TCS Daily

Slovenia's NATO Worries

By Meelis Kitsing - February 3, 2003 12:00 AM

An Orthodox Christmas Eve in ex-Yugoslav army barracks, now turned alternative club. Twenty- and thirty-somethings sip Serbian beer and watch a 1971 Yugoslav cult film that combines insights into the orgonomic theories of the late Wilhelm Reich with ridicule of the former Soviet Union and the United States. A young man shouts across the bar, reminding the rest of us of the relevance between the old movie and current affairs. He catches the spirit of the crowd with his comment: "Everybody here is against NATO."

One might expect such a scene in former enemy territory of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), say, somewhere in Serbia. Yet, surprisingly, this was a night in Slovenia, a country that just last November received an invitation to join NATO. The nightclub is located beside the Peace Institute in central Ljubljana, the capital of the tiny former Yugoslav republic.

While these club-goers might not be typical Slovenes, their anti-NATO views are shared by many of their fellow countrymen. Slightly less than half of the Slovenian population supports the country's membership in the alliance. The other half is either undecided or dead-set against it. This split public opinion worries the country's political establishment, as it could jeopardize Slovenia's official NATO aspirations.

In early January, members of parliament tried to link the country's strong support for the EU with NATO membership by planning a referendum on both issues for February 9. Some eager souls even went so far as to try squeezing membership in both clubs into the same referendum question. However, the prospects of war in Iraq forced politicians to change their tactics - public support for NATO membership would have plummeted. After long haggling over possible strategies for achieving the desired outcome, the political establishment finally managed in the end of January to set March 23 as the date for both EU and NATO referendum.

What makes a country that looks like southern Austria and shares Western values and attitudes so reluctant to join the defense organization of the West? Some would explain the twist by referring to Yugoslav heritage, with its "third way" ideology between the former Soviet Union and the West - a mindset still embedded in Slovenian society. After all, life was not bad for Slovenians in socialist Yugoslavia. Their living standards were the highest in the East Bloc, they had relatively free movement across borders, and 50 percent of their exports went to the West, even as early as the 1980s. Hence, Yugoslav nostalgia prevails, with NATO air strikes on Serbia only reinforcing the sentiment. However, it is hard to believe such nostalgia could be the core cause of reluctance. In 1991, Slovenia had a 10-day war with Yugoslav forces in which 66 lives were lost. Would such memories fade so quickly?

A more plausible explanation for the anti-NATO views could be attributed to the strong pacifist attitudes long characteristic of Slovenia, not to mention the presence of the Yugoslav army. Parallels between war machines of different regimes, whether socialist or capitalist, can always be found. Almost as an act of support for the pacifism, the government plans to replace its conscript army with a professional military in 2004. Surprisingly, the move was recommended and is being supported by the military advisers of the United States.

Pacifism has been reinforced by the country's stability and prosperity over the last decade. Unlike the other former Yugoslav republics, which witnessed war, ethnic conflict, political isolation, and economic stagnation, Slovenia prospered and boomed in the 1990s. After regaining independence, Slovenia experienced the smoothest political and economic transition ever seen in a transition economy. Former apparatchiks of socialist Yugoslavia went through a sudden moment of transfiguration and remained in power throughout the gradual process of democratization.

Currently, Slovenia's living standards are the highest among former socialist countries, and its per capita GDP is as high as that of the poorest members of the EU, such as Greece and Portugal. On the down side, Slovenia has been reluctant to privatize its companies, and the share of foreign direct investments as a percentage of GDP remains lower than in the cases of Hungary and Czech Republic. However, Slovenia's initial starting position was more advanced due to the more liberal economic regime of Yugoslavia compared with other East bloc countries. Hence, the Slovenian economy has benefited longer from the inflow of Western technology transfer and management know-how. Economic prosperity and political stability has created the feeling among the
Slovenians that if they can manage quite well on the economic front on their own, then why not on the military front, as well.

Membership in the European Union, which is supported by the vast majority of the population, is seen by many as an economic necessity - a thought not shared by farmers and some other interest groups who will see their benefits disappear. This pragmatism has forced Slovenians to weigh the costs and benefits of NATO membership. Many think that an increase in defense spending, the presence of US soldiers, and deployment of Slovenians to fight in far-away places is too high a price for the kind of collective security NATO provides. Some even question the very nature of this collective security by pointing out the increasingly political nature of NATO and decreasing probability for serious defense actions. They are not convinced that America would really stand by Slovenia in the case of an attack.

Ironically, NATO membership is also seen as a serious loss of independence. Government plans to organize only a consultative referendum instead of a legislative one brought serious protest from the parliamentary opposition. Some are bitter as they question why only a simple majority is needed to pass the referendum issue, when the constitutional referendum for the country's independence required the support of at least two-thirds of the whole electorate in 1990.

Such reluctance towards NATO membership has not found its way into the official line of government rhetoric. Most political parties represented in parliament are in favor of NATO membership; four deputies representing a nationalist party are against. At the same time, some signs of reluctance can be spotted in the policy decisions of the political establishment, as well. Slovenia is the only NATO applicant country that has not increased its defense spending to the expected two per cent of GDP, maintaining defense spending at around 1.5 percent.

Pragmatic as Slovenians are, they could always point out that their per capita GDP is several times higher than that of other Central and Eastern European countries, and they are still spending more on defense per inhabitant than some countries with defense spending of more than 2 percent of the GDP. Whatever the excuse, it would be good for the Slovenian government to take a firmer stand and act accordingly. A possible new member who might be viewed as a free-rider could have quite a de-moralizing effect on a defense organization.

Meelis Kitsing is an International Policy Fellow at the Center for Policy Studies of the Central European University.

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