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Slovakia 'Looks West, Not East,' says Minister

Washington, March 20 (RFE/RL) - Slovakia's two priorities are integration into the European Union and the NATO alliance, Deputy Foreign Minister Jozef Sestak says.

"Slovakia looks West, not East," Sestak told reporters at a Washington press briefing Tuesday. The official is in the U.S. capital on a working visit to discuss closer economic and security ties with the United States.

He says that four years after its separation from the Czech Republic, Slovakia is "a success story," both economically and politically. Sestak says Slovakia is achieving its goal of making the transition to a free market economy and a democratic system of government.

Sestak says Slovakia's gross domestic product is among the highest in central Europe and he says inflation is "totally under control." He says that while the unemployment rate of 13 percent is cause for concern, it is also a sign of a restructuring economy.

The country's privatization effort has also been successful, Sestak says, with 61 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) now in the private sector. The government's goal, he says, is to complete the "second wave" of privatization by the end of the summer and have 80 percent of GDP in private hands.

Slovakia is also the current president of the Central European Free Trade Association, and Sestak says Slovakia wants to strengthen and enlarge the organization as a precursor to Bratislava's entry into the European Union.

To that end, he says Slovakia has invited Bulgaria and Romania to join the free trade association and has invited Ukraine to attend the association summit in Bratislava next fall.

Sestak says that while Slovakia is firmly oriented toward the West, the government also believes in realism and pragmatism. He says that means that the key to a new European security structure is "security for all, not just a few countries."

He says Slovakia supports continued dialogue between Russia and the United States and between NATO and Russia. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are the central European nations that want immediate and full membership in NATO. Russia is opposed to expansion of the alliance and has warned that adding new members will cause Russia to re-evaluate its own security needs.

The alliance has said repeatedly that expansion will occur, but not in the immediate future. For the moment, NATO is increasing its cooperation with the former communist countries through the Partnership for Peace program. That program enables non-members to participate in many NATO activities but it does not provide security guarantees.

Sestak also defended Slovakia against criticisms of its human rights record that were contained in the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights issued earlier this month.

"While the government generally respected most of the human rights of its citizens, disturbing trends away from democratic principles emerged," the State Department said. "There were credible allegations of politically motivated dismissals of public officials, intimidation of opponents of government policy, police misuse of authority and interference with the electronic media."

Sestak says some of the State Department's conclusions are not accurate and that others are open to debate, although he did not provide specific rebuttals. He also said press accounts of the U.S. report omitted positive conclusions.

On the issue of press freedom, Sestak says that he believes the press in Slovakia is totally free. He says American journalists would be envious of the freedom enjoyed by their Slovak colleagues.