- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001

BRATISLAVA. —For the 10 countries gathered here to discuss the road toward membership in NATO on May 10-12, a one-page memo from the Russians passed out to participants at the conference served as a rallying cry. The five poorly written paragraphs from the Russian Embassy in Slovakia advised that it regarded "NATOs enlargement plans as a grave mistake provoking negative changes of military-strategic landscape and division lines in Europe." The memo came in response to a U.S.-Slovakia Action Commission white paper on "Slovakias Security and Foreign Policy Strategy," which the Russians dismissed as "so many fabrications." Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda used the opportunity to thank the Russians for bringing his countrys security and foreign policy strategy to international attention. Slovakias neighbors were ignited. If Russia wasnt ready to embrace democracy by freely allowing its neighbors to join such international bodies as NATO, they were determined to bring democratic change to Russias back door.
Now the current NATO members will be waiting for a signal from President Bush when he goes to Brussels next month. So far signals have been vague, even from the U.S. administration, which otherwise is considered the strongest supporter of enlargement. Surprisingly absent from the conference were high-level officials from the current European NATO members, especially France, Britain and Germany. At least Mr. Bush did send Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman to express the administrations support to the NATO aspirants the first day of the conference. However, in expressing general support for all, Mr. Bush avoided specific commitments.
Not so with Czech President Vaclav Havel, who on the second day of the conference specifically recommended Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic states for membership. "The Baltic states," he said, "make it clear that not only geographically, but also through their history and culture they consider themselves to be part of the West and, therefore, have an eminent interest in joining NATO. We all know that they were independent states before the war and the Soviet Union annexed them by force on the basis of the criminal Ribbentrop-Molotov pact … There is yet another reason for taking this step: Refusal to invite these states out of consideration for the feelings or the strategic thoughts of the Kremlin would ultimately amount to admitting that Russias fears of NATOs expanding to the three Baltic states are justified and that NATO really harbors aggressive or imperialist anti-Russian intentions." A vote for new members cannot purely be a vote against Russia though.
Unlike the last round of enlargement, in which Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined, candidates now have a strict set of defense reforms they must complete by next years Prague summit, when official invitations will be extended. They must also assure the integration of ethnic minorities into their society, and show progress in political and economic reform. In these areas, Slovakia and Lithuania are the leading candidates.
Under Mr. Dzurinda, Slovakia ended its dependence on Russian military equipment. During the Kosovo conflict, Slovakia opened its airspace to the United States, but not to Russia. This changed the course set by his predecessor, Vladimir Meciar, who had strengthened ties with Moscow in the mid-1990s. In terms of ethnic minority issues, the Hungarians who were previously surpressed there have now become a part of the government and have been compensated for losses. On defense, Slovakia says it is time to contribute to burden sharing.
"To me NATO, and involvement in NATO these days, means first of all responsibility. It means to be an adult in international relations," State Secretary of Defense Rastislav Kacer said in an interview. "In Slovakia, you dont pay for your individual beer, but theres always someone who pays for the beer. And you feel fine … but there is in the company someone who when it comes time to pay, will always say 'Oh, I forgot my wallet now, or I need to go to the toilet, or I have to rush to meet someone. That community would react after a couple meetings … They would say 'You are nice, but we will not take you for beer with us. "
Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paskas saw NATO candidacy as the extra injection of motivation that was needed for the newly democratic states to begin reforms sooner. "The work we do in national defense is more needed for ourselves, not NATO. Our preparation does not only mean strengthening our armed forces. It also means the growth of our economy. It also means the enhanced security in our country … We want to not only be consumers of security and defense but also equal full fledged partners in the organization."
The 10 candidates Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia are new democracies. But Slovakia and the Baltics have fought hard to get where they are, now more than a decade after the first of their anti-communist freedom fighters declared independence. Their path forward is not guaranteed, but if their endurance and determination is anything like that of the Slovakian prime minister who was willing to answer questions of a foreign journalist into the early morning hours, and then run eight kilometers four hours later they will not have a problem finding their way into the NATO fold next year in Prague. That is, if the Bush administration has the fortitude to voice its support often and soon.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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