For the past several years, the cornerstone of Slovenia's foreign policy has been the twin goals of membership in the European Union and NATO. All indications show that EU membership is virtually a done deal, and the country is merely waiting for Brussels to get its own house in order; NATO membership has been significantly more elusive. In the lead-up to the 1999 round of expansion, it appeared that the country was a prime contender. But when the invitations were sent out, Slovenia received only disappointment.
The next round is expected in mid-2002 and the list of possible members includes nine candidates, among which is Slovenia. The country has little in the way of military might to offer, and so the membership bid rests on the unique strategic contributions Ljubljana could make to the alliance.
The confusion Friday night surrounding the alleged arrest of Slobodan Milošević by Yugoslav authorities in Belgrade could be just the thing Slovenia's Foreign Ministry needs to jumpstart the stalled NATO bid.
The membership bid
Aside from such territorial factors as the fact that Slovenia forms a land bridge between NATO members Italy and Hungary, and that Slovene airspace is a convenient launching point into the Balkans, the country and its leadership have one major thing the NATO countries lack: deep, highly developed relationships with the other countries of the former Yugoslavia.
The Slovene Foreign Ministry has pinned the membership bid on its unique insight into Balkan affairs. Slovenia is the exception among the former Yugoslav countries, enjoying good relations with all of its former fraternal republics, and the Slovene leadership has long-term and often personal relationships with the leaders of those countries. Slovenes understand the political situations in the other countries in a way no other world leader can, thanks to the 50-year shared political history of former Yugoslavia.
The continued and intensifying instability in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia require accurate analysis by NATO officials, and who better to provide such analysis than the Slovenes?
Mr Rupel goes to Washington
Slovenia's Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel paid a visit to Washington this week and held several high-level meetings with such American dignitaries as Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and several congressmen. His mission: to lobby for Slovene membership in NATO.
Rupel accurately predicted the interests of the Americans, however, and made trips to both Belgrade and Skopje the week before. Armed with the latest information from the former fraternal republics of Serbia and Macedonia, Rupel was well-prepared to put Slovenia's best foot forward in the United States.
In each case, Rupel's intention in meeting the Americans was to drum up support for Slovenia's NATO bid, but talks quickly veered into the recent events in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Mostar, Skopje and Tetovo, Podgorica and Priština.
Both Powell and Rice briefly assured Rupel that US President George Bush supports further NATO expansion and Slovenia remains a prime candidate, and then pumped him for information on the situations in Montenegro and Macedonia.
Talks with Senator George Voinovich and other senators followed the same pattern. Support for Slovenia's bid was expressed, and then they got down to the real business at hand.
Voinovich asked Rupel if it is possible to trust the Serbian authorities. His answer shows the miraculous advances in Slovene-Serbian relations made in the past six months: "I myself have said that it would be difficult to find better people in Serbia today than those in the current government. This is the best leadership Serbia has had in the past fifty years."
Perhaps it was disappointing to Rupel that no one seemed interested in discussing the merits of Slovenia's bid but, in fact, the visit could not have gone better. Rupel could not have hoped for a better opportunity to demonstrate the key asset his country has to offer.
Mr Milošević goes to jail
The opportunity was realised, however, when the media fiasco surrounding the arrest of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević began Friday night in Belgrade. Rupel was still in Washington while meetings were going on throughout the city trying to determine an official response to the events.
It is unclear if Rupel participated in any of the meetings, but his visit did coincide with Congress's deliberations over whether to approve some USD 50 million in financial assistance to Belgrade. The stipulation that Yugoslavia must cooperate with The Hague was tied to the approval of the aid. In their talks with Rupel, the Americans solicited his appraisal of the situation in Belgrade, and the information and opinions he provided will almost certainly affect Washington's final verdict.
Secretary of State Colin Powell expressly discussed the decision Congress must make this weekend with Foreign Minister Rupel, not only asking his opinion of the authorities in Belgrade, but even what the Slovenes would do in the Americans' place. Rupel's appraisal of the situation was that cutting off aid to Yugoslavia would only further destabilize the already fragile situation, and so Congress must approve the funding. Washington's decision is expected by Monday.
Making the most of the opportunity
Slovene foreign policy makers must take quick action to maximize the benefits to be gained from what is happening in Belgrade and in the wider space of the former Yugoslavia.
The foresight Rupel showed in preparing for his visit to Washington by visiting Belgrade and Skopje clearly paid off in his talks with American leaders about the various situations in the Balkans. It also allowed him to offer substantial advice on the controversial approval of financial assistance to Belgrade.
The question remains: when Belgrade dropped the ball on Friday night, did Dimitri Rupel take it and run? If in fact the foreign minister was able to provide the American government with accurate analysis of the confusing events going on in Belgrade, there could have been no better showcase for the primary asset Slovenia has to contribute to NATO.
Brian J Požun, 2 April 2001
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