WASHINGTON, March 29 (UPI) -- NATO's peacekeeping mission in Kosovo is in trouble and needs a fundamental re-think, Slovakia's Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda warned the Bush administration Monday.
In Washington for the Slovakia's formal accession to NATO along with six other central and Eastern Europe countries, Dzurinda told United Press International Monday that after his recent visit he had concluded "there has been no progress in Kosvo in recent years."
Dzurinda, who has sent troops to join NATO missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, is seen in Washington as one of the most reliable and pro-American of the new NATO members. His call for a re-assessment of NATO policy in Bosnia marks the first high-level policy intervention of the new alliance members.
"We need to debate where we go from here, whether to change the policy, to try to organize Kosovo more like Bosnia-Herzegovina," Dzurinda said. "We need to be more active."
Dzurinda faced heavy domestic criticism for his support of NATO's 1999 military operations against Serbia that led to withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, a former province of Yugoslavia and now under NATO-backed U.N. administration.
Dzurinda, who saw President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the formal White House ceremony Monday, said that he intended to visit Serbia and Kosovo again soon. He added that Slovakia's background in the old Soviet bloc meant that his country "could play a useful role, and we want to be helpful, particularly in NATO relations with Ukraine and the west Balkans."
Kosovo was rocked this month by a two-day eruption of ethnic violence that hit all the major urban centers, leaving 28 dead, more than 600 wounded and hundreds of homes and churches in ruins. Two U.N. police officers were also ambushed and killed last week. NATO has sent reinforcements to take it deployment to 20,000 troops after ethnic Albanians rampaged through many of the remaining Serb areas in what has been condemned as a burst of ethnic cleansing in reverse, with Albanians seeking to evict the remaining Serb minority from Kosovo.
Dzurinda spoke in Washington as U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Marc Grossman held talks in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, with U.N. Gov. Harri Holkeri. On arrival in Kosovo, where he was joined by NATO's commander for southeast Europe, Gen. Gregory Johnson, Grossman said the latest wave of violence in the province was "unacceptable and could not be repeated."
But Dzurinda stood firm against the demands of Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi for full-scale independence for Kosovo, with power in the hands of the Albanian majority. At the same time, NATO has rebuffed pleas from Serbia to send Serb police and troops back to Kosovo to protect the Serb enclaves. That is seen in Kosovo as a prelude to an ethnic partition of the province.
"Belgrade (the Serb capital) is appealing for a return to war. The return of the army and police is an unrealistic demand which cannot even be considered," Rexhepi told the regional daily newspaper Dan. "The division of Kosovo is the aim of the majority in Belgrade, but that proposal is unacceptable for us."
The senior U.N. official in Kosovo, Holkeri, insists that the policy remains focused on rebuilding a multiethnic society in which Serbs and Kosovars can live peacefully side by side, with the constitutional future of Kosovo left for future decision. But Dzurinda's call for a re-think by NATO, which is expected to be reinforced later this week when Britain's Europe Minister Denis MacShane visits Washington, could force the United Nations to reconsider.
The seven new members of the NATO alliance are Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria. They join as the United States is weighing a major redeployment of its forces in Europe, cutting back as many as half the 80,000 troops in Germany, and shifting them to less permanent bases in the Balkans, closer to what the Pentagon has called "the arc of crisis" in the Caucasus and Middle East.
While Dzurinda hailed Monday the "historic" entry of his country into NATO -- and joining the European Union on May 1 -- his government faces political challenges. The opposition has called for a recall vote in a forthcoming referendum that would require new elections, just as Dzurinda's government in weathering some difficult opinion poll ratings after introducing a spate of unpopular reforms. And next month's presidential election in Slovakia could bring back to power Vladimir Meciar, the once-discredited leader who took the country out of the Czechoslovak federation and whose cavalier ways with democracy delayed Slovakia's entry into a disapproving NATO. The presidency in Slovakia, however, is not as powerful as the premiership.
"I do not think Meciar can be elected president. I believe that the Slovak people are too responsible to do so, or to recall their government through a referendum. It is an unfair system, since it would mean no government would dare introduce tough reforms in the future if they knew they could be replaced through a referendum. Our people know that our reforms are stating to pay off," Dzurinda said.
"We have introduced a 19 percent flat tax, reformed the welfare and health systems, and started making people pay their share for university education. This is unpopular with some people, but we have economic growth of 5 percent a year, and foreign investment is pouring into the country, bringing 80,000 new jobs. Our reforms are working, and I believe our people understand that, just as they understand the importance of our joining NATO and the EU."