I don’t imagine there are that many Slovaks who have seen a bloke in a skirt. As James McCarthy, a burly Scotsman, walked through the cobbled streets of Bratislava’s old town, he was the object of much giggling and finger-pointing. A piper from the Black Watch regiment, he was an unlikely emissary for Britain on a day rich in symbolism. This was 2 April, and a few hours earlier Slovakia and six other former communist states had, at a ceremony in Brussels, joined Nato. On 1 May a similar group of nations will accede to the European Union. The dismemberment of the Soviet empire, first dreamt of by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, will be complete.
McCarthy put it in less grandiose terms. “It’s a great day for these people,” he said. “I feel so happy for them.” Our conversation was interrupted as locals, among them uniformed Slovak squaddies and their girlfriends, lined up to be photographed next to him. Then he entertained them with a turn on his bagpipes before an American military band playing Joe Cocker and cover versions of pop tunes by other artists took over. Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, one of Bratislava’s main squares, where in years gone by torchlit marches proclaimed the virtues of the socialist brotherhood, teemed with Nato flags.
So much for predictions at the end of the cold war that the Atlantic Alliance would wither away. It is a remarkable transformation, one that could have begun only in that brief window of opportunity in the mid- to late 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was in no state to object. “We would never have got it through in the present circumstances,” said a senior UK diplomat, referring to the chill in relations between the west and the Russia of President Vladimir Putin.
The celebrations were replicated in other countries. They mark the biggest and strategically most important expansion in Nato’s 55-year history. But they were deliberately low-key, in recognition not just of Russian sensibilities but of the mixed feelings voters in the new member countries have towards the organisations to which they are linking their future. Hostility is even more marked in attitudes towards the EU than towards Nato. The eight formerly communist accession states – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – have been required to open up their markets and reform their economies in just a few years. They have done so with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success.
In Slovakia, one of the poorest, steep tax increases on goods and services took effect in January, and more changes are scheduled for May. VAT rose to 19 per cent for basics such as bread, water and medicine. At the same time, social benefit cheques were trimmed and government institutions including the armed forces and the state-run railways started cutting jobs. Thousands of small businesses that could not comply with EU-related rules have closed. Slovakia’s unemployment rate has reached 16 per cent. Budget reforms and job cuts have led to strikes and protests involving everyone from students and civil servants to doctors and pharmacists. Hardest hit has been the impoverished Roma minority mainly in eastern Slovakia. In February, thousands of troops and police were deployed to stop looting from food shops.
Throughout the unrest Slovakia’s centre-right prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, and his counterpart in the wealthier Czech Republic, Vladimir Spidla, have vowed to stay the course. Within three months of Dzurinda’s re-election in 2002 he was rewarded with offers of membership of both Nato and the EU. Since the reforms began to bite, however, his grip on power has loosened.
Both leaders are counting on enlargement to provide jobs, foreign investment, tourism and exports. Their first major success has come in the motor industry, with Toyota building a factory in the Czech Republic and Hyundai picking Slovakia for a similar plant that will be worth 1.1bn euros and will produce 300,000 cars a year. With Peugeot Citroen and Volkswagen already there, Slovakia will produce more cars per head of population than any other country in the world. The Koreans said they chose it over Poland partly because of better road and rail links to the rest of Europe, and partly because of a staggeringly low flat rate of corporate and income tax: 19 per cent.
The bottom line for all these countries, however, was reciprocal access to the rest of the EU for the Union’s 73 million new citizens. They did not expect that all 15 existing members would impose restrictions (although Britain’s hasty response has been to restrict welfare rights but not work).
The sense of discrimination and humiliation is strong. A poll conducted recently for the government in Poland, where unemployment is running at more than 20 per cent, found that just 10 per cent of voters believed EU membership would produce a better standard of living. The reaction in Hungary has been similarly hostile, but for different reasons. Hungary’s economy is considerably healthier than those of some of the established states. Its jobless rate of 5.9 per cent compares favourably to the 11 per cent in Spain, 10 per cent in France and 9 per cent in Germany. It is thinking of imposing its own restrictions, partly for revenge and partly because, it says, it wants from abroad only people with skills or serious money to invest.
Many voters fear that rich foreigners will not only push up property prices, but that they will buy up swathes of farmland and other assets.
The mood has swung in only 12 months since the referendums in which voters overwhelmingly backed EU membership (albeit with low turnouts in some countries). I met a group of students who voiced the deep-seated scepticism one now finds in the region. “It’s fine for people like you to come for the weekend for our cheap beer,” said Martina, noting with disdain the various British stag parties that descend on the capital, “but what do we get in return?” With no memory of dictatorship, her generation takes free speech and free travel for granted.
Two days after the Nato celebrations in Bratislava, Slovaks voted for Vladimir Meciar in the first round of their presidential election. Meciar, a former boxer and prime minister between 1994 and 1998, is seen by western governments as corrupt and hostile to both the Atlantic Alliance and the EU. His comeback highlights the disquiet Slovaks feel about their new allies. A similar backlash may take place elsewhere.
Anxieties over the economy and national identity have been compounded by another fear – vulnerability to terrorism. Most of these “emerging” countries supported the Bush administration in its war on Iraq. Now they fear they may pay the price. Countries such as Romania and Bulgaria were quick to open their bases and airspace to US troops on their way to Afghanistan in 2001. They soon contributed troops of their own. Both are now likely to play host to permanent US bases. Polish and Slovak forces are involved in Iraq. As for the Hungarians, they did not appreciate being lied to by the Americans on the eve of war. The US said it needed a large airbase in the country to “train translators”. It later emerged that the base had been temporary home to an Iraqi administration-in-waiting.
With little thanks from the US for their armed forces being targeted in Iraq – and with little reward from “old Europe”, led by France and Germany, for joining the EU – many in these countries wonder whether they have made the right choices. In reality, they had little alternative. In any case, the die is cast.