- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

This is the third in an occasional series of reports from seven NATO aspirants in Central and Eastern Europe before the alliance's summit in Prague next month, where they are expected to receive membersip invitations.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia Just when it seemed they had convinced NATO that their 11-year-old state of 2 million deserves a membership invitation next month, the Slovenian authorities discovered that they have some more convincing to do, this time among their own people.
For several years, NATO officials have done little to hide their assessment that, when it comes to taking in new members, Slovenia is the easiest case. It is politically stable, and its economy is the envy of the former communist bloc.
But an unusually vocal outcry against joining the Western alliance has come as a slap in the face for the country's government, prompting NATO to make an addition to its list of accession requirements public support for membership.
"We want to see public support of well over 50 percent," one senior NATO official said. "As a member, a country incurs serious common-defense responsibilities under Article 5, and the government should have the full backing of its people."
The alliance invoked Article 5, which says that an attack on one member is an attack on all, for the first time a day after the September 11 attacks last year.
Although the official said that he and his colleagues "have been pleased" by the Slovenian government's campaign to raise public support for membership, recent polls reveal that a slow and painful effort to boost support ratings, which fell to their lowest level 39 percent in early summer, has failed.
"We are cautious of a full-blown campaign and concerned about negative reactions," said Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, referring to charges that the government is wasting taxpayers' money.
Anton Bebler, president of the Atlantic Council of Slovenia, a group of intellectuals advocating NATO membership, said there is a perception among Slovenians that if the authorities need to wage a campaign on a certain policy issue, arguments based solely on its merits are not enough.
The government of Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek has published various materials, such as books and manuals with facts and frequently asked questions about NATO, and a newsletter, which it sent to 683,000 households. It is also operating a toll-free phone service where anyone can address inquiries and concerns, said Nada Serajnik Sraka, state undersecretary for public relations.
But Ali Zerdin, a reporter for Mladina (Youth), a weekly newsmagazine, said that most people think the newsletter is a "joke" and instead are seeking "clear answers from the government what exactly our responsibilities as a NATO member will be."
According to a survey by the University of Ljubljana's faculty of social sciences, used by the government and considered by many the most accurate polling data available, public support for membership has been lingering below 50 percent for the past two years.
It reached its highest level 62 percent in the spring of 1997, just before the first round of expansion at the alliance's Madrid summit, where Slovenia's bid failed. It fluctuated between 50 percent and 60 percent the next four years but dropped to 48 percent late last year, falling further to 39 percent this summer.
The latest results showed that things remained unchanged in September, even though all major political parties, except the National Party, support membership. More significantly, opposition to joining NATO also was at 39 percent. About 22 percent were undecided.
"As reasons for their support, the respondents state that NATO provides the best form of collective security, that they consider collective security cheaper and that membership would have positive economic implications for Slovenia," the team that conducted the survey said in an analysis accompanying the results.
"The reasons against entry given by the respondents are high expenses, disagreement with the participation of Slovenian soldiers in military operations abroad and the fact that the state is not under threat," it said.
The survey also found that of those participants who said they would take part in a referendum on NATO membership, 55 percent would vote for and 45 percent against it.
Unlike in any other aspirant country, a referendum seems all but certain in Slovenia, most probably in the period after the Prague invitation and before ratification of enlargement begins in the parliaments of NATO's 19 member states.
"Some want a referendum before Prague, but you can't decline a dinner invitation before you receive it," Mr. Rupel said.
Officials blame the skeptical public opinion on what it calls an "anti-campaign" in the press that, it says, has been undermining the government's effort for more than a year. The foreign minister was the only Cabinet member to respond to the negative press and, according to some officials, was reprimanded in private by his boss, Mr. Drnovsek.
Defense Minister Anton Grizold attributes the strong opposition to NATO membership to a practice reminiscent of the Yugoslav era, although Slovenia has been independent since 1991.
"Journalists were considered political workers in former Yugoslavia, and some still are," he said. "We are still discovering our statehood responsibilities."
Blaz Zgaga, a national security reporter for Vecer (Evening) daily, disagreed, but he acknowledged that "many journalists don't have college education."
He also dismissed the government's contention that the media are conducting a "systematic campaign or conspiracy." But he conceded that his editor "refused to publish an opinion piece I had written advocating NATO membership because she didn't want to go against public opinion."
In Slovenia, unlike in the United States, news reporters also write editorials and other opinion articles, which can be published on both the op-ed and news pages.
Some political observers credit the press with opening a debate that otherwise would never have been initiated.
"The government didn't feel that discussion was necessary, and it didn't listen to those against membership," said Vlado Miheljak, a professor of social sciences and columnist for the daily Delo. "The debate was more about democratic procedure, and it was forced by the media."
The military, which is the most trusted Slovenian institution and has an approval rating of more than 70 percent, has not been affected by the public debate, said Lt. Col. Dobran Bozic, commander of the army's 10th Motorized Battalion.
"We are preparing to work in an international environment," he said. "We have troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, and we'd like to send special forces to Afghanistan, but the politicians don't want to risk public opinion."
In nearly two dozen interviews, political and military leaders, civil servants, analysts and journalists said that the public outcry was in large part a result of disapproval of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
"People here have a weird way of connecting things," Mr. Bebler said. "There is a correlation in their minds between NATO and the United States. They think the Bush administration will force NATO to march in places like Iraq, so why be tricked into far-away wars by reckless unilateralists?"
Mr. Grizold and Janez Jansa, president of the Social Democratic Party, said that people do not understand U.S. policy because no one explains it to them.
"Every event linked to the United States and NATO is shown negatively in the media," Mr. Jansa said. "The Washington correspondent of the national TV reports as if from an enemy country."
Mr. Rupel expressed some frustration with a few of the administration's policies that are often at odds with those of Washington's European allies.
"I've met Bush, and he is a good and straightforward man," Mr. Rupel said. "Slovenia would love to stay in the group of American friends, but some statements from Washington are not helpful in making our policies popular."
Mr. Grizold, however, said that "as a true partner," Slovenia will support the United States. "Otherwise, how can we be a credible partner? We have to stick together and express solidarity."
He also said his country would fulfill NATO's requirement that 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) be spent on defense by 2008, in spite of strong objections by some.
But Mr. Miheljak said that many people doubt the government's assertion that building a defense system outside NATO would be much more expensive and that they feel that "we can defend ourselves with less than 2 percent of GDP."
"We are economically stable, and we don't need NATO like some other candidates," he said, referring to Bulgaria and Romania, whose economies have not done as well. "We can survive without NATO."


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