- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

Slovenia looks ahead

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel was pleased as he sat in his suite at the Willard Hotel, relishing a victory Slovenia had pursued since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

He was in Washington last week to join six other foreign ministers from new NATO countries in a White House celebration with President Bush. All had been under communist domination as recently as 12 years ago.

The ceremony was a heady moment for Mr. Rupel, who had worked to get Slovenia in NATO since he was ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2000.

“So much has happened in the past few years, it is incredible,” he told Embassy Row.

With the NATO goal accomplished, Mr. Rupel looked to the challenges ahead for a trans-Atlantic alliance that was divided over Iraq and was debating its future mission.

Mr. Rupel predicted NATO’s mission would expand beyond the traditional goal of defending Europe. NATO already has made exceptions to its charter by intervening to stop Serbian aggression in Kosovo. Some NATO troops also are helping to stabilize Iraq.

“Iraq is now our neighbor. We used to think of our neighbors as Austria, Croatia and Italy,” he said. “This is a totally different situation we find ourselves in.

“We must admit that these problems that used to be somebody else’s problems are now our problems — terrorism, all kinds of threats to stability.”

Mr. Rupel said NATO also must look close by at Serbia and Montenegro — the remnants of the former Yugoslav federation — and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Montenegro is talking about separation, and Serbia remains unstable.

“Slovenia has been traumatized by [Slobodan] Milosevic,” Mr. Rupel said, referring to the former Yugoslav dictator now being tried on war-crimes charges in The Hague. “Serbia has tremendous potential.”

Jelko Kacin, chairman of the Slovenian parliament’s foreign policy committee who traveled with Mr. Rupel, said Bosnia remains volatile eight years after the end of its civil war and Croatia is still developing a democratic system acceptable to the rest of Europe. Croatia wants to join NATO and the European Union, which has announced expansion plans that include Slovenia and nine other nations.

He said Slovenia will work to help those nations prepare themselves to join Western institutions.

“We have to create new opportunities for the others,” he said.

Puppet protest

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who threatens political opponents and represses the press, now feels threatened by a puppet show at the U.S. Embassy.

Vice President Jose Vincente Rangel, in a news conference yesterday, denounced U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro, who hosted a reception Tuesday for International Press Freedom Day where he criticized government intimidation of the Venezuelan press.

However, a hand puppet in a red beret, Mr. Chavez’ trademark, is what really upset the government. A male comedian dressed as the popular female broadcaster Marta Colomina performed on stage with the puppet.

“What we have here is an irresponsible U.S. ambassador,” Mr. Rangel told reporters in the capital, Caracas.

News reports said he called the puppet show a sign of provocation from the Bush administration, which has been highly critical of the left-wing Mr. Chavez.

One diplomat said the comedian embarrassed Mr. Shapiro, who did not know in advance that the performer would ridicule Mr. Chavez.

The embassy would not reply to Mr. Rangel but referred reporters to the ambassador’s remarks posted on the embassy Web site, https://embajadausa.org.ve.

“The situation in Venezuela is worrisome,” Mr. Shapiro said, referring to attacks on 80 reporters in the past year. Some were attacked with guns and knives, he said.

“The people responsible for these attacks have yet to be identified,” he said. “There is no excuse to justify violence against reporters, editors or owners. …

“Freedom of the press in Venezuela has deteriorated over the past year and it is everyone’s responsibility to guarantee that the situation be remedied.”

Mr. Shapiro conceded that he had been upset with the Venezuelan press when it criticized the United States without seeking comment from the embassy.

However, he added, “You cannot allow debate and criticism to become mechanisms of pressure or intimidation.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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