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Slovakia/Bulgaria: Scandals Show That Building Trust Between NATO, New Members Will Pose Challenges

Scandals in two NATO candidate countries are making headlines. In Slovakia, the prime minister is drawing criticism for trying to sack the head of the national security screening agency. In Bulgaria, the U.S. ambassador said the prime minister should abandon plans to appoint a communist-era spy as his security adviser. The incidents are throwing a spotlight on the difficulties of building trust between NATO and the new members set to join next year.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One prime minister wants to hire the wrong man. Another wants to fire the wrong man.

That, in a nutshell, is what's troubling officials from NATO member countries about recent top security changes in Bulgaria and Slovakia.

Slovakia is still reeling from Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's attempts to fire the apparently well-regarded chief of the National Security Office (NBU), Jan Mojzis. The security watchdog vets officials to decide who should be granted access to sensitive information -- a crucial role, since Slovakia is joining NATO next year.

Dzurinda said last month that he'd lost trust in Mojzis, and later added charges of inappropriate political and economic interests against him.

But those accusations have been too vague to convince colleagues. Dzurinda's two attempts to have the cabinet sack Mojzis have failed.

In the meantime, Dzurinda sacked his defense minister, who refused to back him in the first cabinet vote.

The affair has clearly aroused NATO's interest, if not concern.

U.S. and British diplomats in the middle of the row gave the NBU its support. Local media said it was significant that Wayne Ryzchak, the head of NATO's security office, visited Bratislava as the drama was unfolding. And a NATO press officer says the alliance is "watching closely."

"Jane's Intelligence Digest" went the furthest, claiming NATO chief George Robertson recommended that member countries put ratification of Slovakia's membership on hold and limit contacts with Slovaks. However, that's been denied by both sides.

Peter Javurek, a commentator for the Slovak daily "SME," says of the diplomats' expressions of support: "It was clear that what they care about is the continuity of this screening process and the continuity of the NBU's work, which implies that Mojzis is for them a guarantee of that continuity and that they're worried that continuity will be lost."

In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski is under fire, too, this time for the man he wants to hire as his security adviser -- a former communist-era spy, Brigo Asparuhov.

U.S. Ambassador James Pardew called on Saxecoburggotski to change his mind.

In a statement last week, Pardew said: "The appointment [of Asparuhov] can affect the image of Bulgaria among alliance members. We recommend that the government consult fully with the NATO allies before going final with this decision."

There's no word yet on whether the U.S. intervention has worked, but a government spokesman says Asparuhov's appointment is now looking unsure.

Asparuhov, who is also a former head of Bulgaria's National Intelligence Service, dismissed Pardew's concerns. In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgi Koritarov (broadcast on RFE/BTV simulcast Blitz) yesterday, Asparuhov blamed the row on his political foes.

Asparuhov: "In 1991, as head of the Bulgarian counter-intelligence, I had contacts with the Americans, their secret services and all the European secret services without exception, and the assessments of our joint work in those six years were excellent, and there are facts to prove it."

Koritarov: "So how would you explain the opinions that ... "

Asparuhov: "If any representative of a foreign government wants to check that, they can do it without a problem."

Koritarov: "So how would you explain this hardline U.S. position?"

Asparuhov: "I have no explanation except that this position is the result of insinuations by domestic factors [political opponents] against an unpopular person like myself."

The two cases highlight the difficulties facing NATO and candidate countries in establishing the trust needed for them to share classified intelligence information.

Stephen Blackwell is head of the European Security Program at Britain's Royal United Services Institute: "I think [the two cases] reflect a general concern. Obviously, this is potentially a major problem for NATO enlargement, given the prevalence of former communist-era intelligence operatives within these countries."

It's not just these two countries. Romania, for example, has long been a source of Western concern. Bucharest's intelligence service is stuffed with former communist-era secret police officers, and former Securitate members still wield great influence in politics and business.

And the worry isn't just about communist-era agents. Blackwell says NATO is worried about the possibility of operatives being linked to organized crime -- or of handling NATO secrets and passing them to foreign intelligence services, notably Russia's.

"But a more immediate concern -- organized crime is also an issue -- is that the information might be passed on to terrorist groups who might use it against NATO members," Blackwell says.

To be sure, leaks are not a problem limited to candidate countries. Two years ago, a senior French army officer was found guilty of leaking secret NATO bombing plans to Yugoslavia before the Kosovo conflict.

"This is why there's close Anglo-American cooperation over intelligence sharing and exchanges of other military information because there's this long-established tradition of trust. The two countries in this instance [the U.S. and Britain] see each other as being very reliable in terms of their staff and the handling of secrets. What this general problem might reinforce is the tendency of NATO to evolve into coalitions of the willing with specific issues and crises being dealt with by ad hoc groups of states. This issue tends to reinforce that tendency, where countries that have a political problem with a certain issue or certain region might opt out or may be asked to stand aside," Blackwell said.

Observers like Blackwell and Javurek say the recent concerns over Slovakia and Bulgaria are not enough to derail enlargement, but they could have an impact on how a problematic candidate country is treated once it joins.

Javurek says if any doubt is cast on Slovakia's vetting process, the country could end up partially isolated within the alliance.

"As far as I know, several thousands of people who are important in this process still have to be vetted before NATO membership. If for any reason this process either becomes untrustworthy because of the new director or it slows down, then I think [partial isolation] could happen, because Slovakia wouldn't be able to offer all the full number of people for the posts that are important for NATO."

(RFE/RL's Slovak, Romanian, and Bulgarian services contributed to this report.)