Washington, 20 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The governments of Bulgaria and Slovakia, in echoes of Cold War rhetoric tinged with a newly-found sense of economic opportunity, are refusing an informal U.S. request to destroy medium-range nuclear missiles they inherited from the Soviet Union.
But the U.S. is making clear that while it wants to maintain a friendly tone in discussions of the issue, it will not let the matter drop.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said earlier this week, when asked about the rejection of the U.S. request, that "the first word is not always the last word."
He said the U.S. regards the SS-23s as a vulnerability in efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, adding that "missile non-proliferation is a top priority of this administration and we energetically pursue a number of means to reduce the threat posed by the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction."
Rubin said negotiations with Slovakia and Bulgaria are being undertaken as "action with friendly governments," and that the U.S. stands ready to help them destroy the SS-23s.
But a Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman reaffirmed Tuesday that his government maintains its position stated three weeks ago that it would not be in Bulgaria's national interest to destroy the SS-23s.
Similarly, a spokesman for the Slovak Defense Ministry, Frantisek Kasicky said Tuesday the SS-23's are required for Slovakia's defense system and no thought is being given to eliminating them as the U.S. has asked.
The issue made newspaper headlines this week but has long been a subject of quiet, behind-the-scenes discussions between diplomats and military experts of the countries concerned. The latest statements in Sofia and Bratislava were in response to a U.S. request made several months ago in diplomatic notes from U.S. embassies in Bulgaria and Slovakia.
No one is saying it publicly, but each country is believed to have at least eight SS-23 missiles -- weapons that are able to carry a nuclear warhead to a range of 500 kilometers.
Kasicky acknowledged that the nuclear capability is only a theoretical question because Slovakia has no nuclear weapons.
In any case, the SS-23s are more than ten years old and expected to reach the end of their useful shelf-life in the year 2,000.
But U.S. officials are concerned that the missiles or their parts could be traded or stolen and end up in terrorist arsenals. There are indications that Bratislava is aware of the oportunities for economic gain.
Kasicky yesterday insisted on the importance of the missiles to Slovak defense, but also hinted that the Defense Ministry's position was not cast in stone. He said there could be a political decision to destroy the missiles in return for financial compensation.
And according to RFE/RL's Slovak Service, another government spokesman said the Slovak Foreign Ministry is ready to reopen talks with the United States, on condition that an offer of U.S. technical assistance still holds.
The U.S. State Department would not comment on any kind of incentive it might offer Slovakia and Bulgaria. A spokeswoman told RFE/RL Tuesday that in similar cases in the past, the U.S. been prepared only to help in the destruction of the missiles and has already offered such an offer to Bratislava and Sofia.
The U.S. became aware of the presence of the SS-23s in Central Europe several years ago during verification of a treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to destroy all of their nuclear missiles with an intermediate range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The so-called INF treaty was signed in December 1987 and entered into force in June 1988.
But before it was signed -- probably in 1986 -- the Soviet Union secretly sent a batch of the SS-23s to East Germany, Bulgaria and what was then Czechoslovakia. When that country broke into two, the missiles were divided between them on a ratio of two to one.
The State Department says the missiles in Germany have been destroyed, and the Czechs liquidated their SS-23's without U.S. assistance last year.
The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) mentions the INF treaty, but not the Slovak and Bulgarian SS-23s, in its latest report on arms control compliance, covering activities in 1996.
The annual report, made public this week and sent to the U.S. Congress, deals mainly with arms control compliance by Russia and Soviet successor states.
It says "the complete elimination of declared U.S. and Soviet intermediate and shorter-range missiles was achieved on May 28, 1991," within the timeframe mandated by the INF treaty. It says that according to the treaty provisions, a ban on the possession, production or testing of INF missile systems remains in force and will be verified through inspections and monitoring until the year 2,001.