By Joel Blocker and Genevieve Zalatorius
Prague, Levoca; 23 January 1998 (RFE/RL) - This weekend's meeting of eleven European presidents, most of them from Central Europe, will likely be dominated by discussion of the European Union's (EU) planned expansion to the Central and Eastern parts of the continent.
Substantive negotiations with five nations in the area: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, are due to get underway in three months. They are expected to take several years to complete.
Substantive talks with another five Eastern candidates --Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia-- will get underway only when the EU judges some or all of them to have met its minimal economic and --in the case of Slovakia-- political entry requirements. These five nations will be offered what the EU calls "partnerships," including generous monetary assistance, to help them catch up with countries deemed by Brussels to be more advanced.
All 10 Eastern nations will be represented at a London opening ceremony in late March. This event was scheduled by the EU in no small part in order to bridge the gap between the real candidates in the first group and the theoretical candidates in the second group.
On Saturday and Sunday, the heads of state of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine will be meeting with their counterparts from Austria, Germany and Italy, all three current EU members. The gathering will take place in Levoca, a small town in the High Tatra mountains of Eastern Slovakia.
The official theme of the Levoca meeting is "Civil Society - the Hope for a United Europe." The term "civil society" is generally employed to describe the goal of democratic institutions and organizations that seek to bring the state and the individual closer together. It has come into everyday usage in Central and Eastern Europe as post-communist governments try to give their citizens a stake in societies undergoing democratic and free-market reforms. Czech President Vaclav Havel -- just re-elected to a second five-year term -- has strongly backed the idea of a civil society and focused an anthology of his speeches on it.
Hillary Clinton, the wife of the U.S. President, sought to promote civil society on a visit to parts of the CIS last year. She described the idea as, in her words, "the space between what the market should do and the government should do." Slovenian President Milan Kucan declared this week that the development of civil society had helped in the transition to democracy. Kucan said: "The key question is the possibility of revitalizing the civil-society movements in order to deregulate the economy, science, information and other sectors of society."
President Thomas Klestil of Austria, due to take over the EU's six-month presidency in July, says the Levoca meeting will provide what he calls "the first opportunity of evaluating the (the EU's December Luxembourg summit) decision on European Union expansion." He told the Slovak News Agency that he was "looking forward to the summit because of the presentation of Central European presidents' opinions on such decisions and EU countries' reactions to them." Klestil added that the Levoca summit was, in his phrase, "probably the first time that Central European countries (will have) the opportunity to decide on their own future in Europe and to benefit from EU integration."
Slovakia's President Michal Kovac, the meeting's host, this week welcomed the choice of his country as venue for the summit. He said that, in his words, "the presidents will remind us that they themselves and their countries view Slovakia as a vital part of Pan-European integration." Kovac is not a candidate for a second presidential term. Voting for a new president is due to get underway in the Slovak parliament a week from today.
Kovac has often been at odds with Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar over alleged undemocratic practices by the Government. The EU's decision n-o-t to include Slovakia in the first group of Eastern candidates was based on its Executive Commission's finding that the country's democratic and human-rights record was not good enough for the Union to envisage membership for Slovakia in the immediate future.
The President and the Prime Minister have both repeatedly said they want Slovakia to join the EU, and Kovac this week told Slovak radio that the Levoca meeting was a sign of support. Kovac added: "The presidents of the member countries of the (European) Union wanted to indicate unambiguously that Slovakia belongs to the EU and that Slovakia is still important."
Among shortcomings generally cited for the Meciar government are: increasing VAT taxes for newspapers, a move to silence opposition parliament members and Slovakia's treatment of its ethnic-Hungarian minority.
Hungary's President Arpad Goncz, arriving by car in Levoca today, holds pre-summit talks with Kovac. These talks are expected to focus on the same topics as talks in Budapest today between Slovakia's Foreign Minsiter Zdenka Kramplova and Hungary's Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs. The Ministers are expected to discuss the ethnic-Hungarian situation, and the Gabcikovo dam dispute.