Slovaks welcome Bush and Putin in Bratislava

US President George W. Bush (left) and Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, photo: CTK

US President George W. Bush greeted Slovaks who gathered in thousands to hear him speak in the centre of Bratislava on Thursday. He called them "friends, allies and brothers" and harked back to the days of the Velvet Revolution when Slovaks and Czechs threw off communist rule. After praising Slovakia for its young democracy and for sending soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Bush went off to Bratislava Castle for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's interesting to speculate why Bratislava was chosen for the Bush-Putin summit but from the US side there's no doubt that Slovakia's contribution to the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were in its favour.

US President George W. Bush (left) and Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, photo: CTK
Rob Cameron spoke to the Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda:

Slovakia is a firm ally of the United States in the war in Iraq and the USA's policies in Iraq - Slovakia has sent more than 100 troops to Iraq. Does that not put you in conflict with your European partners?

"From the beginning, the issue of the military operation in Iraq divided Europe. But today, I am very happy because the free elections in Iraq were something fantastic that none of the politicians ever expected. From the beginning, it was a question of principle for me. I understand very well that the broader the stability zone is in the world, the higher security will for Slovakia and for Europe. This is why my government was with America in this operation from the beginning."

You and your government may support the US over the Iraq policy but not all Slovaks would agree with you...

"Yes, for us politicians, this question is substantial - whether we should follow public opinion or whether there are situations when real leadership is needed?"

Of course, as fellow Slavs, you also have very close historical and cultural ties with the people of Russia and you are meeting Russian President Putin this week as well. Since Slovakia has recently realigned its policies and has become more pro-western and has joined the EU and NATO. Does that create a conflict with Moscow, the fact that you are now looking now more to the west?

US President George W. Bush (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, photo: CTK
"I don't think so. There were a lot of people in the past who told me to be careful and not openly say that I am for America and want to bring Slovakia into NATO, because Russia wouldn't be happy. But the situation now is completely different. I am very happy that not only Slovakia but the countries of the Visegrad Four [Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia] and the Baltic States are members of NATO and the EU. So I feel that the leaders in Russia have understood that our policy is not oriented against somebody but to get the country into western society because we feel that Slovakia is typically a western oriented country with dimensions, cultures and values on which this western society is built."

Now, a pressing issue for many ordinary Slovaks is the issue of visas that they need to travel to the USA and it's something that many people are very angry about...

"Sure. This question is on my agenda and I'm sure that President Bush knows that I will open this question. This is not a technical or administration issue. This issue is political. I would be very happy if the young generation, especially, in Slovakia and in many other countries and new democracies had better chances to travel, be educated, and exchange views with their peers in America. I believe that President bush understands this issue but on the other hand we should be patient because I remember September 11, I did the New York Marathon five weeks after it happened and I felt these emotions in America. If I open the issue of visas in Slovaks - the same issue is being discussed in Poland, in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, I know we should be patient to create the space which will allow America to open its door."