A PRELUDE to the main symphony performed by the USA and Russia. That is how one could describe the visit by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev to Bratislava, his only stop on the way to Prague to meet his American counterpart Barack Obama and sign a nuclear arms reduction treaty. And although he was welcomed heartily by Slovak leaders, his visit resonated with the disharmonic tones of the two countries’ unhappy shared past.
The president of the Russian Federation arrived in Bratislava on the evening of April 6 and was received by his Slovak counterpart, Ivan Gašparovič, who had invited him to visit the country. Medvedev’s visit was set in the context of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Bratislava by Soviet troops in 1945.
The main parts of his programme were centred around this leading topic: Medvedev and Gašparovič together attended a remembrance ceremony at Bratislava’s Slavín memorial to the Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation; they presented decorations to surviving Russian and Slovak veterans of the war; and they issued a joint statement related to the anniversary.
Apart from that, Medvedev’s programme included the signing of bilateral and commercial treaties (see News in Short) and meetings with Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico and Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška.
The presidents’ joint statement aroused criticism among members of the public and in the media before it was even published. Articles in the Slovak press on the morning of April 7 conceded that Russia is a significant partner for Slovakia, and that Soviet soldiers had indeed helped Slovaks to overcome their Nazi occupiers in 1945. But they also noted that the Russian-dominated Soviet Union had cast a long shadow over postwar Slovak history – perhaps the most serious aspect of this influence being the 20-year-long Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia after the country’s invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968.
“Medvedev in Slovakia should meet politicians who are able to look him straight in the eye; otherwise we have still not been liberated,” the editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, Matúš Kostolný, wrote in his column.
Nevertheless, none of this was mentioned by either of the presidents in their speeches or in their joint statement.
“The Slovak Republic and the Russian Federation have common memories of the victims of the war and of their joint fight against the forces that unleashed it,” the statement read, adding that both countries will do all they can to prevent the revival of Nazi ideologies and hostility.
Slovakia, it said, would never forget the helping hand it was offered by the Red Army in the fight against the Nazi occupiers, an act which strengthened the traditionally friendly relations between the two countries. In turn, Russia was grateful to Slovaks for caring for the Russian war cemeteries on its territory.
The talks between the presidents were dominated by issues of economic and business cooperation between the two countries, affecting mainly the energy business, the proposed construction of a broad-gauge railway across Slovak territory, and European security policy.
According to Alexander Duleba, an expert on eastern Europe and director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security architecture is top of his agenda.
Bratislava and Prague are the last places Medvedev will visit before the big May 9 celebrations in Moscow to mark the end of World War II. Before it was announced that the Russian and US presidents would meet in Prague, Bratislava was, according to Duleba, expected to be something like Berlin in May 2008 and then Evian in autumn of the same year: a place where Medvedev would present his security proposal.
“But since the Russian-American agreement was reached and the signature of the pact was set for April 8 in Prague, I believe Medvedev decided to save the main message concerning this topic for there,” Duleba told The Slovak Spectator.
However, Medvedev repeatedly stressed his security agenda during his public appearances in Slovakia. He mentioned it as being one of the most important topics of his talks with his Slovak counterpart.
Gašparovič said Slovakia supports the discussion about the future of European security, mainly through the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“I’m sure that where there is a discussion on this topic in the summer at the OSCE session in Kazakhstan some elements of the proposal of the European security treaty proposed by President Medvedev will be used,” Gašparovič told journalists.
Medvedev’s was the third visit by a Russian president to Slovakia since its independence in 1993, following Boris Yeltsin’s visit in 1993 and Vladimir Putin’s in 2005, during which Putin held a summit with US President George W Bush.
“This is the first standard bilateral visit in response to an invitation which president Gašparovič gave to the Russian president during his inauguration [in 2008],” Duleba said.
When the current Slovak government came to power in 2006 it voiced ambitious expectations about the development of bilateral cooperation with Russia, arguing that relations had been forgotten and underestimated by the previous government.
But the gas crisis in January 2009, which came after Russia cut gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine and which cost Slovakia an estimated one billion euros, poured cold water on the Slovak government’s plans. According to Duleba, the event was a real milestone in the recent history of the Slovak-Russian relations.
“The reality today is that Slovakia can do much more for its good relations with Russia in Brussels, either at the EU or NATO, than in bilateral relations,” Duleba said. “This is a big lesson Slovakia can learn from the gas crisis and which hopefully also means that our relations with Russia will become more realistic.”
According to Duleba, Slovakia’s relations towards Russia will be shaped by the European solutions for Russia, mainly in two key areas: energy and the possibility of Russian energy companies entering the European market, and the proposed new European security architecture.
12. Apr 2010 at 0:00