- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

NEW YORK Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek said his government in Ljubljana is committed to joining both the European Union and NATO, alliances that he sees as vital to preserving his nation's economic growth and regional stability.

Slovenia is high on the list of applicants to both NATO and the European Union, and government officials say they expect formal invitations to join both organizations in the next waves of expansion.

"We have been candidates in very good standing," Mr. Drnovsek said in an interview with The Washington Times on Wednesday. He said that EU membership could be completed by 2004, and NATO even earlier.

Mr. Drnovsek, who trained as an economist, is in town to participate in the World Economic Forum. He expects to moderate a panel discussion tomorrow on challenges to the European Union.

In the decade since Slovenia's relatively bloodless secession from Yugoslavia, the country has made slow and deliberate progress to a market-based economy. Based mainly on trade with its European neighbors, Slovenia's output has grown at a steady 4 percent to 5 percent annually.

This year, however, Mr. Drnovsek said his country's gross domestic product will probably soften to about 3.5 percent, mostly because of the pinch felt in Germany, Italy and other close neighbors. He said Slovenia could enter the European Union as a net contributor to the union, not as a country that requires subsidies or assistance.

"Membership in the European Union is obvious," Mr. Drnovsek said. "It is our major economic partner, and it will be difficult for us to stay outside. That is especially true for a small country." He said EU members account for roughly two-thirds of Slovenia's exports. The United States, by comparison, is the country's seventh- or eighth-most important trading partner.

NATO membership is slightly less popular within Slovenia, where a bare majority of the people favor it. But all the major parties are committed to joining the alliance, Mr. Drnovsek said, especially with regard to peacekeeping in the Balkans.

"Until now, we have cooperated with NATO to ensure stability in the Balkans," he said. "We have troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and this is our neighborhood. This is an area where we can contribute."

With the United States ready to reduce its presence in the Balkans, Mr. Drnovsek said, the military organization is especially important. "We, the Europeans, must compensate," he said. "And Slovenia is very close to the region, we have so much experience."

Mr. Drnovsek expressed frustration with the pace of stability in the former Yugoslavia and said an international force will be needed there "for at least the next 10 years."

"In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are no new conflicts, but [NATO soldiers] must remain there. It is the same in Macedonia. The peace is still quite risky. It is fragile," he said.

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