Slovenia finds a friend in its attempt to join Nato

In the month in which it celebrated the fifth anniversary of independence, the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia has received a strong boost for its attempt to join Nato from neighbouring Austria.

Although Austria itself is neutral, the country's Defence Minister, Werner Fasslabend said Slovenia had now joined Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the central European group set to be the first to join the Western military alliance when it expands, probably in three to four years.

Mr Fasslabend made his remarks following a series of meetings with defence officials, including Defence Secretary William Perry, in the United States. Although they have not been officially confirmed as reflecting White House thinking, they are in line with growing Western support for the Slovenian cause.

They also cap a flurry of activity this month which has seen Slovenia sign association agreements with the European Union and its defence wing, the Western European Union.

"Slovenia is a very strong candidate for Nato," a diplomatic source in Brussels said. "Over the past five years it has successfully introduced economic and democratic reforms and as a small state, it would actually be easier to integrate than some of the larger ones."

Despite achieving the highest average standard of living of any country in the former Eastern Bloc, Slovenia's attempt to sign an association agreement with the EU was until recently blocked by Italy in a property dispute stretching back to the inter-war years when the Istrian peninsula was under Italian rule.

But when Italy dropped its objections after coming to a compromise with Ljubljana late last month, Slovenia's prospects for joining other Western institutions dramatically improved.

Slovenia has the rare distinction of being one of the few countries in the region whose membership of Nato would not be opposed by Russia. If admitted, it would also serve as a useful land link between another likely newcomer, Hungary, and other Nato states.

After a brief war following its declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991, Slovenia successfully managed to remain out of the conflicts that ensued. According to Mr Fasslabend, Nato officials hope that Slovenia's inclusion in the alliance could be an important first step towards the long-term stabilisation of the situation in the region.