- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

BUCHAREST, Romania Governments across Eastern and Central Europe suddenly find their dreams of a bright future in NATO and the European Union mired in battles over their nationalist pasts.

Slovakia's populist former prime minister, loathed by the West, makes a strong comeback bid for power.

A Hungarian law offering benefits to ethnic Hungarians beyond the country's borders angers several neighboring governments.

The Czech government's treatment of ethnic German and Hungarian residents in the immediate aftermath of World War II becomes an issue in Prague's bid for EU membership.

Many of the disputes reflect domestic political tensions as a number of countries hold elections.

Hungary, for example, has so far staunchly defended its so-called "status law" as it faces tight parliamentary elections next month in which the small, ultranationalist Hungarian Justice and Life Party could hold the balance of power.

But the disputes have taken on a larger significance, as countries such as Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria angle for invitations to join NATO at a November summit in Prague.

All three, plus Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also negotiating furiously with the European Union in hopes of being asked to join in the next expansion, set for 2004.

Asked during a visit to Bucharest this week about nationalist eruptions in the region, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage seemed to take the trends in stride.

"Nationalism is not unknown in our own country," Mr. Armitage said. "The democratic process is as neat, clean and elegant as the making of sausage.

"The snapshot picture may not be so nice, but over time the direction becomes clearer."

But even Mr. Armitage referred to Vladimir Meciar, the nationalist former prime minister of Slovakia, whose party tops the polls going into September's elections, as allied with the "forces of darkness."

Citing political and economic abuses dating from his terms in the 1990s, U.S. officials have all but declared that they will veto Slovakia's NATO bid if Mr. Meciar returns to power.

That possibility provided one nervous subtext to a conference of the nine formal candidates to join NATO, which wrapped up here yesterday.

Leaders of the hopefuls the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, plus Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania avoided mention of ethnic disputes in a concluding declaration yesterday, which embraced President Bush's call for a "robust" enlargement offer in November.

Privately, however, many appeared resigned to Mr. Meciar's comeback, a return that could scramble calculations that as many as of seven of the nine which excludes Macedonia and Albania will be accepted by the 19-nation NATO alliance.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase argued in an interview that the revival of regional disputes could provide an opportunity as well as a headache for the European Union and NATO candidates.

He said that the Hungarian laws "were not built according to European standards," but that Romania, which has a sizable ethnic Hungarian population, used quiet diplomacy to resolve the tensions.

"Instead of creating a psychological war situation, we simply said these measures were not up to European standards," he said. The two countries signed a bilateral memorandum on the status law in December.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said the unexpected re-emergence of decades-old ethnic disputes was not the beginning of an era of instability but the end of one.

The looming prospect of NATO, and especially EU membership, "has caused something of a rush to settle some outstanding historical issues before accession," he said.

"What this is, in reality, is a swan song for traditional nationalism as we've seen it in Central Europe," he said.

Jim Rosapepe is a former ambassador to Romania under President Clinton and now a Washington-based private investor.

"I think unhealthy nationalism and ethnically divisive debates are something you always have to be wary about, especially in this part of the world," he said.

But, he added, "You also shouldn't overstate the case. Every country has its xenophobic elements, but I don't see that in any of the countries of this region they are poised to take over. That these countries are trying to deal with these issues only makes their case to join NATO stronger, not weaker."

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