Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia's deputy prime minister, remembers all too clearly the undiplomatic characterization of his newly independent nation by then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
"It is a black hole," she sniffed, explaining why she thought Slovakia was not ready for admittance to NATO or the European Union.
Diplomacy knoweth no determination like a nation scorned.
Lajcak, one of the continent's more determined leaders on integration, is one reason Slovakia is among the most enthusiastic members of the European Union, and an early adopter of the euro in what is now Central Europe. Snubbed in the first round of NATO expansion, one of Slovakia's greatest senses of accomplishment came from beating its former partners, the Czechs, its former rulers, the Hungarians, and its larger neighbor, Poland, into joining the euro currency zone.
Now, crucially, Slovakia and other democratic nations of Central Europe are leading efforts to better integrate the nations of Europe while pushing democracy and free enterprise into areas where neither has gone before – the borders of Russia – as the U.S. seemingly sits on the sidelines.
A possible watershed moment in that effort may come this week.
On November 28 and 29, leaders of the Eastern Partnership countries will meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, for a summit that is to include the signing of a new agreements with three nations Russia sees as in its sphere of influence. It is a test to see if European governments can adopt a more strategic approach to the Eastern neighborhood and determine how to regain the initiative from Russia.
"The Eastern Partnership is, ultimately ... a step toward the longstanding vision of a more integrated economic space, stretching from Lisbon to Donetsk animated by market-oriented reforms, growing prosperity and deepening democracy," Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs told the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month. "We and the EU believe that investing in the Eastern Partnership is thus in everyone's long-term interest."
Russia, of course, feels differently.
Moscow has threatened trade sanctions, energy supply interruptions, and security reprisals against states choosing to sign agreements with the EU. Their strategy is to have partnership nations jettison their EU agreements or make it very painful for them to pursue. Armenia's decision to join the Russian-led Customs Union instead of inking its EU agreement was Russia's first success; its reliance on Russia for security and energy left them with few options.
Next up: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Summit leaders hope to sign the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine as well as initial agreements with Georgia and Moldova. Ukraine will need to start the process of implementation immediately, while Moldova and Georgia – not due to complete signing until the autumn of 2014 – will face intense pressure as Russia works to break their resolve.
If the agreement with Ukraine is not signed, it would have a serious impact on EU-Ukraine relations and rattle Moldova and Georgia. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Ukraine and Russia as "odin narod" – one nation. For Putin, 'losing' Ukraine would be particularly humiliating; thus Russia has accelerated pressure.
Moldova already faces a wine embargo/ban, increased scrutiny of fruit and vegetable exports, threats to cut off gas and end Moldovan labor migration from Russia. With a history of political crises, and elections at the end of 2014, Moldova is in a perilous position.
Likewise, Russia began clubbing Georgia in 2006; so far Georgia has resisted. The occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain Georgia's weakest point, with Russia continuing to consolidate its presence and engage in provocative actions.
Lajcak laments how the U.S. has not played more of a role in commemorating its early, key leadership in building democracy in Central Europe as well as helping push the new efforts east.
"It is important that the U.S. supports our European Union efforts when it comes to our policy to our Eastern partners," Lajcak told reporters during a November trip to Washington. "Next year represents 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 10 years since the enlargement of the European Union, and many of these great accomplishments would not have happened without the leadership of the U.S. It is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of our great partnership."
He notes that "integration is a good thing" and that "U.S. engagement is critical to the consolidation of democracy and security in the region."
Lajcak said Slovakia is trying to "offer our unique experience from our successful transition" to help further democratic transition in the "Western Balkan countries and countries of the Eastern Partnership."
Whether that successful democratic streak will continue remains unclear.
Tom Squitieri is a college professor and award-winning foreign correspondent. He also writes for the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter: @TomSquitieri.