AIM: start

MON, 14 JAN 2002 23:23:42 GMT

Slovenia & NATO

An Improperly Selected Lobbyist

The ministry of foreign affairs has again hired Bob Dole to lobby for the speediest possible admission of Slovenia to NATO, despite warnings from critics that such spending of tax payers' money could be considered undemocratic.

AIM Ljubljana, January 7, 2002

"We will continue to press for Slovenia's admission to the EU and NATO." These words were part of President Milan Kucan's New Year address to the nation. Thus, the campaign aimed at making Slovenia a member of NATO continues in 2002. It is interesting to note that this time around Kucan put both of Slovenia's major foreign policy goals -- EU and NATO membership -- on the same level. Whereas EU membership has been Slovenia's primary goal over the past decade, joining NATO certainly hasn't. This was revealed to the public only several years ago, and it particularly grew when in 1998 Slovenia, unlike Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, failed in gaining membership. Because of this, only several months ago Slovenian officials warned that it was unlikely that the country would be admitted to NATO anytime soon.

This is why the fact that Kucan placed NATO membership on equal ground with EU membership is a major novelty. That this is a top goal of Slovenian foreign policy was showed by other Slovenian government moves. In addition to large sums spent by the Drnovsek cabinet on "informing the public" about NATO activities, it is paying great attention to international power centers. For instance, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel signed a one-year contract with the Washington-based Verner, Liipfert, Bernhardt, McPherson & Hand company to lobby in favor of Slovenia's NATO membership. In other words they are to persuade the most important and influential individuals in the U.S. administration, the Congress and Senate, that Slovenia should be allowed to join as soon as possible. One of the company's associates is also Bob Dole, former U.S. vice president and former presidential candidate. According to the contract, Dole has been assigned the task of meeting the Slovenian ambassador in the U.S. once or twice a month, and using his connections to promote Slovenian NATO-related interests. It is not surprising that Dole is considered a very influential politician in Slovenia, who can do a lot with a single phone call. But this, of course, has a price. The approximate price of his services, according to official data, is US$516,000 annually, or much higher, according to the press -- about US$174,000 per month, that is, US$2 million per year.

The fact is that using the services of lobbyists is common practice in Washington, Brussels, and some other international centers. Slovenian diplomacy, however, so far has not resorted to such means. Although government officials claim Ljubljana has not hired any lobbyists so far, thorough research reveals that this was untrue in at least two instances. In 1992 the government paid for the publication of several propaganda articles on Slovenia in the U.S. press, and six years later, in 1998, Slovenia signed a contract with the company represented by Dole on promoting its aspirations for NATO membership. The job was not successful, because Slovenia (like Romania, and some other candidates) did not join NATO at the time. But one failure, obviously, was not enough.

The actual situation is best illustrated by the fact that nobody thought of hiring a lobbyist for joining the EU, for example. According to officials from the government Department for European Affairs, lobbying in Brussels would make "no sense," because the "criteria for admission are clear, and a decision to expand has been made." It is true that the Slovenian cabinet pays an expert here and there to clarify certain problematical issues to Slovenian negotiators, but that is not lobbying in the true sense of the word.

This is to say that the same does not go for NATO, possibly because a political decision on expansion has not been made, and probably because of the criteria as well, which seem not to be as clear as those put forth by the EU.

Public reactions to the news that a foreign lobbying agency had been hired to promote Slovenia's NATO membership were diversified. Borut Grgic, a researcher with the Eastern Europe Department of the Washington-based Institute for Strategic and International Studies, said that "Ljubljana's decision to hire a lobbyist was good," because "the invitation for membership next time around will not come from Brussels, but from Washington," and "not from the State Department or the White House," but from "the Senate." And why is the Senate so important? Because the executive branch cannot influence its decisions. "Every international agreement arranged by U.S. diplomats has to be ratified by the Senate," explains Grgic. In other words, at least 76 votes in the Senate will suffice to expand NATO.

Some other experts do not see anything good in hiring foreign lobbyists, even ones of Dole's stature, primarily because Drnovsek's project for making Slovenia a NATO member does not have majority support at home. The greatest deal of criticism is coming from non-government organizations from the Social Forum Group, which have announced a fierce anti-NATO campaign in coming months. Certain media outlets have also shown suspicion of the plan: "Slovenia will use US$175,000 in taxpayer money per month to pay lobbyists to promote a plan people do not like, although politicians from various groups claim everybody is in favor of that." But, they dare not actually check the popular mood. "If we need Dole to promote our interests, if our government thinks that companies a la Dole can do more for us in the world, why do we have an ambassador in the U.S., and other international centers?" editor Marjan Horvat asked in the Ljubljana-based Panorama newspaper. The controversy over whether such policies and huge sums are justified could be eliminated by organizing a referendum on NATO membership. But it seems that it is nowhere in sight, particularly because of widespread opposition to Slovenia's joining NATO.

Igor Mekina