The Washington Times

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia. — This “New Europe” capital on the banks of the Danube is rapidly emerging as a crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe. I first started to get the point as I was getting on a plane a week ago bound for Frankfurt, Germany, en route to a conference in Bratislava of prime ministers and NGOs, mainly from countries about to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, on the subject of “Towards a Wider Europe.”

At the gate, I ran into a former colleague of mine, an expert on taxation and budget matters. He asked me where I was going from Frankfurt, and I told him. So was he, he said. Baffled, I asked, you’re going to the NATO conference? Not exactly his field. No, he said, he was going to a meeting on international tax policy with a bunch of EU finance ministers, at which he was speaking. And he added, who would have thought there would be one major international conference going on in Bratislava, let alone two?

Bratislava has a number of things going for it: Its old city is charming in its own right. It’s close to a major international airport, Vienna, about 45 minutes away, and soon will be psychologically closer still, when Slovakia becomes an EU member on May 1, and the passport checks at the border disappear. The government has made a healthy measure of enlightened public-policy choices, including a low and flat tax that is likely to generate huge investment. And diplomatically, it punches above its weight, as witness the conference I was attending.

We are entering on a couple of watershed months for European and trans-Atlantic institutions. Next week, seven government chiefs will be in Washington for the purpose of depositing their ratification documents for accession to NATO. And the European Union will welcome 10 new members a month later. It is certainly worth worrying about an emerging rift between the United States and Europe. But one should not lose sight of the really quite amazing exercise in institution-building that has been going on over the past 10 years.

This process is not, however — or should not be — at an end. The simple reason is that while the strides have been tremendous, the job is not yet finished. Too much of Europe is still out in the cold: riven by conflict, beset by governments that range from inefficient and corrupt to much worse (in the case of Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, a tyrant of the first rank), or simply not far enough along on the path of reform to have won a place in the European Union or NATO.

One of the most encouraging signs is that, overwhelmingly, those countries newly joining the institutions of the West have been committed to serving as advocates for those aspiring to do so. This was readily apparent after the 1999 round of NATO enlargement, when new members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic worked to advance the case of the so-called V-10, the 10 countries hoping to join in the next round (seven of which became members). Now, successful V-10 members such as Slovakia are taking a lead role on behalf of the three left out and others possibly still to come.

The work that needs to be done is considerable. Democracy in the Balkans is still very much a work in progress, especially with the alarming flare-up of ethnic violence in Kosovo last week. Slovenia, the lone V-10 country not participating in the Bratislava conference, last week welcomed the odious Mr. Lukashenko on a visit, defying an EU ban (Slovenia not yet technically being a member). Cynicism of that order, though rare, is certainly unhelpful, especially when courageous Belarus dissidents, such as Irina Krasovskaya, are trying to mobilize to bring to their country the freedoms Slovenia seems to take for granted.

The Black Sea region features both the lingering dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the more hopeful case of Georgia.  Georgia’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, did a star turn at the podium, discarding his prepared remarks and instead describing the remarkable few days he had just been through at home. A local strongman sought to prevent the president’s entry into “his” territory. After a tense standoff and some tough talk and action from Mr. Saakashvili, the strongman backed down. Mr. Saakashvili went in — and was greeted by thousands of supporters cheering and waving roses, the symbol of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.” “Within two days the whole population was mobilized,” he said. “Shoot at us if you want, we won’t stop … Freedom can always defeat violence.”

How wide is “wider Europe”? That’s hard to say. But the message out of Slovakia is that we will all be better off if we keep probing to find out, rather than draw new lines marking an “in” group and an “out” group. Though it may take some getting used to, Bratislava is actually at the very heart of Europe. The map doesn’t lie, and neither do the political realities.