By Zoltán Dujisin
BUDAPEST, Jun 19 (IPS) - Whereas most of Eastern Europe embraces the United States, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is finding common ground with Russian President Vladimir Putin in both energy cooperation and geopolitics.
Slovak officials are not denying the country is interested in focusing more on Russian and East Asian markets.
During a visit to Moscow last May, in which Fico was exceptionally honoured with a reception at Putin's private residence, the two statesmen discussed large-scale economic cooperation, nuclear energy and arms production.
Moscow and Bratislava signed a memorandum on a broad gauge railroad project, which will turn the Danube port in Bratislava into a logistical centre facilitating trade between Western and Eastern Europe.
Russian business is also showing interest in the purchase of 49 percent of Transpetrol, Slovakia's oil pipeline operator, which some fear will give extra cards to Russia in its goal to secure control of most of Europe's energy trade.
There are also plans to attract more Russian tourism and to have Russian banks open branches in Slovakia.
The economic cooperation between the two countries has disturbed some of Slovakia's west-oriented elites who fear isolation, but as Tomas Strazay of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association told IPS, "Fico is not the only one cooperating with Russia in economic terms, Hungary is another example."
But the media was also in uproar when during a World War II celebration in Bratislava, Fico told Slovaks they should "not be afraid to nurture pan-Slavic solidarity." Several columnists quickly made the connection with Fico's accommodating attitude towards Russia.
To tone down critics, Fico has praised the goal of establishing a common European energy policy, and promised to increase Slovakia's nuclear energy production -- with the help of Russian investment flows.
The Prime Minister also promised to increase the proportion of renewable energy sources in the country from 4 to 12 percent by 2020, which would help reduce dependency on Russian gas.
Also in the debate on the approval of the European Constitution Fico has attempted to reinforce his European credentials by giving it open support -- unlike his more eurosceptic Czech and Polish neighbours.
But if economics weren't enough, Putin and Fico also agreed on their opposition to the U.S. Missile Defence Base to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin welcomed Fico's statement that Bratislava would "never agree" to such a base being built on Slovak soil.
The comment came in the context of Slovakia withdrawing its troops from Iraq and showing reluctance in adding numbers to the Slovak contingent in Afghanistan.
Moreover, Bratislava and Moscow showed affinity in their approach to the Serbian region of Kosovo, inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians. The two oppose a United Nations (UN) plan to give Kosovo independence under international supervision.
But Fico's latest moves at the international stage should not be overvalued. "Although some verbal expressions might indicate pro-Russian attitudes, Slovakia's foreign ministry still follows European Union (EU) policy and is interested in strengthening the transatlantic link," Strazay told IPS. "But it's a difficult balance."
The Kosovo issue has been a telling example of Slovakia's schizophrenic foreign policy, with the Prime Minister demanding Serbian agreement to any solution for Kosovo, whereas foreign minister Jan Kubis promises European partners that Slovakia will not stand in the EU's way in solving the dispute.
To accusations that the country is shifting its foreign policy, Slovak Kubis has insisted the present cabinet differs from the previous right-wing government only in putting more emphasis on the EU and slightly less on the U.S.
"The foreign minister is trying to show our partners we remain a reliable ally," Strazay told IPS.
But Kubis has to deal with the fact that with the exception of the Hungarian Coalition Party, all Slovak parties represented in Parliament oppose Kosovo independence.
With a Hungarian minority amounting to 10 percent of Slovakia's five million population, many Slovaks fear Hungarians could make irredentist claims following Kosovo's precedent.
The words of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica warning that "Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia have every right to demand the right to self-determination" as a consequence of Kosovo's independence had considerable effect in Slovakia.
Slovakia is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council that will deal with the issue of Kosovo independence.
The objections raised by Slovakia are mirrored by countries such as Austria, Greece, Spain and Romania, but these have not voiced their reservations as clearly as Bratislava.
If the UN resolution stresses the unique character of the Kosovo solution while extensively protecting the rights of Serbs in the region, Slovakia will most probably agree to its independence.
That would represent a softening of Bratislava's original position, which was resolutely against independence without Belgrade's consent.
Still, the UN plan is opposed by Russia who threatens to veto it at the UN Security Council. The U.S. has announced it will recognise Kosovo as an independent state even without UN consent.