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Yugoslavia: The Kosovo Crisis And The NATO Hopefuls

Prague, 30 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - An unexpected side effect of the Kosovo crisis is that NATO aspirants in Central and Eastern Europe now have raised expectations that their admission to NATO will be expedited.

Slovakia is a case in point. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Hungarian television earlier this month that Bratislava was "sadly" not yet prepared for NATO membership (which the U.S. embassy in Bratislava later clarified as referring to the country's development under Vladimir Meciar's leadership), Foreign Minster Eduard Kukan interpreted that statement as "an appeal to Slovakia to proceed more resolutely ahead."

That Bratislava intended to do just that was demonstrated by, among other things, the decision to cancel orders for the Russian S-300 anti-missile system, which Moscow was to have supplied in part repayment for its debt to Bratislava under a deal reached by Meciar.

Current Premier Mikulas Dzurinda explained that the deal "would not reflect Slovakia's orientation toward the UN and NATO." While that move was significant, the decision to allow NATO aircraft to over-fly Slovak territory, including to carry out mid-air fueling, was the most significant aimed at proving that Bratislava was indeed "proceeding resolutely ahead."

The latter decision appears to have been taken in the hope that in the midst of the Kosovo crisis Bratislava is drawing NATO's attention to the country's importance for the alliance. As the daily "Sme" wrote shortly after NATO air strikes began, Slovakia has been generally perceived as of little strategic importance, mainly because of its small size.

"Sme," which is thought to reflect to some government thinking, believes the conflict may have changed that perception. Two neutral countries in central Europe, Austria and Switzerland, cannot allow over flights and mid-air fueling without contravening their constitutions. This, "Sme" says, suddenly revealed Slovakia's strategic importance as the only possible corridor in central Europe between NATO and the CIS as well as between western or northwestern Europe and the southeastern parts of the continent. Whether this argument will have any impact at the NATO Washington summit next month is unclear. Most alliance officials do not envisage further enlargement in the immediate future, though some steps may be taken to demonstrate that the "open doors" policy is not merely a declaration of intent.

But Slovakia is by no means alone in entertaining such a hope. Closer to the conflict area, both Romania and Bulgaria want to use the conflict to bolster their long-standing argument that NATO currently has a strategic "loophole" in a volatile area where they can serve as "islands of stability."

On the other hand, they fear that the proximity of the conflict might find them militarily involved without the benefit of membership. Thus, while denying in the parliament that NATO planes have already over-flown Bulgarian territory or that Sofia has offered soldiers to fight on NATO's side, Bulgarian Premier Ivan Kostov urged NATO to express readiness at the Washington summit to admit Bulgaria as a full member. A resolution adopted by Bulgarian legislators after the air strikes began echoes that call.

Like Bulgaria, Romania is hoping that the crisis will help it overcome the obstacles to membership, despite its financial crisis, which makes it highly unlikely that it could meet the high costs of membership.

Romanian Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Zamfirescu has even speculated that the Kosovo crisis might open doors in Washington that had seemed closed, and the same thoughts were expressed by Ion Diaconescu, leader of the main coalition National Peasant Party Christian Democratic.

Meanwhile, however, Slovakia and Bulgaria are facing the problem of volunteers who want to enroll to fight on the "other side" in the name of "Slavic brotherhood." Reportedly, 430 such volunteers have registered in Bulgaria, and some are already in Serbia.

In a bid to prevent a similar development among would-be Slovak volunteers, the Slovak Defense Ministry has announced that fighting for another country without official permission is a punishable offense.

In Romania, "orthodox brotherhood" triggered a procession organized by the Orthodox Church (which, however, has not openly taken any side in the conflict). A prominent role in that procession was played by the Students' League, which is allegedly pro-Western and rightist in political outlook but rather fundamentalist when it comes to facing alleged dangers posed by the influence of Western Churches.

Paradoxically, these young Romanians find themselves on the same side as the groups of Slovak and Bulgarian "volunteers," which are supposedly being organized by pro-communist and pro-Russian forces. They also find themselves on the same side as the Cossacks in Moldova's separatist Transdniester region--a state of affairs that they themselves would have considered impossible, had it been proposed to them before the Kosovo crisis.

In short, while some perceive the Kosovo crisis as an opportunity to achieve NATO membership quicker than they had believed possible and while others would rather promote historical attachments, there are also those who believe they can enjoy the fruits of NATO membership and preserve the traditional slice of Slavic and Orthodox brotherhood.