Washington, 21 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe says concerns about Slovakia's human rights record work against its being included in the first round of NATO alliance expansion.
U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) also says that Bulgaria needs to complete some reforms before it can be considered for NATO membership.
Smith's commission held another in a series of congressional hearings yesterday on the human rights aspects of NATO enlargement. Ambassadors of Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary were invited by the Commission to present their country's views on why they should be included in NATO.
Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are expected to receive NATO invitations this summer, but many others, including Bulgaria and Slovakia, also want to join.
Smith said he was unconvinced that "meaningful reform" was taking place in Slovakia. He expressed concern about Slovakia's treatment of ethnic minorities and said he was particularly alarmed by what he called the growing violence and intolerance against political opposition and journalists in Slovakia.
Slovakia's ambassador to the United States, Branislav Lichardus, answered by saying he was dismayed by the numerous unfavorable reports and "misconceptions" about Slovakia in the United States.
"From these reports, one would get the impression that Slovakia is an oppressive state with no free speech and a non-existent civil society," Lichardus said. He added: "I am here to tell you that one must really stretch reality in order to arrive at those conclusions."
Lichardus defended his country's policies toward ethnic minorities by saying that hundreds of schools, dozens of churches, newspapers, theaters and cultural institutions have been provided for minorities. He said particular attention had been given to the Magyar minority by permitting them to use the Hungarian language at all levels of education and providing official signs in Hungarian in their neighborhoods.
Lichardus added that the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had concluded that there was no real threat to minorities in Slovakia.
"As a matter of fact, there is hardly another country in Europe which would treat ethnic minorities in such a generous way," Lichardus said.
In regards to the government's treatment of political opposition, Lichardus said that Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar had recently invited the ranking leader of the opposition to participate in talks for refining the political system. He added that Slovakia's civilian-controlled military was as "updated and reformed" as those of other leading candidates for entry.
Smith also brought up specific concerns he had with Bulgaria's application for membership into NATO. He said the nation had made impressive strides in recent months, but still had to address important issues such as economic reform, civilian control of the military and religious freedom.
Bulgarian ambassador-at-large for NATO accession, Stefan Tafrov, said early NATO membership for Bulgaria would enhance a more favorable climate for economic reform, trade and investment. He said that the very prospect of joining Euro-Atlantic institutions has been a driving force for the implementation of reforms in Bulgaria and one of the main incentives for a constructive foreign policy.
Tafrov said that Bulgaria had undertaken significant steps toward the establishment of civilian control over the armed forces based upon a legal framework, but that the process was far from complete.
He also said that a thorough review of the legal basis for the Bulgarian armed forces, national security and defense policies was already underway.
Addressing the Commission's concerns about religious freedoms, Tafrov defended his nation's policy of requiring churches to register with the state, saying it was necessary for legal matters.
Smith said he hoped the government would consider abolishing such a practice.