No other Slovak has ever held such a high office in the elected structures of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly as the former politician and diplomat Jozef Banáš, today a successful writer. Although he is not active in politics any more, recently he has signed a call for peace and against a new war in Europe, which was written down in Germany. In this context, we were interested in his views on NATO and the present tense situation in Ukraine.
You were elected vice-president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, thus gaining an insider´s view of the way NATO operates. What do you think about this organization today?
No other Slovak has ever been chosen for such a high-ranking international office. I was elected in a secret ballot in Venice in 2004. Then, I was very proud of it; vice-presidency was quite a serious post. And thanks to my language and communication skills I even outran such a prominent British politician as Lord Peter Viggers. That happened shortly after Slovakia had become a member of NATO.
Today, I am not as proud of it any more. I feel sorry for the way an organization like NATO has evolved. It used to play a key role during the Cold War and contributed greatly to the fall of communism. And when the iron curtain fell, NATO lost its enemy. To talk about NATO as an international organization is a bit exalted; in reality, it is the United States and the rest of the member states are just also-rans.
During my days in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the only representatives who had the courage to express their own ideas were French. Else it worked exactly the same way as during socialism. Then, everyone had been watching the Soviet representative during a ballot and voted identically. In PA NATO it was alike – everyone was watching the US representative and voted the same. I attended many ballots and nobody had ever opposed an US proposal.
When did you stop feeling proud?
I was deeply disappointed after the USA had simply cheated on us during the war in Iraq, a war criticized by a man whom I respected and had a good working relationship with – the US Congressman Douglas Bereuter who was president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly at the beginning of my career in PA NATO. When it turned out that there were no mass destruction weapons in Iraq, I expected the USA to at least apologize. But they did not do anything of that sort. They simply bombarded the area and created a crisis lasting till today; they significantly worsened the security situation of the Middle East. That was when I lost illusions about NATO which I had been a supporter of.
What is the task of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly?
There is the NATO Council which has effective governance authority and powers of decision and then there is the Parliamentary Assembly which should be supervising the Council. One could say that I was parliamentary vice-president.
What issues were solved in the Assembly? What powers did you have?
None. The US was deciding everything. Formally we were supposed to supervise the NATO Council. I was a member of a delegation that went to Afghanistan. Our task was to survey the situation. But what could we survey? Everyone knew that the war there could not be won, but nobody had the courage to say it aloud.
I described these experiences from Afghanistan in my newest novel Velestúr as well. I saw the disillusion of the NATO officers and soldiers. They simply did not know why they were there. When Taliban had been in power, it prohibited the cultivation of opium poppy. And during the 13 years of NATO´s presence the production of opium has grown maybe twenty times. The Afghan president Karzai expressed his disappointment by saying that the Americans did not help to improve the situation in the country during the thirteen years, but only pursued their own interests. He recently said this to the US ambassador on the occasion of NATO´s completion of the mission in his country. World press agencies informed about it, Slovak media did not mention anything, of course.
When you started losing your illusions, how did you act?
I proposed a solution in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, even though I was considered a fool. I said: The military organizational entities should work the same way as political structures of United Nations. It sounded utopian, but if all the UN member states were under one political leadership, peace would be practically guaranteed. The UN, a political institution, would have a military force at its disposal. This idea is not applicable though, because somebody needs the world to be split. Without an enemy, there is no one to sell the weapons to.
In today´s world, it really is difficult to imagine something like that. Would not it be easier for a country like ours to leave NATO?
That would be a very simplified solution, only contributing to a certain polarization. If we should be dragged into an armed conflict with Ukraine and NATO would start sending its soldiers to Slovakia, then I would not hesitate and say: Let us leave NATO. Not out of cowardice. But why should Slovakia be a part of a conflict which it does not have anything to do with; furthermore, a conflict against its Slavic brothers?
Would not it be better to precautionary leave NATO now as we see the risk of such a conflict rising? And can you imagine Slovakia being a neutral country?
I have many friends in neutral Austria and I know that people living there do not discuss the situation in Ukraine to such an extent as we do in Slovakia. They are more relaxed because their country is neutral. I talk to thousands of people during my writer-reader meetings and I know that if there was a referendum on Slovakia´s retirement from membership of NATO, the majority of the population would vote for it. But this is a bit tricky.
If we declared our retirement, I guarantee you, within a short time, something similar to the incident Charlie Hebdo would happen in Slovakia. Only a few have noticed that on January 5th, François Hollande claimed that the sanctions against Russia were non-sense and two days later some strange terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, an up-until-then totally unknown magazine, and the investigator shot himself allegedly due to being over-worked... And if the Greek for example would announce their intention to leave NATO, I guarantee you, a serious problem in their relations with Turkey would suddenly occur. Even though the tensions between Slovakia and Hungary are not running that high, they exist in a latent form and if somebody wanted to, s/he could add fuel to the flames. Thus an unexpected terrorist attack could happen in Slovakia after which we would run to NATO and beg on our knees: Take us back, we do not feel safe without you.
Neutrality is a wonderful dream. We can be, excuse the word, “pissed off” at Americans, but once we are in NATO we are so to say their hostages. Despite all my reservations, I still believe that there will be no armed conflict between NATO and Russia, not in Ukraine, nor anywhere else. And that is why I think it is better to stay. The situation would be different if NATO started sending its battle groups to Slovakia.
This is not as unrealistic, when you consider the Most-Híd party´s call for the presence of allies in Slovakia and similar statements...
Most-Híd was calling for the presence of NATO´s soldiers?
They have had such an initiative recently...
Well, that must be Fero Šebej´s work. But let me quote our President´s exact words. Andrej Kiska said in his New Year´s address: “We certainly would not agree if somebody claimed the territory of Slovakia again. If foreign soldiers intruded our country and someone called us his sphere of influence.”
Yet, Kiska said these words in a different context...
I do not care for the context. Mr President used these words. And this is a call for neutrality. When we are not in Russia´s sphere of influence, why should we be in USA´s sphere?
And is the attempt to leave NATO not worth the risk of a possible subsequent conflict as indicated by you? What attitude is more suitable, a pragmatic or moral one?
I am a man, father, grandfather living in this country which I like and I wish us a peaceful life here. And as soon as you are a member of this organization they will never allow you to leave it without consequences. It would have a knock-on effect. Do you think countries like Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria are happy to be in NATO? Do you think Germans are happy to have American and British soldiers posted in their country and thus being de facto a non-sovereign nation? I have many friends in Germany, also among influential personalities and they tell me in confidence what they think. Then they enter the parliament and say something totally different, because politicians are vassals. Slovakia´s stepping out of NATO could start a chain reaction. And they would not allow it.
You said that in 2004 you still felt positive about NATO. But that was already a few years after bombarding Yugoslavia. Did not you perceive this bombardment as a warning signal?
I tell you honestly, the one thing from my political career which I regret mostly is my participation in a governing coalition which agreed to the invasion to Iraq and that my prime minister was the one supporting the passage of aircrafts over Slovakia to Serbia five years before. I have qualms about having been a part of this. The truth was we felt some kind of euphoria about European organizations opening their doors for us. And I still believe in the European idea despite all the problems the European Union faces; its integration is the best way how to prevent war.
But it will not prevent a possible war between Russia and the West if the Ukrainian conflict should escalate. Our Prime Minister Fico proclaimed that according to his confidential information there is a 70 per cent chance of a large-scale war. Do you think this realistic?
No matter if a government rules a big country or a small it can always pull the population together by finding an enemy. And if no enemy exists then it will create one. I do not think that Fico´s statement is based on relevant information.
But when even US representatives say that battle groups should be deployed in the countries neighbouring with Ukraine, is not this a signal for us to be afraid?
First of all, we have no business being in Ukraine. I mean “us” as NATO. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Thus we do not have any obligations towards Ukraine. In case some country, let´s say, Poland comes with the idea to send weapons to Ukraine, it is their right to do so, but then they have to think of the highly risky consequences as well.
Representatives of Western European countries have also mentioned already that a war in Ukraine cannot be won. The situation is turning around. I think that the situation in Ukraine is reaching a state which no mainstream media informs about. Western countries would like to supply weapons to Ukraine (I appreciate our Prime Minister Fico´s rejections), but there is no one there to hold the guns. Ukrainians care a damn about fighting. The situation is changing and improving thanks to young Ukrainian men who simply do not want to fight; there will be no armed conflict. Hundreds of Ukrainians are burning the call-up papers and hiding in the woods. And that is something the politicians in Kiev or Washington have not taken into account.
Poroshenko himself admitted, and I was surprised that our mainstream media did inform about it, that his government was offering, I think, 52 euro to each Ukrainian daily who would go fighting the rebels. I do not remember his statement exactly, but I ask: Where is the patriotism? If I am a citizen of a country which is under threat, then I take the gun and do not question anything, I go fighting.
But if you do not succeed incinerating Ukrainian anger toward Russians then you have no choice but to go fighting against them yourself. If the Polish government decides to send soldiers to Ukraine it will have to suffer the consequences. They have to anticipate that those whom they attack will fight back.
I understand that Slovakia would never do anything like that. But if US troops or any other NATO battle groups came to Slovakia and attacked Ukraine from our territory...
That would be a problem. Then we would be involved as well. As we are a member country of NATO, we have to fulfil our obligations. But I still repeat what every normal person knows – nobody is threatening us. I am against any military base in Slovakia, in line with our Mr President´s words as I understood them. In case a base will be built here, as long as it will not be active in relation to Ukraine, nothing can be done against it.
I am convinced, however, that there will be no armed conflict. NATO exists and Putin has to respect it, no matter if he likes it or not. I understand that in case of Crimea he was fed up to his back teeth, because they went to establish a military base directly in his “bed room”.
None of the involved parties would dare a war between NATO and Russia. And we should not leave NATO without the direct reason of a planned attack against Ukraine. Because if NATO attacked Ukraine from Slovakia then we would be involved in a conflict, violating the UN Charta. That would only confirm that NATO was an aggressive pact, because we had no business being in Ukraine.
And has not NATO shown already clearly that it was an aggressive organization in the case of Yugoslavia, Iraq and other conflicts? Were not the limits of a defending alliance crossed here long before?
Certainly. Maybe I did not perceive these conflicts so personally because they were not concerning Slovakia directly. But I must admit that sticking the head in the sand is immoral. Are Syrians or Serbs any less than Slovaks? If at least some of the NATO member states or their governments agreed on pushing towards the dissolution of NATO that would be fine. But there is no way to force them.
I understand you idealistic idea of Slovakia leaving NATO even if it meant that possible tensions between Slovakia and Hungary would be ignited. From the pragmatic point of view, I do not tend to approve of this step. Fico and Orbán would have to sign some kind of agreement that Slovaks and Hungarians would live eternally or at least for the next 150 years in peace. But who would guarantee such peace? Austrian neutrality is guaranteed by the superpowers which is impossible in our present situation.
What if theoretically the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary were able to agree on common action?
That would be different then. I would support that immediately. Poland would not join under the rule of the present government, but if more member states agreed... That is exactly the same situation as with individuals refusing military service. Imagine the situation would escalate and call-up papers would be sent out. If only two young men refused they would be exemplarily punished. But if more men would join they could not do anything about it. So if Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, maybe Bulgarians agreed on common measures that would be something totally different. I just cannot imagine this happening in reality because governments and politicians are not free. They do not decide independently. Look at the Call for Peace which I have brought to Slovakia from Germany. In Germany it was signed by 64 prominent personalities (besides the ten thousand common people). You will not find one active politician amongst them, except two to three representatives of the opposition. But if the governments of two to three sovereign countries agreed, maybe Fico would find the courage to join. If I remember correctly he once said that in case battle groups from foreign countries should be placed in Slovakia he himself would initiate a referendum on the continuation of our NATO membership. Just now, NATO soldiers are training on our territory and a military base in Hungary exists already; no one is talking about it too much.
I do not know who would be willing to agree this way. Presidents of these countries? Prime Ministers? Though your idea does not seem so irrational; as soon as the conflict would be escalating, the will to meet an agreement could be stronger.
In one interview you mentioned that the two least free professions were politicians and journalists...
To be more precise, government politicians and mainstream journalists. In some slovak newspaper, I have read a chronological account of the events in Ukraine. And I tell myself: this cannot be true. Two key events are missing. The killing of 120 people on Kiev´s Maidan (which was the act that made Ukrainians furious) and the Malaysian airliner shootdown incident after which sanctions were imposed on Russia and the whole turmoil began. And again, until today nobody knows who shot the 120 people and who brought the airliner down. This means journalists are already falsifying history not even one year after the Maidan incident.
Or they use misleading expressions like “pro-Russian separatists”. I have never noticed that these people would include annexation to Russia in their political programme. But journalists use this expression to make you believe that they are basically Putin´s people. One thing is for sure: All mainstream media are totally anti-Russian. Not only Slovak media, but Western European and US as well. If they had a 100 per cent evidence that the airliner was shot down by Russians they would show it to us non-stop. But this is not happening. Investigators have black boxes and they do not say anything, which is indirect evidence that the legend about Russians bringing down the airplane is not true.
The main argument against Russians, however, is the annexation of Crimea...
Yes, Putin has nominally infringed international law. Let us though have a look at the history. Russians were at war with Turkey because of Sevastopol. The Ottoman Empire gave Crimea to the Russian Tsar. Thus according to international law Crimea does not belong to Ukraine but to the Ottoman Empire which does not exist anymore. Later, Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine. As it all belonged to a single state, nobody was dealing with the issue. After the fall of communism, the wrongdoings were remedied by restitutions in our country. Thus after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government should have called Moscow and asked: “Listen, we still have this Crimean issue open here. Do you want the region back?” Russians, however, remained satisfied by legally safeguarding a military base in Sevastopol.
By the way, I have visited the Ukrainian base in Sevastopol and the Ukrainian-Russian interconnection is substantial. The question is: Why did Russia take Crimea only now, when it could have annexed the area anytime during the last twenty years? Why did they do so only after the putsch in Kiev? We do not need to beat around the bush: Yanukovych was a smooth operator, but he was pro-Russian. If he were pro-American, he would still be holding his office. They established a temporary government and it was only a matter of time when this government would invite the US: “Guys, you can build a military base on Crimea.” Logically, Putin could not let this happen; Sevastopol had always been Russia´s Southern key port. And one must note as well, that Crimea was annexed to Russia after a referendum held according to the UN Charta. Furthermore, an international precedent exists – Kosovo. And we also have a historical precedent with the colonies in Northern America revolting against Great Britain and founding the United States. The US emerged exactly the same way as Kosovo did and as perhaps a new state in the region of Donetsk and Luhansk will arise.
I protest strongly against Russians being called aggressors in this case. The USA has established 155 military bases all around the world under the pretext of some “American national interests”, employing 220 thousand staff members. Russians have one base in Syria. And I ask then, who is more aggressive? When the USA wanted to have another base in Putin´s bedroom and Putin said a clear NO, he suddenly became the aggressor.
One needs to say, that Putin, naturally, is as well a man of power. When Russia had problems with Chechnya in 1999, a skyscraper was blown up in Moscow and four days later another one. Chechens were blamed for this act without any direct evidence. Then the whole Russian nation united and supported the Prime Minister Putin; Russian soldiers marched into Chechnya. Chechens want an independent state. If we were to be strict and respectful of a nation´s right of self-determination, Putin should have given it to them. As he has respected the free will of the Crimean population, he should have respected the free will of the Chechens as well. But then regions like Donetsk and Luhansk should also be granted the right of independence. It is not correct when dependent journalists and politicians acknowledge the rights of Americans to defend their national interests along the Russian boarder and practically all over the world, but at the same time denying the Russians the right to defend their national interests along their own borderline.
Zem a Vek, March 2015