Irena Belohorska, in town last week with a delegation of parliamentarians from Slovakia, said she thinks her party and her party leader have been badly misunderstood.
Mrs. Belohorska is a member of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS), whose fiery populist leader, Vladimir Meciar, is widely blamed for torpedoing his country’s chances of joining NATO in the last round of enlargement in 1998.
NATO plans to accept a new group of applicants at a summit in Prague in November. Once again, Slovakia is a top candidate, and once again, Mr. Meciar has emerged as an issue.
“My feeling is that this will be a crucial time, not just for Slovakia, but for my own party,” Mrs. Belohorska told our correspondent David R. Sands. “This is a good opportunity to show that our party has grown, that the commitments we have made to NATO and to the European Union are not just statements on a piece of paper.”
The calendar is playing a cruel trick on Slovakia, as it faces tightly contested parliamentary elections in September even as it tries to impress NATO about its long-term stability, its military capabilities and its commitment to Western democratic values.
The reformist coalition government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has lobbied heavily for NATO membership, but faces internal divisions and sagging poll numbers because of a disappointing economy.
The biggest beneficiary is Mr. Meciar, who ranks as the country’s most popular politician once again and whose party is backed by nearly a third of the electorate.
However, the United States bluntly has warned Slovak citizens against re-electing Mr. Meciar, saying his return to power could jeopardize Slovakia’s chances of joining NATO.
“The forming of the future government will influence whether Slovakia gets a NATO invitation or not. In 1998, Slovakia had a government that had different values than the alliance. If the situation repeats itself, there will not be an invitation,” Ronald Weiser, the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, said in a recent newspaper interview.
Mrs. Belohorska, interviewed late last week at the Slovak Embassy, said Mr. Meciar and his party had made mistakes in the 1990s, but she insisted that many of those mistakes reflected the pressures of organizing a government virtually from scratch after the “velvet divorce” from the wealthier Czech Republic.
“It was very hard for those of us in government because we were learning on the job,” she said.
She said Mr. Meciar in July 2000 firmly commited the MDS to supporting Slovakia’s NATO and EU bids. To her surprise, she said, the party did not suffer any major defections with the shift.
The most recent poll puts popular support for Slovakia’s NATO bid at a record-high 61 percent. But the country’s leaders are openly worried about how Mr. Meciar’s resurgence could affect the decision in Prague.
In a separate interview, Jozef Migas, speaker of the Slovak parliament, broadly hinted Mr. Meciar should stand aside for the good of the country, even if his party emerges as the country’s largest after the Sept. 21 vote.
“This is a milestone year for our country,” Mr. Migas said, “and it is important for the government that emerges from these elections to have the trust of the United States and NATO. I believe and I stress that the ambitions of individuals and political parties should be set aside because for us, [NATO] enlargement has to be priority number one.”
But Mrs. Belohorska said, “First, it is necessary to have the elections. Let’s see what the people say.”
North Korea visit canceled
Three former U.S. ambassadors have postponed a visit to communist North Korea because their trip could have conflicted with President Bush’s visit to South Korea later this month.
Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper yesterday reported that William Gleysteen, Donald Gregg and Richard Walker all former ambassadors to South Korea agreed to reschedule their trip after the State Department objected to the timing. Mr. Bush will visit Seoul from Feb. 19 to 21.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Washington also was concerned that North Korea would use the ambassadors’ visit for political propaganda.
The postponement also comes after Mr. Bush’s declaration of North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq.