experts would be meeting in Bratislava for the informal NATO meeting to organise the accompanying New Challenges, Better Capabilities conference, which is intended to serve as a forum to discuss the issues on the agenda of the ministers’ meeting itself. Apart from Rasmussen, the list of keynote speakers features names such as Alexander Vershbow, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence, who will discuss the US anti-missile defence strategy, Ivo Daalder, the permanent US representative to NATO, who will speak about President Obama’s nuclear disarmament initiative, and Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian defence minister, who will talk about cyber-terrorism.
Given the fact that the meeting is primarily bringing together defence ministers, the topics cover mainly practical aspects of foreign-policy strategies. The operation in Afghanistan is certainly expected to be the most frequently mentioned issue, along with the impact of the global economic downturn on the defence budgets and capabilities of member states, and the new challenges of cyber-security and energy security.
Massive but informal
Informal meetings such as the one taking place in Bratislava occur twice a year and are used for informal and open discussion between defence ministers before the formal meetings held in Brussels which focus on the adoption of decisions and official declarations, the Slovak Defence Ministry explained.
“The aim of the informal meetings is for people to get to know each other better, to interact with each other, debate and cultivate topics of the day,” SAC’s Kacer said, adding that the difference between a formal and an informal meeting is that at the informal meetings the delegates don’t produce an official communiqué or consensual decisions as an outcome of the meeting.
“The inner power and security of the alliance is based on the practice that people regularly communicate with each other and that gives them the possibility to get to know each other perfectly, know each other’s intentions, and make common plans. This creates the inner power, the inner cohesion thanks to which NATO has been successful.”