Sceptical Slovenia

Many Slovenes are not sure whether they want their country to become a member of NATO.

Sceptical Slovenia

Many Slovenes are not sure whether they want their country to become a member of NATO.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Ever since Slovenia became an independent state, the country's two overriding foreign policy goals have been to join the European Union and NATO. Just over a decade after leaving Yugoslavia, this alpine republic with a population of just two million is on the verge of achieving both, but many Slovenes are no longer sure that this is what they want - at least as far as NATO is concerned.

By the end of this year, membership negotiations with the EU should be successfully concluded. Meanwhile, Slovenia has been invited to join NATO at this week's Prague summit. The invitation goes some way to assuaging the national pride that was dented at the alliance's 1997 Madrid summit when, despite great expectations, Ljubljana was not asked to join. At best, though, many Slovenes are ambivalent at the prospect of signing up for the alliance.

At the Madrid summit, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia were all considered serious candidates for membership. In the event, however, NATO leaders decided to limit the alliance's first post-Cold War round of enlargement to the first three.

The sense of betrayal in Slovenia was enormous. This was, in part, because politicians and the media had built up public expectations in the run-up to the summit. Indeed, in their disappointment, some Slovene politicians claimed the decision was a political fix - the result of US interference.

The most lasting legacy of Slovenia's failure to join in 1997 is public scepticism. Before the Madrid summit, 62.4 per cent of Slovenes supported NATO membership. However, that figure slumped to 57 per cent in the immediate aftermath of what was perceived as rejection and from there to just above 50 per cent in the following months, where it remained for several years.

This year, support for NATO membership fell still further to such an extent that the number of Slovenes opposing the move was for the first time greater than those supporting it. According to September polls, just 38.6 per cent of the Slovene electorate was in favour, with 39.4 per cent opposed.

Since September, the polls have swung in the other direction so that if Slovenes were to vote on NATO membership in a referendum - which may or may not take place - a majority would support it.

Indeed, pollsters recorded a surge in support for NATO membership in October, which they attribute to increased discussions of the issue as a result of the ongoing presidential election campaign.

Both candidates who have made it to the second round of voting on December 1 - current prime minister Janez Drnovsek and public prosecutor Barbara Brezigar - back membership. In addition, all parliamentary parties - with the exception of the small Slovene National Party - support it and have demonstrated this over the years by passing a series of resolutions and declarations to this effect.

However, because parliament is likely to rubberstamp NATO membership, groups hostile to the alliance are calling for a referendum to allow citizens to decide for themselves whether they want to join. While most deputies were opposed the idea, public pressure may yet result in a spring ballot.

If this does happen, the results are difficult to predict because Slovenes no longer view the alliance as fundamental to their security. NATO supporters fear that if membership is rejected, this would have long-term negative consequences for Slovenia's international credibility.

In the run-up to the Prague summit, some international newspapers speculated that Slovenia would not be invited to join the alliance because of the general public's lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, existing NATO members have been critical of the Slovene authorities' failure to explain the significance of membership - both benefits and obligations - to the population.

One reason for this is a comparative absence of debate on NATO. Indeed, polls suggest that the Slovene public believes that it does not know enough about the alliance and its activities, in contrast with the European Union, which has organised a comprehensive information campaign in Slovenia in preparation for EU enlargement.

Most Slovenes are aware of the critical role NATO has played elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia as a result of its air campaigns and peacekeeping missions. While many are critical of the time it took for the alliance to become properly engaged, others resent the civilian casualties, shattered infrastructure and general destruction caused by the attacks.

Another point of contention is the likely cost of membership. The alliance expects candidate countries to spend two per cent of GDP on defence, which is considerably more than the 1.5 per cent, currently allocated.

While the economic arguments concerning NATO membership are complex, Ljubljana is planning to raise defence spending to two per cent by 2008 and use this extra money to finance a series of reforms.

Though an end to military service appeals to most Slovenes - and NATO supporters argue that alliance membership will bring economic benefits - sceptics believe that any additional defence expenditure is wasted since Slovenia's security is not under threat and is not likely to be so in the near future. They believe, therefore, that scarce resources would be better invested in improving health and social services.

Another factor against membership is attitudes towards the United States and, in particular, the Bush administration.

Many Slovenes dislike what they deem to be growing US unilateralism and the double standards that a more assertive Washington seems to be pursuing in matters such as the International Criminal Court and implementation of the Kyoto Treaty on climate change.

Many NATO sceptics believe that neutrality is a realistic alternative for Slovenia and want their country to follow in the path of Austria and Switzerland.

Others believe that Slovenia should seek security within the framework of the Europe Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy. This, despite the fact that, at present, only NATO offers the collective defence guarantee - namely that an attack on one state is viewed as an attack on all.

Igor Juric is a journalist with RTV Slovenia.

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