Washington, 25 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has paid tribute to what she calls a new and forward-looking Slovakia, one that she says is "ready to reclaim its rightful place on the continental and world stage."
She told reporters in Washington on Friday that that place on the continental stage may eventually include membership in the NATO alliance. She made the comments after meeting Slovakia's new foreign minister, Eduard Kukan.
"I am very pleased to welcome an old friend, Eduard Kukan, on his first trip to Washington as foreign minister of a new and forward-looking Slovakia. In elections last September more than 84 percent of Slovak voters went to the polls, a remarkable number. And they voted overwhelmingly to elect a coalition that is committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions."
A U.S. official who asked that his name not be used told RFE/RL that the two diplomats met for about 30 minutes, and that Slovakia's renewed bid to join the military alliance was the focus of the talks.
The official said Kukan made what he called a strong pitch to join the alliance and, as he put it, Kukan expressed a desire to move Slovakia to the front of the queue.
Following the collapse of communism in Central Europe, Slovakia had been considered a likely candidate for inclusion in NATO's first round of expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. However, the U.S. and its NATO partners dropped Slovakia from consideration because of what the West viewed as the oppressive policies of the government of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who fell from power in the September elections.
Albright said the past four years nearly made Slovakia "a hole in the map of Europe." She said "the absence of democratic reforms and an appropriate attitude in the last four years," were a blot on Slovakia's history.
However, Albright said at her press conference that, "with respect to NATO, the United States is convinced the Slovak government is committed to the reforms required." She said that if Slovakia "continues these reforms and keeps improving its relations with its neighbors, no one should doubt that it will be a strong candidate."
Three nations will join NATO's 16 other members in April, when the U.S. hosts a 50th anniversary alliance summit. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland will be formally accorded full membership status.
Kukan said Slovakia would do everything necessary to join not only NATO, but the European Union and other Western institutions as well. He said the Slovakia of today is a different country then it was last fall.
"I came to Washington to present the new face of Slovakia. The new face of the country which is being formed after the last year September parliamentary elections which brought the new government of Slovakia which is committed to turning Slovakia into a democratic country with the rule of law, respect for human rights and market economy, to bring Slovakia back to the family of democratic nations where it really belongs."
The U.S. official who attended the meeting quoted Kukan as telling Albright that he understood and accepted the fact that no new invitations to join the alliance will be issued to any nation during the Washington summit. In addition to Slovakia, Romania and Slovenia and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are also eager to become alliance members.
The U.S. official said Albright cautioned Kukan to be realistic about an invitation to join the alliance in order to avoid disappointment. The U.S. and NATO have said the first round of expansion will not be the last, but no timetables have been mentioned for future enlargement.
Kukan told reporters that his government recognizes that it has much work to do to complete its transformation to a democratic, free market state. He said, "We know that we have to do the work back home by ourselves. We do not ask for any discounts."
Albright said it is in the best interests of the U.S. to see Slovakia as an eventual member of NATO, but she also said time has been lost in Slovakia, "that needs to be caught up." However, she added that, "I feel very comfortable from the conversations that I had with the foreign minister that the current Slovak government knows what it needs to do, that it's on the right track."