AIM: start

MON, 20 AUG 2001 13:02:27 GMT

Slovenia & NATO

Mutual love

The political climate in Ljubljana is getting hotter. Prominent European politicians in quick succession are paying visits to various top Slovenian institutions and local politicians are using the little time left between these visits to tour NATO and EU countries and lobby for Slovenia's admittance to the two organizations

AIM Ljubljana, July 27, 2001

The media in Slovenia are extensively featuring encouraging and praising words uttered by visiting foreign politicians and their domestic hosts, according to which Slovenia is on the verge of joining the EU and NATO. Almost no one is bothering to ask whether Slovenia has any interest in joining NATO, or question whether its admittance to NATO is truly as near as some say.

The fact is that Slovenians are increasingly uncertain that joining NATO is indeed something they need. Furthermore, no recognized national security and defense experts have come up with figures saying how much Slovenia's joining and survival in NATO will cost taxpayers. Only one such forecast appeared, back in the spring of 1994, when such a possibility was rumored in political circles: after analyzing the extent of the potential danger faced by certain smaller NATO member countries, as well as their budgets and equipment, an analyst said that joining NATO would cost Slovenia between US$800 million and one billion dollars. Strangely enough, such a prospect prompted no comments or denials from either politicians or experts... Development plans for the Slovenian army by the year 2010 envisage increasing defense spending to 2.3 percent of GDP, which, given projections putting GDP growth at 4 percent annually, comes to more or less the same amount in U.S. dollars. Being sensitive about how their tax money is spent, many Slovenians are sceptical in regard to NATO membership. Others, not bothered much by the costs, are worried by a potential loss of the sovereignty, and others still would prefer to see Western tourists crisscrossing the area from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea rather than the arrogant foreign soldiers doing the same.

This mood, characteristic of a good portion of Slovenians (according to certain public opinion polls, over 50 percent are NATO sceptics) was articulated by the young members of the Joint List of Social Democrats, the party that succeeded the former Alliance of Communists of Slovenia, at its congress. Only after a melodramatic speech by party president Borut Pahor (otherwise the speaker of the Slovenian Parliament), the young party members withdrew their resolution. It is interesting to note that there was actually no debate, because the president offered no arguments, appealing instead for preservation of the coalition and honoring obligations from an agreement with Drnovsek and the ruling LDS.

Does NATO need Slovenia?

The answer to this question can be both yes and no, although the latter is closer to the truth. Unhindered and logistically supported passage of NATO troops stationed in Italy towards Hungary (a new member of the organization), or farther to the east and southeast speaks in favor of the former. The foundations of this argument, however, are rather shaky, because several years ago the former security advisor to the U.S. president, Zbiginiev Brezinsky, in talks with Slovenian President Milan Kucan said NATO would not ask permission for the passage of its troops. This is what nearly happened during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and in Yugoslavia, in 1999, when Slovenia's air space was used by NATO aircraft. On these two occasions, NATO did ask a permission, but the Drnovsek government gave it without even asking Parliament, not to mention a debate on the matter. In fact, it had no other choice. Today, Italian soldiers freely use Slovenian soil on their way to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, even when they are headed for Hungary (with a day's notice), and certain vehicles pass even without a notice. As if Slovenia were already a NATO member!

Let us take a look at Slovenia's military capabilities in the event of a major conflict. In short, they are nil, and the creation of an army that would play a prominent role in NATO is both impossible and unnecessary. Therefore it is clear that the Slovenian army will play a marginal role in joint operations, and will probably never take action independently. This has already been the case in certain peacekeeping missions: a detachment of the Slovenian army in Cyprus was part of an Austrian battalion, and a military police platoon in Bosnia-Herzegovina was included in an Italian battalion. Which, historically speaking is interesting for all those who keep asking why Slovenian army units cannot make it with U.S. forces.

U.S. military experts last year thoroughly examined and assessed the conditions in the Slovenian army and suggested what should be done to improve it. They proposed that the air force, armored and mechanized units be disbanded, that heavy artillery be reduced and infantry units trained for combat in mountains be increased. The Americans (from NATO) noticed that Slovenia lack the money necessary to equip its army with modern NATO technology, and saw fit that its army undertake tasks in which NATO doctrine and troops failed to succeed despite an incredible technical advantage. Fighting and marching through the heavy mountains of southeastern Europe or the Caucasus require strong and tough soldiers. The training of soldiers for such tasks costs little, and it appears that Slovenians, as good skiers, are practically predestined for such service. The U.S. analysis clearly shows what the Slovenian army would be expected to do if used in combat as part of NATO.

Furthermore, Slovenia has no training grounds where NATO troops could perfect their military skills. The only such facilities are near Postojna, but they are a constant target of the local population who wants the army out. It is also common knowledge that NATO strategists have no interest in creating bases for logistic support for NATO troops in Bosnia and Kosovo. An agreement was recently signed between the port of Koper and NATO's logistic commander on using the port for transit of military equipment, but not for its storage or handling. In other words, from a military point of view or as an armed force, Slovenia is not interesting for NATO. If it needs something, NATO will find other ways to get what it wants. One of them is a trilateral Italian, Hungarian and Slovenian brigade. Although it exists only on paper, the Italians are doing their best to make it a real thing, at least from the viewpoint of the joint command based in Udine. Participation in this brigade automatically obliges Slovenia to provide for unhindered passage of troops from the other two countries through its territory, making Slovenia's NATO membership redundant. Given that NATO wants to portray its interventions in third countries as operations aimed at preserving world peace, no country, not even Slovenia, would miss such an opportunity. Thus Slovenia's troops will participate, even if symbolically, in operations worldwide, although exclusively in minor or very dangerous missions.

Finally, it should be admitted that Slovenia is also in political terms uninteresting for NATO. The Cold War is over, and everybody probably knows that Tito's Yugoslavia several decades ago was on the verge of joining NATO -- when the U.S. created a series of similar pacts around the world in order to encircle the Soviet Union and other countries of the communist bloc. As of recently, however, President George W. Bush is speaking of partnership with Russia, not of enmity. The U.S. president and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in Slovenia about the Caspian Basin and its untouched oil reserves as a potential crisis region. The interests of the U.S. and NATO in the southern Balkans should be viewed in this context -- as a potential springboard for a possible intervention in the rich oilfield in the East. Therefore Slovenia's admittance in NATO, before and without the other republics that once formed Tito's Yugoslavia, would certainly provoke unexpected and unwarranted reactions. The conclusion is that there are more reasons for Slovenia not to become a NATO member, than for the opposite to happen.

Does Slovenia need NATO?

The answer to this question is also ambiguous. Let us first examine the reasons why Slovenia does not need NATO. We already mentioned that joining NATO would cost a lot, and that in exchange it would not get that much funding from the NATO budget. Adjusting the Slovenian army to NATO standards would be costly, because it would require special training for officers, especially for staff and command duties, which otherwise receives very little budget funding in Slovenia.

Sending Slovenian Army Brigadier Tone Krkovic, for example, to England for completely unnecessary training will cost Slovenian taxpayers over 10,000 pounds, not including his salary and other costs. The obsolete equipment Slovenia inherited from the former Yugoslav People's Army should be replaced or modified. That, too costs money. The cost of modifying a T-55 tank, for example, has increased from DM500,000 to over one million German marks. At this point, almost one-half of the military budget goes to cover operating expenses (salaries, insurance and other personnel costs). The Americans keep stressing the need for a rapid increase in defense spending and new expenses, while Drnovsek keeps listening to the people and is trying to prevent military spending from going up.

The supporters of NATO stress that by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Slovenia would strengthen its national security. If its neighborhood is taken into accounts, it becomes immediately clear that Slovenia is not, and will not be in the foreseeable future, endangered by any military force or any other, neighboring, or other country, although certain neighbors (save for Hungary) show some inclination toward discord with Slovenia. The disputes, fortunately, are being resolved politically. Driven by the desire to join the EU and NATO as soon as possible, Slovenia has accepted almost all of Italy's demands. Thus under Italian pressure it changed its Constitution, urgently and almost without debate, so that EU citizens could purchase real estate in Slovenia, whereas citizens of the former Yugoslavia still cannot retain their property, acquired much earlier.

Slovenia is expected to act in the same manner in regard to Austrian demands. A German minority has been recognized in Slovenia, and counts deprived of their property long ago will probably get back what they used to own. The Schenghen agreement, at Austria request, will move from the Alps to the Kupa and Sutla rivers. But the question remains: will other EU members want Slovenia in their company once it meet all its neighbors' requests? What will happen if, for instance, one of them says it does not want Slovenia admitted? Slovenian politicians remember well Genscher's promises from 1991 that Slovenia would be admitted to the EU immediately. His successor, Kinkel, strongly opposed this without even so much as blushing, when the first EU enlargement was being considered. It is clear that if admitted to NATO Slovenia would have to consent to anything its neighbors and the most powerful NATO countries required for the sake of peace in the house. It is certain that in a crisis situation the French or the Germans would not side with the Slovenians in their dispute with, for example, the Italians. This is to say that a tense future filled with deprivation is in store for Slovenia, coupled with the satisfaction of being among the first to join the European elite.

Another argument against membership in NATO is the fact that it would mean a reduction in Slovenia's hard earned sovereignty. In NATO, Slovenia would certainly not have an opportunity to dictate political solutions, as it used to do in the former Yugoslavia. It will be unable to develop its army as it used to strengthen its territorial defense in the presence of the Yugoslav People's Army. It is certain that no Slovenian officer will play a major command post in NATO, not to mention the positions of chief of staff, or deputy federal defense minister... True, entrepreneurs are hoping for lucrative deals for weapons and equipment for NATO, but this is not a certain thing yet. What appears as a profitable deal could turn out to be only crumbs from a great feast: contracts for less important parts at a low price. Mercedes, Puch and Iveco will not restart the production of military trucks in the TAM factory in Maribor. The production of armored vehicles Pandur is already completely dependent on Austria. In short, it might well turn out that Slovenia will be forced to purchase from NATO countries equipment that it currently manufactures.

And, finally, there is the key question of whether Slovenia can afford not to join NATO. This is hardly unlikely. It has two NATO countries (Italy and Hungary) as neighbors, and a third, Austria, is undecided and unwilling to abandon its neutrality. But as a member of the EU, it will certainly back political, and if need be even military, intervention in non-member countries. After all, even when Austria was not yet an EU member, but only a part of the Western world, it was perceived by the East and the former Yugoslavia as a potential NATO ally. An alliance with Zagreb, on the other hand, would be counter-productive and insignificant for official Ljubljana, if a simultaneous alliance with other Southeastern Europe's countries does not follow. And since those countries are also striving to become EU and NATO members, Slovenia can only push as strong as it can to get into NATO and the EU as soon as possible. Although one has to admit that Ljubljana's efforts to join NATO are mostly related to EU membership.

This is why Slovenia hopes that joining NATO will provide it with support or at least dignified U.S. mediation to help it deal with requests from leading European and neighboring countries. National interest or not, it is clear that Slovenia cannot afford to be a Don Quixote among the Balkan states. It has to join the stronger side, which means NATO, the last superpower.

Milan Gorjanc (AIM)